Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Music Man (the movie, not the play)

Among my all time, favourite movie musicals is The Music Man, based on the hit Broadway play and released in 1962. There are so many reasons I love the film. It has great performances, led by Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. It has great songs, all written by Meredith Wilson. It has excellent direction, courtesy of Morton DaCosta (who also directed the stage production). It is one of those few movies which I can say is nearly perfect. But the primary reason I love The Music Man is its plot. The Music Man is not so much about a con man seducing a small Iowa town in 1912 as it is a small Iowa town seducing him, with some help from the beautiful Marian the Librarian, of course.

The Music Man was the brainchild of Meredith Willson. Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa in 1902. From 1921 to 1923 he played the piccolo for John Philip Sousa's band. From 1924 to 1929 he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He later became concert director for San Francisco radio station KFRC and still later music director for NBC. In 1929 he scored his first film, Chaplin's The Lost Zeppelin. He later scored The Great Dictator and Little Foxes. As the band leader on The Burns and Allen Show, he was a regular part of the cast

The genesis of The Music Man goes back to 1949 when Meredith Willson was telling a group of friends about his youth in Iowa and his experiences with John Philip Sousa. It was songwriter Frank Loesser who suggested that Willlson's tales of his Iowa childhood could be the basis for a stage production. Meredith Wilson was inspired and, even though he had never written a musical, he set to work on turning his childhood reminisces into a Broadway show. Indeed,  a version of "Till There Was You" existed as early as 1950. Willson recorded that year with singer Eileen Wilson under the title "Till I Met You" with only slightly different lyrics.

It was in 1951 that Broadway producers  Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin optioned Meredith Willson's musical, then called The Silver Triangle. Even at this early period the plot of the musical had been established as that of a grifter conning a small Iowa town to buy musical instruments which did not exist and the piano teacher who could well put a stop to his scheme. That having been said, other particulars of the plot had yet to be ironed out, and it would be this fact which would cause Feuer and Martin to drop Meredith Willson and The Silver Triangle. As they dropped Willson and his musical, however, they would do him the favour of giving him a new title: The Music Man. Feuer told Willson, "I always thought that The Silver Triangle sounded like something Ibsen had written."

Even though he continued work on his musical, newly renamed The Music Man, Willson had difficulty in finding new producers for the show. One obstacle was the fact that Meredith Willson, for all his experience as a composer, arranger, and band  leader, had never written a Broadway musical. Another obstacle was the very nature of The Music Man. It was in 1954 that musicals such as The Pyjama Game and Fanny were major hits on Broadway. The trend on Broadway seemed to be towards slightly risqué material. By contrast, The Music Man was a warm hearted, sweet natured love story set in middle America in the 1910's. Most producers simply were not interested in sweet stories about the American Midwest.

Fortunately, Meredith Willson finally found a producer who was sympathetic to his musical about a small town in Iowa in 1912. Kermit Bloomgarden had produced several successful, but very serious dramas, including Death of a Salesman, The Children's Hour, and The Diary of Anne Frank, but he saw promise in Willson's musical comedy about a con man conning a small Iowa town. It was Bloomgarden who hired director Morton Da Costa, fresh from the hits No Time for Sergeants and Auntie Mame, to direct the musical. Onna White, who had choreographed both Guys and Dolls and Silk Stockings, was hired as the play's choreographer.

As hard as it is to believe now, Robert Preston was not the first choice to play con man Harold Hill. In fact, he was not even the second choice. Meredith Willson had his friend band leader, singer, and actor Phil Harris (best known for his work on The Jack Benny Programme) in mind for the part. Harris ultimately decided against taking the part. Danny Kaye was then offered the part of Harold Hill, but he turned it down as he could not see himself a in the role. The part of Harold Hill was then offered to Ray Bolger, Gene Kelly, and Dan Dailey, but all of them turned the role down. The production team found their Harold Hill in the form of an actor who had played the second in many films: Robert Preston. By the Fifties Preston had turned to the stage and had starred in several comedies on the Broadway stage by the time he received the role of Harold Hill. The Music Man would be the first musical in which Robert Preston ever appeared. What is even more amazing is that he had never even sung one note before taking the role of Harold Hill!

After 32 draughts, at least two different titles, and eight years, The Music Man finally debuted on December 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. The Music Man proved to be the smash hit on Broadway of 1957, and against such impressive competition as West Side Story. It garnered sterling reviews from The New York Times, The New York Herald-Tribune, The New York World-Telegram and Sun, and The New York Journal-American. It would take home five Tony Awards in 1958, including the awards for Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Robert Preston), and Best Direction (Morton Da Costa). Ultimately, The Music Man would run 1357 performances, until April 15, 1961.

The enormous success of The Music Man naturally meant that Hollywood would want to adapt the play into a film. In fact, both Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby respectively  tried to buy the movie rights to the musical, with an eye on themselves playing Harold Hill. Meredith Willson refused to sell the rights to either of them. Meredith Willson eventually sold the rights to Warner Brothers. In a move that was very rare when adapting Broadway musicals into movies, Morton Da Costa was hired as the film's director. Unfortunately, the fact that The Music Man was a smash hit on Broadway was not enough. He wanted to insure box office success by casting Cary Grant as Harold Hill. Fortunately, Grant turned Warner down, stating emphatically,  "Not only will I not play it, but if Robert Preston doesn't do it, I won't even see the picture" according to legend. Even then, Meredith Willson and Morton Da Costa had to beg Warner Brothers to cast Robert Preston in the film version of The Music Man.

