As 1957 dawned, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to nonviolently protest racial prejudice, and Elvis Presley was “All Shook Up.” Unbeknownst to many Americans, who had blithely created suburbia and babies in the 12 years since the ending of World War II, King, Presley and others had begun to plant the seeds of the cultural upheaval that would define the 1960s. Few could have predicted that American mores surrounding race, sexual activity, gender, war and politics would change rapidly within the next decade. For now, people still wore gloves to church.
On Broadway, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, dominated. Not only did it run for 2,717 performances, but its original cast recording was the best-selling album of both 1957 and Americans’ taste for musical theater would fade in the ensuing decade, as rock ‘n’ roll irrevocably reshaped the landscape of popular music; but for now, they sang along to show tunes with an enthusiasm they would later reserve for the Beatles, Michael Jackson or Britney Spears. Clearly, Broadway had room for more hit musicals.
The Music Man creator Meredith Willson, a flautist and piccolo player, composer, conductor and musical arranger, seemed on the surface an unlikely candidate to create Broadway’s next hit, given his lack of experience in the medium. He began his career at age 19 playing in John Philip Sousa’s band and later performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He then accepted a job as a musical director with NBC-TV, where he composed and arranged music for radio, and also worked in film, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score for The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 political satire about Nazi Germany. In the late 1940s, Willson began working on the first of his three autobiographies, And There I Stood with My Piccolo. This lighthearted book explores Willson’s turn-of-the-20th-century childhood in Mason City, Iowa, where he adroitly honed the skills that enabled his professional career in music while also wholeheartedly participating in small town misadventures. And There I Stood with My Piccolo would soon provide the thematic basis for The Music Man, which Willson sets in a slightly fictionalized version of Mason City called River City.
Given his previous work experience, it’s hardly surprising that Willson first pitched The Music Man to television and film producers. After several rejections, he turned to his colleague Franklin Lacey, a producer and writer who helped Willson clarify the musical’s story. After years of development and rejections, Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden agreed to mount the play. It premiered on December 19, 1957, and starred Barbara Cook as Marian Paroo and Robert Preston as Harold Hill. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson declared that Willson had “translated the thump and razzle-dazzle of brass-band lore into a warm and genial cartoon of American life.” Indeed, Willson’s score—inspired in equal parts by Sousa, barbershop quartets and the patter of traveling salesmen—bore little resemblance to those of other hit musicals. For instance, 1943’s Oklahoma!, 1950’s Guys and Dolls and 1951’s The King and I and My Fair Lady all had broken from the breezy, comical styles of earlier musicals, which owed much to vaudeville. They featured complex scores that called for skilled singers and a full orchestra, and the songs played as much a part in the storytelling as the librettos. But, as Martin Gottfried notes in his book Broadway Musicals, “our musical theater’s sound was born of show business and is steeped in a Broadway vernacular. Years of artistic inbreeding had made it even more Broadway…too many composers had been influenced by too few composers.” Coming from outside of the theater allowed Willson to inject a fresh sound into the Great White Way.
Three months before The Music Man opened, another extraordinary musical made its debut: West Side Story. With its soaring score by Leonard Bernstein (a versatile composer with a more classical bent than Willson), lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the show adapted Romeo and Juliet’s timeless story to 1950s New York. The two shows vied for Tony Awards; to the surprise of some, The Music Man won Best New Musical.
That both of these shows could coexist on Broadway speaks to musical theater’s ability to incorporate different musical genres. This would prove important as the 1960s progressed and the traditional show tune fell out of style; composers would soon incorporate rock ‘n’ roll, and later rap, into musical theater. But today, even as music and culture continue to reinvent themselves, The Music Man clings to popularity as stubbornly as its characters adhere to their Iowan customs. Broadway’s outsider, Meredith Willson, has gone down in history as one of its greatest innovators.
Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg at Goodman Theatre.
Learn more and get tickets for The Music Man at GoodmanTheatre.org/MusicMan