Well, Animation April has come to an end. But, since we’re such big fans of alliteration, we’ve decided to turn this month into Musical May! We each chose a musical to cover this month, which means we’re bringing you three episodes focused on some of our absolute favorites!
Adam got to choose first! And he picked (drumroll please) The Music Man! Based on Meredith Wilson’s Broadway hit, this film adaptation was released in 1962, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. It was a huge success, and is still considered to be one of the most popular classic musicals among younger viewers. For a lot of us, The Music Man introduced us to musicals. It’s funny and entertaining (although a bit dated) and often it’s a great musical to watch if you’re just getting started in the genre. Plus, its songs are SO DAMN FUN to sing!
So, this week we’re taking a little trip to River City, Iowa where we will pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more!
Before we dive deep into the history of this movie, let’s talk first about Meredith Wilson, and the original play! Way back in 2019, we briefly touched on this movie in our Case of the Movie Musical: Part 1! So go check that out if you’re in the mood for some classic BCD.
- Meredith Willson was a talented flutist, composer, and songwriter from Mason City, Iowa. He wrote The Music Man as a salute to his home state. He was born in 1902, 10 years before the events of the musical, meaning he would have been about Winthrop’s age when “The Music Man” came to town. Imagine young Winthrop growing up to write the story of Harold Hill!
- When he was in his early 20’s, he actually traveled with John Philip Souza’s band as a flutist. He also played in the New York Philharmonic! After serving in WWII, Willson returned to songwriting and was the music director of ABC radio and TV networks. He’s in the songwriting hall of fame, and even though he’s best known for writing the Music Man, he also wrote a lot of popular songs like, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas!” He also wrote “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” another great musical. But of course, his crown jewel was The Music Man, an ode to his hometown and state, which earned him a Grammy and a Tony.
- Originally, Willson intended on writing a book about the happy childhood he had in Mason City Iowa. In the late 1940’s, he decided to write a play instead, incorporating songs that he had written, and basing some of the characters on actual people!
- When Willson had trouble securing the funding for the show, it almost became a TV special for CBS. That deal didn’t come to fruition, and when Willson finally found the support for a stage production, the next hurdle was casting the title role.
- Apparently, many potential leads turned down the part, from Danny Kaye to Gene Kelly. The show’s director, Morton DaCosta, eventually selected actor Robert Preston to play Harold Hill, even though Meredith Willson was doubtful he could pull it off, since Preston has never starred in a musical before.
- The Music Man premiered on Broadway in December of 1957. It was a critical and commercial success, and had a 5-year run that included 1,375 performances! The show was nominated for eight Tony awards, winning 5, including Best Musical – beating out “West Side Story!”
After its successful Broadway run, it was a no-brainer that this show needed the Major Motion Picture treatment. Warner Brothers purchased The Music Man for $1,000,000 (a fairly nice sum in the late 1950’s)!
The Music Man follows esteemed con man Professor Harold Hill, as he heads to the town of River City, Iowa. He’s been warned that this town is full of people that are impossible to trick, salt of the earth folk that see through every sly-by-night salesman. At first, it seems that this town has met its match, as Hill is able to convince the residents that they are in need of a boys band to keep their children out of trouble. Of course, the local librarian is skeptical, concerned that he will hurt her friends and family by getting them to believe in something and be ultimately let down. Over time, she too sees the magic in the eponymous “Music Man,” just as Harold discovers that his music isn’t really a con at all.
MAKING OF THE MOVIE
- In the early 1960’s, Hollywood was past the gigantic, sweeping musicals of its Golden age. The Music Man looked and felt like a stage performance, but with a technicolor pop and innovative camera work.
- Morton DaCosta directed both the stage and film productions. He brought with him from the stage, choreographer Onna White. White was instrumental in creating the famous “Madame Librarian” dance scene, an iconic moment for the film.
- Lead actress Shirley Jones warned Onna that she wasn’t a very good dancer, but Onna assured her that she would be after making the film!
- Shirley Jones was actually the first person cast in the movie, since she was already a bonafide film star. The studio wanted a big name for Harold Hill, to draw in even more audiences. They reportedly asked Carey Grant and were considering Frank Sinatra, but it was clear that Robert Preston was the only Music Man for the job.
