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Miracle of The Music Man:
The Classic American Story of Meredith Willson

by Mark Cabaniss

Book Review by Rob Lester

Also see Rob's review of "The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements" by Peter Filichia

Although he passed away in 1984, Meredith Willson's legacy has been increasingly noticeable on the page, on the stage, and in the world of cast recordings. The Music Man, his biggest hit musical, hit Broadway two more times since the turn of the century (2000 and the present revival, plus a 2003 TV version, all yielding cast recordings), The Unsinkable Molly Brown resurfaced in revised form (also recorded), and Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical, originally known as Here's Love, is regularly produced regionally in the Christmas season. Mark Cabaniss is the fourth author in this century to bring forth a full-length book about multi-tasking Willson, who himself wrote four books (a novel and three memoirs, including one focused on the very long gestation process of The Music Man and its first march to Broadway).

Miracle of The Music Man: The Classic American Story of Meredith Willson, while full of affection and appreciation, is also full of familiar tales and tidbits if you've read some of the others. The writer, however, brings his own perspective and appreciation via years as a music publisher, composer, arranger, producer, educator, broadcaster, and serving as advisor to the museum and foundation, in Willson's hometown, that also are focused on the legacy. He also conducted his own interviews and research which increased his admiration. The final result is an enjoyable read with observations and quotations that paint a picture of a Mr. Nice Guy with a strong work ethic and a range of talents.

Included in the 19 chapters are backgrounds of Meredith Willson's grandparents and parents, his growing up in the Iowa town that was the model for The Music Man's locale (and some history on the place itself). That musical becomes the centerpiece of the biography, starting with due respect paid in the chatty foreword by Rupert Holmes (who, like Willson, entered the world of writing for the theatre after years of crafting standalone songs and trying other musical avenues).

The hat Mr. Cabaniss wears (and tips to his subject) is not that of a well-meaning but overzealous fan with a mission to exalt his hero to genius or godlike status. He lets the ample samples of accomplishments speak for themselves and lets Willson's documented practicality, pluck, and modesty regarding his successes, slips, and struggles endear him to us. The presentation is unpretentious and accessible, unapologetically assuming a reader's sincere interest in learning, in some detail, how one career chapter follows another–serendipitously or by decisive design. He wields no metaphorical magnifying glass to ferret out show biz gossip or analyze songs' elements, lingering over them with lingo only schooled musicologists would relish.

Keeping a reader's attention, the breezy biography packs in plenty of information and social interactions, from Willson's early days with his own big brother and big sister to his involvement with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters charity organizations, earning him an honor bestowed by President John F. Kennedy. Sometimes the Cabaniss chronicle reads like a fantasy plot concocted for an old Hollywood "small town boy makes good" movie. After high school, flute and dreams in hand, Meredith high-tailed off to New York City, leaving mother Rosalie and dad John; another John–John Philip Sousa, the famous bandleader–soon signed the young man. Later, he was with the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini and before long was conducting himself. Then came a whirlwind of work as music director and on-air personality on radio shows for years to come, as well as jobs scoring for movies including Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and The Little Foxes starring Bette Davis, in a role originated on stage by Tallulah Bankhead, with whom Willson bantered on radio shows. The public could put a face to the name when he moved to that new-fangled medium called television.

Two women who coincidentally had the surname Wilson (spelled with a single L) would figure into the saga, thirty years apart. There was Peggy, the girl from back home, whom he married when he was 18. Then in 1950, singer Eileen Wilson (not mentioned by name in the book), with Meredith's own orchestra, recorded one of his original songs, "Till I Met You." Several years later it was interpolated, with just two words changed in the lyric (in the repeated chorus-ending title line), to become "Till There Was You," the big ballad in the score of The Music Man. The path to the triumph was paved with rejections, realizations, and rewrite after rewrite, before rewards like rapturous reviews and awards for the show and film were all one could wish. Not bad for an Iowa kid whose performing career began playing a shepherd (at the age of four) in his church's Christmas pageant when the child playing Joseph didn't enter on cue, so mini-Meredith ad-libbed that the MIA Biblical figure would be coming presently, adding, "He hath gone to the toilet." Each chapter begins with a pithy quotation, some from the man at the center of our attention (such as "I'm not easily discouraged").

