December 19, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I couldn’t let today go by without acknowledging that on this date 60 years ago, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre (I wrote about it last year on its 59th anniversary, and I’ll probably do it again on its 61st — so sue me). Though by no means the greatest musical ever written, it does count as my all-time favorite. How so? Let me count the ways.
I readily admit that its charms are not universal. There are many who think it’s cornball and silly (which it is). But it’s also deep and true, which is why it has endured for so long as such a popular title in schools and regional theatre. Willson based it on the people he knew from his home town of Mason City, Iowa. The young boy in him never really grew up and his ability to reproduce 1912 Iowa on a Broadway stage grew out of his knowing its denizens so well. The fictional River City, whose populace are so “Iowa Stubborn” that they can stand touching noses for a week at a time and never see eye-to-eye, were essayed with great affection. Dropped into their daily routine comes a con man with a patented scam, whereby pretending to be a band leader, he pries open wallets and purses taking money for something that will never become a reality. The self-named “Professor” Harold Hill can’t read a note of music.
One of the reasons the original Broadway production was such a rip-roaring success was the performance of Robert Preston in the title role. It’s hard to imagine the element of surprise that played a part in how highly praised this actor was when the show premiered six decades ago. Having only recently returned to the stage after twenty years of making films in Hollywood, the theatre-trained Preston had first been discovered at the age of nineteen at the Pasadena Playhouse. Quickly signed to a Paramount contract, he had no say over what films he appeared in for the next two decades. Frustrated, he chucked it all, moved to New York for the first time in his life, and managed parts in nine shows over six seasons between 1951 and 1957. Not only was The Music Man his first musical on Broadway, it was his first musical! And what a natural he was.
And in Barbara Cook, whose Marian Paroo was her one and only Tony Award, the production had the best ingenue of her day (and perhaps any other). The irony that yesterday was her memorial at Lincoln Center, and today is the sixtieth anniversary of the opening night of one her most important roles, is not lost on me.
But The Music Man is more than any actor’s interpretation of its leading roles.It’s a model of construction, its action never lags, it has a glorious score accompanied by an accomplished and funny book, and it builds the love affair between Harold and Marian the Librarian to its logical conclusion slowly and effortlessly. You believe it, which is why it works so well.
Meredith Willson, a successful composer and musical director, had first been approached about writing a musical by the producing team of Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin. For six long years, efforts to find investors proved next to impossible. Willson was driven to try many iterations (and even titles). The Silver Triangle was one that stuck for awhile, as did the character of Winthrop, a spastic child in a wheelchair. Of course that changed, as we have all come to know him as the young boy with the lisp. Willson covers all of this in his book But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, published in 1959, which is a wonderful read.
The biggest change (for the better) was when Feuer and Martin lost faith in the show and asked Willson to write the score to a book they had optioned and were more excited about. Taking this as his cue for an exit, Willson personally picked up the phone and dialed Kermit Bloomgarden, a well-respected producer whose credits included such dramas as Death of a Salesman and The Diary of Anne Frank. As impressive as those plays were, Willson was more impressed by Bloomgarden’s most recent success (and the first musical he had produced), Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. With nothing to lose, Willson got the producer on the line and launched into a lengthy pitch, to which Bloomgarden finally interjected, “Pardon me, have we ever met?
Succumbing to Willson’s charm, it wasn’t long before Bloomgarden was seated in a living room setting, listening to the composer and his wife Rina perform The Music Man from start to finish, just as they had done countless times for potential backers. Bloomgarden loved what he heard and had the couple reconvene a few nights later to audition the show for Moss Hart, then the most sought-after director on Broadway, having just come off his latest triumph, My Fair Lady. When Willson reported to Bloomgarden the next morning at his Broadway office, he was stunned to hear that Hart didn’t like it. Crestfallen, he thought that Bloomgarden’s enthusiasm must be an apparition, and sunk into despair. But it was Mrs. Willson who pointed out what Hart had hung up in the closet the previous evening: “A mink-lined overcoat,” she told her husband. “What would he know about small-town Iowans?”
Morton DaCosta, with hits like No Time for Sargents and Auntie Mame under his belt came on board to direct, and the rest is history. The Music Man ran for 1,375 performances. Besides My Fair Lady, the longest running musical that opened in the 1950s.
So Happy Anniversary to The Music Man. Long may it reign.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.