- Cary Grant was even quoted saying, “Not only will I not star in it, if Robert Preston doesn’t star in it, I will not see it.”
- Shirley Jones said that “I don’t know if you knew this or not, but Warner Bros., who produced Music Man, wanted Frank Sinatra to play Harold Hill. They were about to sign him, but Meredith Willson came in and said, ‘Listen, unless you use Robert Preston, you don’t do my show.” And that’s how Preston got the part.’”
- The sets were simple. Three of River City’s major establishments, City Hall, the library, and the firehouse, were all located in one facade on the Warner Brothers lot. DaCosta was well-known for his inventive camera work, and he used angles and editing to trick the audience into thinking that these were three different structures.
- The music was conducted by Ray Heindorf, and all of the songs were pre-recorded. It became clear that Preston was a master of performing the songs as if they were live.
- The film took nine months to shoot, as each musical number was shot in about three weeks. Only one number was practiced at a time, with intense rehearsals. The goal was to get each scene done in one take, much like watching a musical performed on stage.
- When all was said and done, the film premiered in Mason City, Iowa! It was a star-studded event with box socials and band events as well!
When Meredith Willson sat down to write the music for The Music Man, he wrote new songs and included others he had written over the years. He ended up writing about 40 songs, and only 17 made it into the film. Not all of them were used on the stage, either. Willson obviously took the advice to write what you know. This is apparent in the scene when Harold Hill coaches The Buffalo Bills. He says, “Singing is just sustained talking,” a piece of advice that vocal coaches have been using for thousands of years. In a lot of ways, Harold Hill really is a music man more than a con man.
So while we’re talking about the music, let’s go over some of the songs from the film!
- Main Title/Rock Island/Iowa Stubborn
- For the Main Title track, Pacific Title created miniature music men! Just a bit of early film stop-motion to start off the film.
- The song Rock Island is actually a favorite of Hugh Jackman, and he’s said that doing the number in High School actually got him interested in Show Business.
- Iowa Stubborn is one of the bigger numbers of the film, involving most of the ensemble cast. It perfectly captures the attitude of smalltown America.
- Ya Got Trouble
- Preston was perfect at appearing like he was doing the numbers live, but they were indeed pre-recorded! This number is definitely a masterpiece of this.
- Piano Lesson/You Don’t Mind My Saying So
- This song, sung by Marian and her mother, sets up both characters and depicts a realistic relationship between a mother and daughter. It also is a great musical representation of how adults can have a conversation with a child present, and the child has no understanding of what they are talking about.
- Goodnight My Someone/76 Trombones
- Arguably the most famous song from the musical is 76 Trombones, the stand-out number where Harold Hill inspires the town to imagine life with a band. It’s the perfect theme song for the character, as he’s attempting to swindle everyone. But of course, the song comes back around at the end, as the boy’s band in town turns out to be more than what they imagined it would be.
- Conversely, “Goodnight My Someone” is Marian’s song. She first sings it with her piano student, as she says goodnight to her true love on the evening star. It’s a song defined by innocence and love, and seemingly the perfect foil to Hill’s song.
- That’s why it’s perfect that both songs are actually the same melody, with different tempos! By the end of the story, the characters are no longer foils, and the two songs become one in a literal and figurative sense.
- Sincere/Lida Rose/Every song by the Buffalo Bills
- When Harold Hill unites the members of the school board, the rest of the town is skeptical that they will stop fighting. Of course, after the group is brought together with music, they appear multiple times in the show, singing.
- Pick a little, Talk a little/Goodnight Ladies
- Goodnight Ladies was one of the few songs featured in the film that was not written by Meredith Willson. The song was written long before The Music Man takes place, and would very likely be sung by the residents of River City.
- Pick a Little, Talk a Little is an incredible depiction of gossip in a small community. The film even hilariously places the imagery of hens against the group of women as they pick and talk about Marian’s scandal.
- The Sadder but Wiser Girl for Me
- This song is about how he prefers an experienced woman, either in sex or life. In some ways it’s liberating but in other ways it is insulting and crass.
