The Writing of The Music Man

Meredith Willson, best known as a conductor, took many years to write his first musical, The Music Man. He started with two ideas: he wanted to create a nostalgic piece about the joys of growing up in the Midwest, and he wanted to write a show about a child with autism. The first idea is workable. The second idea was, as ideas go, disastrous. Nobody in the 1950s would have sat still for a show about such a depressing subject.

They would today. Extremely tragic musicals like Miss Saigon, Evita, Passion, and, most obviously, Les Miserables have created a new audience for joyless sobfests with bleak finales. Willson, fortunately, was part of the tradition in which music amplifies happy moments, celebrates, and finds the pleasure in ordinary as well as extraordinary things. So, he had to change the autism idea. The act of making that change gave him a theme for his show.

The Music Man is all about transformation. Most often, the traveling huckster Harold Hill is an instrument of change. He takes a sleepy and rude town and makes it an energetic, musical and positive place. He takes a shy, stuttering boy (the replacement for the autistic character) and gives him a reason to smile, and to express himself without fear. A quartet of naysaying city officials becomes a harmony quartet. He meets a standoffish librarian and she falls very passionately in love with him. And she manages to reform him, which provides the climax of the plot.

Watching all this metamorphosis, we change a little ourselves. Professor Hill’s goal of selling band instruments and uniforms seems a little evil when we discover he’s ill-equipped to teach children how to play them. But that evil wondrously transmogrifies to a positive when we see what the attempt to learn music has done to everyone in the town.

Besides writing around a theme, Willson also takes great delight in pointing out that music is all around us if we listen carefully. The rattle of a train, the chicken-like cackling of gossips, marbles on a library floor. While it may no longer be a hard-and-fast rule that musicals must celebrate, The Music Man is a paradigm of what can happen when a writer underscores the delight he finds in a particular world.

2020 Broadway Revival of The Music Man

The Music Man DVDs

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The Music Man Cast Recordings

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Sheet Music

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