March 16, 2018


The Man Behind The Music Man: Who Was Meredith Willson? (TERRY TEACHOUT / APR. 1, 2012, Commentary)

One of a bare handful of hit Broadway musicals to have been written in its entirety by a single person, The Music Man opened to rave reviews in 1957, beat out West Side Story at the Tony Awards, and ran for 1,375 performances. Then it was turned into one of the most popular Hollywood musicals ever filmed. The story of a smooth-talking con man who breezes into a hick town to swindle its residents and ends up losing his heart to the local librarian was successfully revived on Broadway in 2000, filmed a second time for TV in 2003, and continues to be performed regularly by regional and amateur theater companies throughout America.

Why, then, is Meredith Willson--the author of its libretto and music and lyrics--so completely forgotten? Because nothing he did before or after The Music Man was of lasting interest. Willson (surely one of the last males in America to carry the first name of Meredith) was 55 years old when The Music Man premiered, and the two musicals that followed it, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960) and Here's Love (1962), were successful in their day but have since failed to hold the stage. (The peculiarly unmusical movie version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with Debbie Reynolds as a brassy survivor of the Titanic, was a big hit, but it dispensed with most of the score, featuring only six of Willson's songs.) Willson also wrote the music for one film of note, William Wyler's 1941 adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, but his score was undistinguished. Only one of his non-theatrical songs, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," continues to be sung, and except for the ubiquitous "Seventy-Six Trombones," none of the numbers from The Music Man quite established itself as a standard (although "Till There Was You" came close).

Willson was, in other words, a one-hit wonder, and the immense and enduring popularity of his hit, coupled with the fact that he was by all accounts exceedingly likable and seems to have led a blameless private life, has had the unexpected effect of blotting out any lasting memories of the man who wrote it.

Posted by at March 16, 2018 4:21 AM