- “No wide-eyed, eager,
- Wholesome innocent Sunday school teacher for me.”
- This song is about how he prefers an experienced woman, either in sex or life. In some ways it’s liberating but in other ways it is insulting and crass.
- Marian the Librarian
- As we said before Onna White was instrumental in creating this number. Since Shirley Jones did not feel entirely confident in her dancing abilities she appreciated that the male dancers were able to lead and guide her around the room and the number. She said they were such amazing dancers that they could make anyone look good!
- Being in Love
- You know, the bathroom song.
- The Wells Fargo Wagon
- This song has been used in Wells Fargo commercials to promote the bank. According to Google it is one of the four biggest banks in America.
- This film is still beloved by so many that SNL did a sketch where the wagon was coming and offering the townsfolk of River City bogus accounts. This sketch addressed the scandal around Wells Fargo while singing the upbeat musical number from the film.
- Gary, Indiana
- Ron Howard recently sung a bit of this song (lisp and all) in an interview.
- For this song, Willson invented the term Shipoopi to mean a woman that won’t kiss until the third date. The song is fun, but seems random, and is often made-fun-of by fans.
- This was the biggest dance number in the film, showing off the musical stylings of Buddy Hackett. The scene was shot with an elaborate overhead camera.
- Till There Was You
- According to IMDB, when The Beatles covered this song, Meredith Willson got more money than from the play or show combined!
- This turns out to be the love ballad between Hill and Marian, and highlights the emotional moment when he decides to stay for love instead of running for his life.
- This is the moment when Winthrop angrily confronts his hero, Harold Hill. This causes Harold to really consider his own motivations as he utters the famous line, “I always think there’s a band, kid.”
- Beethoven’s Minuet in G
- Otherwise known as the song used in the Think Method! This little theme gets repeated throughout the film, and ends up saving Harold Hill from getting tarred and feathered at the end!
- Robert Preston as Harold Hill
- He was a well known Broadway actor that won Tonys for “The Music Man” and “I Do, I Do.” He also did several movies too, like The Last Starfighter!
- Shirley Jones said of working with Preston, “Sometimes, when an actor has been doing a show for a long time – and he had been doing it for three years when we made the movie – they come to do the film and do things like ‘Listen, why don’t we do it this way’ – they’ll start directing it themselves. He did none of that. He was so open to anything that the director said or anything the actors wanted to do. He was just so marvelous.”
- Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo the librarian
- She was named after Shirley Temple! She had several roles and really hoped to play the role of Marian but did not think it was possible until Warner Brothers bought the rights and the rest is as they say…history.
- Shirley Jones was pregnant during filming! She found out three months into production and when she told Morton DeCosta he assured her not to worry because they would hide it. They used a corset and frilly dresses/ items to help cover her bump and she was told not to let anybody else know. In the scene when she and Robert Preston embraced on the footbridge little Patrick kicked Preston.
- Ron Howard as Winthrop Paroo
- As a boy Ronnie was an incredible actor. He was not a showbiz kid but he was amazing.
- Winthrop represents every young child in the town, and the child in every adult.
- Pert Kelton Mrs. Paroo
- She began as a vaudevillian with her parents, and so she was an incredible performer. She was the original on Broadway as well and knew everything about the character that she was playing.
- She was the first person to play Alice in The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason.
- Buddy Hackett as Marcellus Washburn, Harold Hill’s inside man
- In the script they had put Brooklyn because they assumed he could only talk one way. They wanted Hackett because at this time in his career he was very well known and could draw the crowds.
- Hermione Gingold as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn the Mayor’s wife
- The woman that played her daughter said that Hermione played the grand madame from England at all times. Her trailer was completely decorated with bright flowered chintz from floor to ceiling.
- Paul Ford as Mayor George Shinn
- He was so sweet and apparently was upset that he was billed over Buddy Hackett. Hackett said that he didn’t care but told Paul to get a ladder and change it if he was so inclined! Hackett however said he didn’t even need his name up there because the only one that gives you billing is the audience.
