Meredith Willson’s The Music Man

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson

Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey

Original Broadway run at Majestic Theatre – Opened December 19, 1957 (1,375 performances)

There is nothing more disarming than the gentle form of flattery that suggests our children have some unsuspected artistic talent. It is this flattery which Harold Hill employs so cleverly that his confident trick of posing as a Professor of Music claiming to teach boys how to play military band instruments practically overnight, succeeds in town after town until he tries it in River City, Iowa. There, after initially impressing upon all but a few die-hards, the need to give young people the sort of interests that will keep them off the streets his all too expedient theories begin to be suspect, especially by Marian Paroo, the local librarian and music teacher. Because Harold falls in love with her (and she with him) he fails to make his usual escape by train in time to avoid confrontation with the town officials who have been tipped off about him by a rival salesman.  A demonstration is demanded of the efficacy of Harold Hill’s teaching methods from the band he has formed. Although their rendering of Beethoven’s “Minuet in G” leaves much to be desired, the performance arouses such enthusiasm among the wishful thinking, proud parents that he is completely exonerated.  

Meredith Wilson's The Music Man
Poster for the original Broadway production of “The Music Man.”

 

Most all of the songs in The Music Man have become standards, such as “Seventy Six Trombones”, sung by Harold as he paints the vision of a boys’ band resplendent with the instruments and uniforms he has persuaded their mothers and fathers to buy. Other songs include “Goodnight, My Someone”, “Ya Got Trouble” and “Till There Was You.”  Whenever the River City School Board (a male barbershop quartet) is after Hill for his credentials, he sets them off warbling memorable old-fashioned songs, and thereby avoids a show-down (“Lida Rose”).  The opening patter song “Rock Island” (delivered in railroad speech-rhythm as traveling salesman journey to their destinations on a train) is a forerunner of modern rap (as is “Ya Got Trouble”).  

After years of development, a change of producers, almost forty songs (twenty-two were cut), and more than forty drafts, the original Broadway production was produced by Kermit Bloomgarden, directed by Morton DaCosta and choreographed by Onna White. It opened on December 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre. It remained at the Majestic for nearly three years before transferring to The Broadway Theatre to complete its 1,375-performance run on April 15, 1961. The original cast included Robert Preston (who went on to reprise his role in the 1962 screen adaptation) as Harold Hill, Barbara Cook as Marian, Eddie Hodges as Winthrop, Pert Kelton as Mrs. Paroo, Iggie Wolfington as Marcellus Washburn and David Burns as Mayor Shinn. 

Robert Preston, Barbara Cook, and Eddie Hodges in the original Broadway production of “The Music Man.”  

 

Eddie Albert and Bert Parks each replaced Preston as Hill later in the run, and Paul Ford was a replacement for Mayor Shinn, later reprising the role in the film version. Howard Bay designed the sets. The musical won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, winning in the same year that West Side Story was nominated for the award. Preston, Cook and Burns also won. The long-running US national tour opened in 1958, starring Forrest Tucker as Hill and Joan Weldon as Marion. 

The original Australian production ran from March 5, 1960 to July 30, 1960 at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, and at the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney from December 13, 1960 to February 4, 1961. The first UK production opened at Bristol Hippodrome, transferring to London’s West End at the Adelphi Theatre on March 16, 1961, starring Van Johnson, Patricia Lambert, C. Denier Warren, Ruth Kettlewell and Dennis Waterman. It ran for 395 performances at the Adelphi. 

A two-week revival at New York City Center ran in June 1965, directed by Gus Schirmer, Jr. and starring Bert Parks as Harold Hill. Doro Merande and Sandy Duncan played, respectively, Eulalie and Zaneeta Shinn. A three-week revival, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd, ran in June 1980, also at the New York City Center. The cast included Dick Van Dyke as Hill, Meg Bussert as Marian, Christian Slater as Winthrop, Carol Arthur as Mrs. Paroo, and Iggie Wolfington (who played Marcellus in the 1957 production) as Mayor Shinn. 

In 1962, Warner Bros. produced a film version starring Robert Preston as Harold Hill and Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo. The film was one of the biggest hits of the year and highly acclaimed critically.

Shirley Jones with Robert Preston in the Warner Bros. film “The Music Man.”

 

In 1987, a Chinese translation of the musical was staged at Beijing’s Central Opera Theater.  New York City Opera staged a revival from February to April 1988, directed by Arthur Masella and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, starring Bob Gunton as Hill, with Muriel Costa-Greenspon as Eulalie and James Billings as Marcellus. 

Another Broadway revival, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, opened on April 27, 2000 at the Neil Simon Theatre, where it ran for 699 performances and 22 previews. The cast included Craig Bierko (making his Broadway debut) as Hill and Rebecca Luker as Marian. Robert Sean Leonard and Eric McCormack portrayed Hill later in the run. 

An ABC-TV filmed television production of the musical was broadcast on February 16, 2003, for an edition of The Wonderful World of Disney.  It starred Matthew Broderick as Harold Hill and Kristin Chenoweth as  Marian Paroo; directed by Jeff Bleckner.

Two-time Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner Hugh Jackman will make his highly anticipated return to Broadway as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Two-time Tony-winning superstar Sutton Foster will star as Marian Paroo. The production, produced by Scott Rudin and directed by four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks, with choreography by Tony winner Warren Carlyle, is currently scheduled to begin performances on December 20, 2021, and officially open on February 10, 2022.

Matthew Broderick in The Music Man
Promotional poster for the ABC-TV broadcast of “The Music Man.”

 

All of this and more has firmly placed The Music Man in the pantheon of all-time greatest American musicals, assuring its spot as a leader in the American Musical Theatre canon.

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