An advantage of this book's being sent to the printer so recently is that it is able to include reporting on the productions of The Unsinkable Molly Brown revised by Dick Scanlan as well as this year's Broadway revival of The Music Man, which a cock-a-hoop Cabaniss attended on opening night, describing the production as "flawless" and "pure joy." He also had access to the vast personal Willson archives recently donated to and digitized by the Great American Songbook Foundation founded by Michael Feinstein. And, while he was able to interview Eddie Hodges, who'd played little Winthrop in the original production of The Music Man, his quoted comments comprise a disappointing total of two sentences. More was gleaned from chats with widow Rosemary Willson and Cy Feuer, who almost produced The Music Man with partner Ernie Martin. And there's devotion to detail and commendable atmosphere in telling of the many drafts, debates, and living-room presentations of the ever-evolving score of that eventual smash, but other topics get comparatively scant attention. Vintage reviews are interesting, but I'd love to read some worthy first-hand insights from in-the-trenches directors and actors. A mere two pages is all that's allotted to a discussion of Willson's fourth and final musical, the Broadway-bound look at Christopher Columbus, closing in California: 1491, starring John Cullum and Chita Rivera. Some "what happened?" stories lurk. Some quotes from the words of lesser-known songs might be nice instead of the familiar, easy-to-locate Music Man lyrics. And how about some thoughts on the many various recordings, including studio casts and instrumental treatments?

While Miracle ... is generally a well-done dip into the well of Willson history, one starts to wonder–right from the start–where the fact-checkers and editors were. There is trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for "proofreading." In Rupert Holmes' foreword, spelled wrong are the surnames of composer Frederick Loewe and singers covering songs from The Music Man (the last names of those given as "Sergio Franco" and "Etta Johns" should be Franchi and Jones). When Cabaniss mentions the recording of "Till There Was You," issued before the cast album's release, he credits only the arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle, leading the reader to conclude it was an instrumental, but there's a full-length vocal by then-teenaged Sue Raney. The Prologue discusses major musicals of the 1950s, but appearing in the list of the ones "born during that decade" are the 1947 show Finian's Rainbow and 1949's South Pacific. (Both get mentioned with the correct years elsewhere.) While even a careful eye might miss a typo (Tallulah missing an L in the index listing, the intended phrase "big hit" printed as "bit hit"), it's surprising that the grammar police didn't spot a glaring syntax sin (referring to "him and Feuer"). While referring back to a fact stated many pages earlier can be wise, it's déjà vu of the regrettable kind when an incident is described all over again at some length and/or similar verbiage. Marvin Hamlisch's exact same quoted remark about Willson shows up twice. In two descriptions of Feuer sharing memories with specifics and energy, he's called "sharp as ever," his then-age, 91, emphasized. On three separate pages, we're told of the author's awe of being in the room with Willson's piano and how his widow graciously "let me play a few notes." And on two different pages we're told about the discarded counterpoint concept for two Music Man songs that was performed by Willson and his second wife, Rini, on their vinyl album of the score and we're told (each time) that this cut alone is worth the hunts at used record stores. However, it's been on CD since 2017, paired with the composer's album conducting instrumental versions (plus two bonus tracks of Shirley Jones, the film's leading lady, singing and talking).

While perhaps frequent use of phrases like "as noted earlier" are used to acknowledge or justify repeating bits of info, I found it annoying and distracting. In the same way, I got tired of the habitual mention of someone or something to be followed by the alert/promise: "More on him later." (We assume or know paths will cross again.)

Miracle of The Music Man's photos may be in black and white, but the scenes described by Mark Cabaniss and the quoted memories of Meredith and Rosemary Willson and others are very colorful indeed.

Miracle of The Music Man
The Classic American Story of Meredith Willson

By Mark Cabaniss
Foreword by Rupert Holmes
242 pages (including index and photos)
Rowman & Littlefield
Publication Date: September 15, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-4930-6794-7
Available in Hardcover / Kindle Edition. Audiobook available November 1, 2022.