- The Buffalo Bills as the School Board (The Barbershop Quartet)
- The Buffalo Bills were a real quartet from Buffalo, New York. The members changed a few times due to moves and opportunities. Meredith Wilson happened upon them while he hosted his radio show titled “Music Today,” after the quartet won the International Quartet Champions in 1950. He would play their album on the air and became familiar with their work. He travelled to meet them in 1954 and after writing The Music Man he reached out to them to audition for the quartet in his musical. They were immediately hired.
- Timmy Everett as Tommy Djilas, the firecracker and love interest to the Mayor’s daughter
- Timmy was proficient in the theatre as he won the Daniel Blum Theater World Award in 1957 for a supporting role and the Theater World Award for best supporting actor in 1958. He also appeared in a few television shows and things until he sadly passed away at the age of 38.
- Susan Luckey as Zaneeta Shinn, (EEEH Gods!)
- She remembers being cast for the movie because she had done the stage show with Mortin Dacosta. They got along well that she knew she had a very good chance of being cast in the film since he was directing that as well! She did not even have to have a screen test.
- Harry Hickox as Charlie Cowell the travelling salesman coming to warn the town
- He was also known for guesting on several tv shows such as Columbo, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Kojak.
- Charles Lane as Constable Lock
- He was also in things like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Aristocats.
- Mary Wickes as Mrs Squires
- She has also been in the Sister Act movies, Little Women (1994), and White Christmas.
- Sara Seeger as Maud Dunlop
- She was in such shows as Bewitched, Dennis the Menace,and The Andy Griffith Show.
- Adnia Rice as Alma Hix
- She appeared in just a few television shows, one of which was The United States Steel Hour.
- Peggy Mondo as Ethel Toffelmier, Marcellus’s love interest
- She appeared in tv as well like Get Smart, To Rome with Love, and McHale’s Navy.
- Jesslyn Fax as Avis Grubb
- She was known for being in the movies Rear Window, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, and Kiss Me Deadly.
- Monique Vermont as Amaryllis, Marian’s piano student
- The Music Man was her biggest role.
AWARDS/ HOW IT WAS RECEIVED
The movie received critical acclaim and was well liked across the board.
The Music Man won the Tony for Best Musical in the 1957-1958 Broadway season which put it ahead of West Side Story. Unfortunately when the movies were made Music Man won only one Academy Award, for Best Score, but West Side Story won 11. Though West Side Story is still used often in schools and won more awards, The Music Man continues to be a fan favorite today. This is demonstrated by the fact that a remake was made by Disney and released in 2003.
In a 2009 forum, professor Stefan Hall said, “In some ways, The Music Man (1962), based on Meredith Willson’s 1958 Tony Award-winning musical, anticipated the later 1960s as a transitional moment in American culture. While not overtly patriotic (indeed, some might argue the opposite given that the plot involves con man “Professor” Harold Hill’s attempt to swindle the citizens of River City, Iowa), the film uses early 20th century Americana to comment on the present. The confrontation between the angry mob and Hill (Robert Preston, reprising his Tony Winning Broadway turn), who throws his con in the name of love, presages the conflict between the hawks and doves that would divide the country during Vietnam. Also, the imaginative power of the youth movement, and an equivalent in Hill’s boy band that learns to play instruments without ever touching them via the “Think System.” And it is fitting that part of the film takes place on the Fourth of July, including the famous “Seventy-Six Trombones,” number, because the restoration of faith that reunites Hill with his love interest also finally roots him in an American home.”
The Music Man is the kind of musical that ends up surprising you. Non-musical fans might turn their noses up at it, as it appears to be just like any other classic hollywood musical. But, this film is different. The Music Man is funny, sincere, and filled with nostalgia. It’s a biting commentary on the world in 1912, the world in 1957, and the world today. In some ways, it’s timeless, while in others it may be a bit dated. But all in all, it’s the classic tale of a lovable con-man that finally meets his match of a town filled with people that makes him question why he started conning in the first place.
So, even if you don’t like musicals, stop being so Iowa Stubborn, and give this one a try! We promise you won’t be let down.
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- Hall S. Now Playing: the Patriotic Movie Musical, Starring the United States of America! Phi Kappa Phi Forum. 2009;89(2):25. Accessed April 19, 2021. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=44254051&site=ehost-live
- DVD commentary