Sixty years ago a breath of fresh air came to Broadway. It was brought by a show called The Music Man written by a man of music but one who had no theatre background. It broke a few theatrical rules and invented new ones and it went on to win the Tony Award for the season’s Best Musical.
The man of music was Meredith Willson whose career had been originally classical based before making his name on radio as an orchestra leader. He was famous enough to have written an autobiography (or as called a Memento) of his early years growing up in small town Iowa USA. It was fun, touching and showed insight on ordinary America. There had been interest from hit show writer Frank Loesser in the book as he saw it had musical possibilities. Loesser introduced Willson to the producers of his last two shows, Feyer and Martin. They also saw the possibilities and encouraged Willson to turn it into a musical for which they would have first option to produce. The book was published in 1948 and it would take nine years to bring to the stage and then with different producers.
Willson’s knowledge of writing specifically for the theatre was non-existent though he certainly knew how to construct a song. After a few attempts at creating a story line he sought help from Franklin Lacey, a playwright and screen writer, and their collaboration eventually succeeded. At first they had considered a television version but the stage won.
The central character became Harold Hill, a con man set to make money from selling musical instruments and uniforms for a town band perceived by the brain washed towns folk to be needed to keep their young on the straight and narrow. A con man may not be the accepted view of a Broadway male lead – indeed the opening number (in lieu of an overture) would leave the audience in no doubt about his morals (or lack of). What the book cleverly did was to give him a heart that would, we hope, lead him to salvation and a happy ending for everyone concerned. This was helped by the introduction of Marion, the town’s librarian and a piano teacher who saw through Hill’s plan but eventually saw the positive change in the hopes of the young and the more positive side of her ‘white knight’.
There was no overture and no ballet (a must since Oklahoma!) but there was a terrific story with all the hope, warmth together with an important insight to American small town life a generation or so before. There was also the fact that it was perfectly cast.
Harold Hill was played by Robert Preston, a minor Hollywood leading man known mainly for his cowboy pictures. He had limited vocal skills but, as see the previous year with Rex Harrison, acting skills could overcome many vocal problems. Marion, on the other hand, was played by one of the most beautifully sounding voices of all time, that of Barbara Cook.
The Music Man opened on Broadway on 19 December 1957.
It was an immediate hit winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical and nods to both Preston and Cook. The show would run for 1375 performances. The cast album won the Grammy Award for best Musical theatre Album of the year and went on to become one of the largest original cast selling albums. All this in the season that also introduced West Side Story, New Girl in Town, Jamaica and Oh, Captain!
London saw it with Val Johnson playing Harold Hill and again it was a hit – but only while he remained with the show. It was not considered suitable to tour the UK.
There was a successful film version which stayed close to the original show starring Robert Preston but not Barbara Cook – her part was played by Shirley Jones. It has remained a firm American favourite with successful revivals and a television adaptation. A recent revival at Chichester featured Brian Conley as Harold Hill but didn’t make it to the West End.
The Meredith Willson archive is now available on line via the Great American Songbook web site. His book on the making of The Musical Man called “But he didn’t know the territory” is out of print.
Rexton S Bunnett Illustrations from the Overtures archive