With Robert Preston reprising his role as Harold Hill, Warner Brothers went ahead and retained other members of the Broadway cast in the movie: Pert Kelton as Marian's mother, Paul Ford as Mayor George Shinn (which he had taken over from David Burns),  and the Buffalo Bills (the barbershop quartet in River City, Iowa). Shirley Jones, who had appeared in the film versions of both Oklahoma and Carousel, was cast as Marian the Librarian. Ron Howard, then playing Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, was cast as her stuttering younger brother. Comedian Buddy Hackett was cast as Hill's associate, Marcellus Washburn.

Perhaps because Morton Da Costa directed both the Broadway play and the film, the movie remained very loyal to the stage musical. In fact, every single song from the Broadway play was retained except for "My White Knight," which was replaced by the new song "Being in Love." The reason for this is unclear. At the time it was claimed that the new song was written to more suit Jones' range. According to an possibly apocryphal story, the actual reason was that "My White Knight" had been written by Frank Loesser (the one song not written by Meredith Willson) and he refused to sell the rights to Warner Brothers.

The movie would not be filmed with at least one complication. Shirley Jones learned she was pregnant only after the movie had started shooting. She worried that she might start showing as the shoot continued. Her worries were abated by Morton Da Costa, who assured her that her pregnancy could be hidden by costumes and, if necessary, by camera angles. In fact, during the shooting only one member of the cast realised Shirley Jones was pregnant. It was during the romantic sequence on the footbridge when Harold Hill kisses Marian that Robert Preston realised Jones was pregnant. Jones' son Patrick actually kicked hard enough that even Preston could feel it!

Of course, The Music Man would ultimately require musical instruments, which were made by the Olds Instrument Company. For the climax, both the marching bands of the University of California and the University of Southern California were hired, as well as local junior high students from southern California. The climax ultimately took eight hours worth of shooting over two days to complete.

Fittingly, The Music Man would have its world premiere in Mason City, Iowa (Willson's hometown and the city upon which the fictional River City was based). It would also repeat on the silver screen the success it had seen on Broadway. The Music Man received shining reviews over all, from Bosley Crowther at The New York Times, form The Chicago Tribune, from Variety, and many other newspapers and magazines (only Time magazine gave the move a bad review, and it is noticeable that its critic did not even sign his name to the review....). Audiences loved The Music Man as well. It was the fourth highest grossing movie of 1962, raking in $8,100,000 at the box office. The Music Man also did well at the Oscars, picking up six nominations, including Best Picture. It would only win one, however, for Best Musical Score (adaptation or treatment).

For myself it is easy to see why The Music Man was a hit both on Broadway and on the big screen. As I pointed out earlier, it is not simply about Harold Hill conning the residents of River City into buying instruments that do not exist. Instead it is actually about how Harold Hill, a grifter has gone from town to town conning folks out of money, suddenly found himself seduced instead by River City, particularly Marian the Librarian. It is the budding romance between Harold Hill and Marian that lies at the heart of the most central conflicts in The Music Man. Harold Hill finds himself torn between taking River City's money and running, as he has done so many times before, and remaining to start a new life with Marian. Marian finds herself torn between revealing Harold Hill as the fraud he is and falling desperately in love with him. These conflicts are only strengthened by the book written by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey for the musical, with its sincere dialogue, and the performances of Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. In the end it makes The Music Man, a musical comedy, much more romantic than many so called dramas that are called "romances." Indeed, I honestly think that when it comes to both stage musicals and movies, The Music Man is one of the all time, great romances.

Of course, another reason I love The Music Man is that it seems true to the spirit of Iowa, particularly as it must have been in 1912. This should come as no surprise, as the fictional River City is based on Meredith Wilson's hometown of Mason City. Indeed, the River City residents capture the rather strange and charming combination of stubbornness and friendliness I have found in most Iowans I have known. There are also a number of period references which make the viewer feel as if he or she actually is in the year 1912, from Dan Patch (the famous racehorse) to Sen-Sen (a breath freshener poplar in the early 20th Century) to Strangler Lewis (a popular wrestler of the time). A few anachronisms did creep into the musical. Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, referenced in the song "Trouble," would not be published until 1919 (it was sort of the Twenties version of The National Lampoon or Mad, and the first magazine published by Fawcett Publications). Bevo, the non-alcoholic "near beer" manufactured by Anheuser-Busch, also referenced in "Trouble," would not be first produced until 1916. Still, these anachronisms do not distract from the movie at all, so well did Meredith Willson capture the spirit of Iowa in 1912.

The Music Man has seen two revivals on Broadway since its first run (one in 1980 and one in 2000), as well as a 2003 television adaptation. While I had no opportunity to see either revival on Broadway and I did enjoy the 2000 television adaptation, for me it will always be Robert Preston I picture as Professor Harold Hill and Shirley Jones as Marian the Librarian. There had already been many Broadway musicals that had made their way onto film before The Music Man and there have been many since, but to me it will always remain one of the best film adaptations of a Broadway musical that was ever made, if not the best. It certainly has few equals.

1 comment:

Roger Wilco said...

Thanks for your excellent review of The Music Man! I'm no Meredith Willson as far as musical background, but I have come up with a musical. And it will also be an Act of God for me, which Willson had going for him to make this lovely musical happen.