Book Review by Bob Gutowski
Book Review by Bob Gutowski
Also see Sarah's review of Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain
For decades, you had to shell out an arm and a leg to buy a used copy from a dealer or, later, on the Internet. This is a pity, for if there was ever a book worth reading on the subject of crafting an original musical, this is it. Therefore, it was with some excitement that I read of its current reappearance.
The earlier of the two books is Willson's memoir And There I Stood with My Piccolo, the title being the punch line to a famous musician's joke. It is labeled, "The book that inspired Meredith Willson's The Music Man." My suspicions that this was a bit of marketing hyperbole proved dead wrong. First of all, Willson's account of his Iowa boyhood, his training as a musician, and his eventual celebrity as a bandleader and radio personality is delightful, and his love affair with words is evident on every page, along with his endearing folksiness. But, more to the point, on every third or fourth page you'll spot a phrase like, "shoot a game of billiards" Aha! And "Iowa stubbornness." And "librarian." And "John Philip Sousa!!!" The raw material for The Music Man is, indeed, all there (and, for the record, Willson himself played in the great Sousa's band). By the end of the book it seems downright unimaginable that Willson would not one day write a song entitled "Seventy-Six Trombones."
"The man's a by God spellbinder!," thought producers Ernie Martin and Cy Feuer (that's a quote from The Music Man's Mayor Shinn, referring to Harold Hill, but it works here, too) after reading the first book, and they insisted that the charismatic and clever Willson write a musical about those good old days in Iowa.
In what may be one of the understatements of all time, this was easier said than done. Before the show would open, there would be a change (an amiable one) of producers, and the unorthodox choice of a former B-movie villain as a leading man. Haunting Willson's nights, however, was the script, the enduringly unfixable script. At one point even Ernie Martin took a shot at helping Willson sort it all out. Complicating matters was Willson's idée fixe concerning a young boy of River City, a spastic who would, under the spell of Harold Hill and his music, finally get to express himself. But it just sat there in draft after draft after draft.
Salvation, we are told, came in the form of a man named Franklin Lacey, who some people believe is a pseudonym for none other than Frank Loesser. That speculation is never addressed in the book, of course, but contemporary theatre writer Ed Weissman has pointed out that Lacey's bio in Playbill seems about as fanciful as a certain Miss Streisand's first Playbill entry noting that she was "born in Madagascar, reared in Rangoon." Among other questionable statements, Lacey claims to have been working for Ziegfeld in the '40s and '50s. This would be a neat trick, considering that the legendary showman died in 1932!
Still, Lacey, whomever he may or may not have been, is officially credited with helping Willson refine and shape the humorous and affectionate look at Iowa, circa 1912, that became one of the great American musicals, and one specifically about Americans. But He Doesn't Know the Territory (the title is also a famous quote from the show) ends on opening night. If you're like me, you'll find yourself wishing that Willson had gone on to write about how the show became an international hit, and finally a faithful and successful motion picture, starring that same former B-movie villain, now reborn as a musical comedy star. It seems that when contacted about playing the lead in the film version, Cary Grant said that not only would he not play the role, he wouldn't even go to see the movie if Robert Preston wasn't hired to portray Harold Hill on the screen.
As in the best "making of" volumes, it's surprising to learn how many of the moments we love (and which seem inevitable) in The Music Man were rewrites, rewrites of rewrites, or thought up during the pressure of previews. According to Willson, he was blessed with an especially simpatico, involved and inventive creative staff, from director Morton DaCosta and choreographer Onna White to costumer Raoul Pène Du Bois and set and lighting designer Howard Bay.
Both of these books are wonderful, but the second is essential reading for any lover of musical theatre. Still, I encourage you to read both, especially as getting them is now, thanks to the University of Minnesota Press, no longer any "trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble ..."
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