This year, many arts and entertainment pages justifiably celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Broadway opening of West Side Story and the indelible impact it made on our culture. To understand why these stories only get it half right, you gotta know the territory.
Just ten weeks after West Side Story ( one of the most eagerly awaited, artistically ambitious musicals ever conceived) opened, one of the season’s least anticipated shows pitted a fast-talking traveling salesman named Harold Hill against a prickly River City librarian/piano teacher named Marian Paroo: The Music Man premiered at the Majestic Theater on Broadway in 1957.
Led by Robert Preston’s magnetic lead performance, The Music Man received unqualified rave reviews. John Chapman of the Daily News put it in the same league as Of Thee I Sing and Guys and Dolls, writing, “This musical is put together so expertly and acted and sung and danced by so many enchanting people that it should be either twice as long or performed twice at each performance.”
The Music Man has touched so many people’s lives for so many years that it’s easy to forget that it was borne of struggle and great artistic perseverance. At the age of fifty-five, Meredith Willson, a Broadway neophyte, had the audacity to insist that he could write the show’s book, music and lyrics. Along the way, he reluctantly dropped the idea that Marian’s kid brother, Winthrop, should be severely autistic and limited the character’s malady to a severe lisp.
Various and sundry money people bowed out after Willson insisted on casting musical theater novice Robert Preston as the lead instead of an existing star who could be counted on to be wooden, attractive and bankable. Preston, a respected actor who would never be described as inimitable, was primarily known for doing mediocre westerns where he was more successful in stealing horses than the girl.
And Willson’s unlikely hit had a particular approach to America’s past. The Music Man doesn’t wear its intelligence on its sleeve. Think you’re being astute by pointing out that it’s corny, sappy or old fashioned or dated? Think again. As Brooks Atkinson observed in The New York Times, “Mr. Willson has a fresh slant on Americana. Although he does not take it seriously, he loves it with the pawkiness of a liberated native.”
The show’s warmth, kindness, humor, joy and sincerity have made it one of the American musical theater’s lynch-pins over six turbulent decades. It manages to provoke tears of pure joy by simply handing a shiny new coronet to Winthrop. The magic of the original musical even translated to movies: If you’ve seen a young Ron Howard’s performance in the excellent 1962 film version of the musical, you’ll remember that few child actors have come close to the winning persona he cultivated during his moments on-screen.
As well, the musical endures in pop culture: kids still play “76 Trombones” in school band performances, and brides and grooms still dance to “Till There Was You” at wedding receptions. It would be impossible to calculate how many people have fallen in love with musical theater by seeing the movie or being part of a local production of the show. Whether performed by kids or adults who work regular jobs and still do community theater, The Music Man fits like a glove for a large chorus of people who can sort of sing, sort of move and sort of imitate Robert Preston and Shirley Jones from the movie. An Australian kid named Hugh Jackman once admitted he became interested in musical theater by auditioning for a school production of The Music Man.
Much of the appeal of the The Music Man is in its simplicity. Willson makes the most of seemingly innocuous happenings, like the Wells Fargo wagon arriving in town or the mere mention of the town of Gary, Indiana. His lyrics are at Oscar Hammerstein’s level, sounding like they’ve been spontaneously invented by their characters rather than a lyricist armed with a rhyming dictionary.
And then there’s his music. Over the years, The Beatles, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Etta Jones, Al Hirt, Sonny Rollins and Rod Stewart have lent their own distinct talents to “Till There Was You” and Adam Sandler’s comedy, The Wedding Singer, uses the song to create one of the movie’s best-loved moments. “76 Trombones,” Willson’s paean to the marches to his idol John Phillip Sousa, has become every bit as recognizable as “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” (Spend some time searching for the song online and you’ll see just how much it continues to inspire artists around the world). Decades before Hamilton conquered Broadway and rap music came into being, “Rock Island” was the opening number of The Music Man, featuring a group of traveling salesmen giving us the skinny on a certain character name Harold Hill.
While these are among countless reasons why this show endured, Brooks Atkinson hit it on the head in his original assessment of Meredith Willson’s work: “His heart is in the wonderful simplicities of provincial life in Iowa in 1912, and his musical show glows with enjoyment.”
Image: Original Broadway Poster
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