American Treasures: Meredith Willson, the Real ‘Music Man’

By Michael Kurek
Michael Kurek
Michael Kurek
American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com
August 8, 2021 Updated: August 8, 2021

They say authors should write about what they know. If anyone knew what it means to be a Music Man, it was Meredith Willson (spelled with two L’s, 1902–1984), composer and playwright of the celebrated 1957 musical by that title. It turns out that Willson’s real life as a jack of all musical trades was incredible and even more fascinating than his fiction.

“The Music Man,” one of four Broadway shows Willson wrote (including his 1960 hit, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”), won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical (beating out “West Side Story” for that award), and ran for 1,375 performances on Broadway over three and a half years. It has had two movie adaptations, in 1962 and 2003, and countless ongoing productions in local theaters. There was a Broadway revival in 2000 with Rebecca Luker as Marian, and a much-awaited new revival, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, is now set to open at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre with eyebrow-raising ticket prices in February 2022.

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A publicity photo of Joan Weldon and Forrest Tucker in the original U.S. national tour of the musical “The Music Man.” (Public Domain)

Willson’s own story began, like “The Music Man,” in the small Iowa town of Mason City, on the Winnebago River, hence its nickname, “River City.” There, he got to know the people whose personalities were so colorfully reflected in his show. His own musical start, likewise, began in a marching band, playing the flute and piccolo. You may recall Willson’s title character, Professor Harold Hill, asking the town hooligan, Tommy, to occupy himself by inventing a marching music stand for the piccolo.

At age 17, Willson put his piccolo into his pocket and took a train to New York City. There, he enrolled in Frank Damrosch’s Institute of Musical Art, later renamed The Juilliard School, and took flute and piccolo lessons with some of the most distinguished players of those instruments. He wound up playing under the direction of the march king himself, John Philip Sousa, and touring the United States, Mexico, and Cuba with Sousa’s band from 1921 to 1923. Then he settled down for a career as a member of the New York Philharmonic from 1924 to 1929 under the famous Arturo Toscanini.

From Piccolo Player to Hollywood Composer

That might have been enough for many musicians to last for many years, but this music man hopped another train all the way to San Francisco. (It is not hard to imagine what inspired him to later write the rhythms of the train song “Rock Island” that opens “The Music Man.”) There, he landed a job as musical director of the radio station KFRC, which led to his important position in the 1930s as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood.

Never missing an opportunity, our real-life music man got in on the ground floor of musical scoring for Hollywood films, composing the score for several films beginning in 1929 and 1930, including “All Quiet on the Western Front.” By 1940 and 1941, he garnered two Academy Award nominations for best film scores, for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and for William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes,” which starred Bette Davis.

During World War II, as a major in the Armed Forces Radio Service, Willson was teamed up with George Burns and Gracie Allen and, in addition to directing the radio big band, began hamming it up in speaking character parts. In the post-war years and into the early 1950s, he began hosting his own network radio shows, including “Meredith Willson’s Musical Review,” “Sparkle Time,” and “The Big Show,” which was a variety show with many big stars cohosted by Tallulah Bankhead. For its closing song, Willson wrote the classic recorded by many great singers, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.”

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During World War II, Meredith teamed up with George Burns and Gracie Allen with the Armed Forces Radio Service. Burns and Allen are pictured here in 1952. (Public Domain)

The Development ofThe Music Man’

While working in 1950 as a music director for a musical theater special at the Hollywood Bowl, Willson met Franklin Lacey (1917–1988), a playwright and screenwriter, who became a crucial consultant on honing Willson’s story line for “The Music Man.” Willson tinkered with the show for eight years, through 30 revisions, finally keeping the best 20 (not counting reprises) of over 40 songs he wrote for the show.

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Robert Preston played the lead, Harold Hill, in both the stage and 1962 film version of “The Music Man.” (Warner Bros.)

He created different orderings and reprises for the songs of the 1962 movie version from the 1957 stage version, with the main difference being the substitution in the film of the new song “Being in Love” for the stage song “My White Knight.” The latter is the one still performed in stage productions, which may be unfamiliar to those who are only familiar with the movie, but there is a passage that is the same in both songs.

In the original stage production, Robert Preston stole the show as the title character, with the role of Marian sung by the great Barbara Cook. But when it came time to cast the movie, Jack L. Warner wanted to cast a bigger Hollywood name, including Bing Crosby and then Cary Grant, who famously told Warner that he wouldn’t even go to see the movie if Bob Preston was not in it. Warner also proposed casting Frank Sinatra, but Meredith Willson himself adamantly insisted on keeping Preston, for whom it became his signature role. Shirley Jones (Marian in the film) was already a favorite, having previously played the lead in the movie musical versions of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”

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Another of Meredith Willson’s hit musicals, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” starring Debbie Reynolds in the film version. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Meredith Willson was never one to sit still, it seems, and continued diversifying his musical enterprises throughout his life. He composed two symphonies and a variety of other classical works, all performed and well-received in their day. He wrote a Billboard No. 1 hit for Glenn Miller (with a Ray Eberle vocal), “You and I,” which was also recorded by Bing Crosby and by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey.

Willson also wrote the perennial “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” the “University of Iowa Fight Song,” and many other songs, scores, and arrangements. In 1987, President Ronald Regan awarded him, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now that’s a music man!

American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com

Michael Kurek
Michael Kurek
American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com