This comic essay, in which Meredith Willson discusses his inspiration for The Music Man, was originally published in The New York Herald Tribune.
I lived in Mason City, Iowa, till I was sixteen. With my folks. My brother is a very smart man in the industrial field. Light aggregate concrete. In fact, he is an expert. I don’t mind telling that to you, but it’s the first time I’ve ever told it to him. That’s what we call Iowa-stubborn.
My wife and I made a homecoming appearance at a home show in Des Moines seven or eight years ago and didn’t receive enough applause to get us out onto the platform. There were lots of Mason City people there, too, including several of my kissing relatives. That’s what we call Iowa-contrary. (“Who do you think they are, anyway?”)
In 1949 Frank Loesser said, “I think you ought to write a musical comedy about Iowa.” I thought it was a good idea and I wanted very much to do it but I refused, just to prove Frank was wrong.
Goodman Ace made the same suggestion a year later and I refused again for the same reason. Nobody brought it up any more for some time, and I began to think they thought I couldn’t do it. So, of course, I had to give it a try. That’s what we call Iowa arrogance.
The existence of The Music Man proves Somerset Maugham’s contention that anybody with a good memory can write down a story. I remember my childhood so well that each character in the show is not one, but a composite of three or four different people. One possible exception could be Marian Paroo (the leading lady) who I think is mostly my mother, although I didn’t realize this myself until the second week in Philadelphia.
Harold Hill, the starring role, is so many people that I remember different ones every time I see the show. The period is 1912 when I was ten years old, so I suppose some of the points of view are reflected in the ten-year-old role of Winthrop. I’m pretty sure Mason City never had a mayor exactly like Mayor Shinn, but the lady who used to help mama clean house on Saturdays, a wonderful German lady named Mrs. Buehler, is close to identical with Mrs. Paroo, except that the German has become Irish.
Some Iowans who have seen The Music Man in rehearsal have called it an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state. I’m glad they feel that way because that’s what I meant it to be even though I didn’t rose-color up our stubborn ways. Anyway, the show (“what there is of it, and there’s a lot of it, such as it is,” sample comment from cousin Phil) has been taken off the paper and put onto the stage with faithfulness. In taking pains and care in this regard it is Morton Da Costa’s best, and although I haven’t been on Broadway before, I’ve been around Broadway long enough to observe that Morton Da Costa’s best is the best there is. The same goes for Kermit Bloomgarden and Herb Greene. And the company. And there goes my last alibi.
Robert Reiniger “Meredith” Willson (May 18, 1902 – June 15, 1984) was an
American flautist, composer, conductor, musical arranger, bandleader and playwright, best known for writing the book, music, and lyrics for “The Music Man.” His film scores were twice nominated for Academy Awards.
Learn more and get tickets for The Music Man at GoodmanTheatre.org/MusicMan