There’s something kinda sneaky going on in The Music Man.
After all, on one level it’s a celebration of early 20th-century small town life, a Victorian gingerbread world that seems to have been lifted directly from the Main Street U.S.A. portion of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
It’s a place where the menfolk form barbershop quartets and sing on the street corners, where the ladies all make pies from scratch, and where the young people haven’t a clue about sex.
Except that composer-playwright Meredith Willson tosses into this agrarian Eden another quintessentially American character: the charming con artist.
First he convinces the townsfolk that their children’s souls are at risk (“Trouble...trouble right here in River City!”) from such evils as smoking, drinking, and billiard playing. Then Hill proposes as an antidote the creation of a marching band to keep the potential miscreants out of trouble.
Hill is only too willing to collect the money with which to buy instruments and uniforms. His plan, naturally, is to get out of town with the cash before anyone gets the wiser.
Of course he hadn’t counted on falling for Marian the Librarian (Shirley Jones), just about the only person in town who can see through him.
The Music Man (it became known as “the 76 Trombones musical” ) wants it both ways...and gets them. Raised in Mason City, Iowa, Meredith Willson was no stranger to the ways of country towns, and in this musical he both celebrates and satirizes them.
The citizens of River City are solid, sincere, genuinely good folk. They’re also gullible fools.
Harold Hill is a criminal, but one so seductive that you almost don’t regret the time you spent being conned by him.
Has any other beloved show been so ambivalent about the nature of the American character? All under the guise of giving us an all-American musical?
Like I said: sneaky.
Some Music Man trivia:
- Music Man won the 1957 Tony Award for Best Musical, beating West Side Story. Discuss among yourselves.
- Willson wrote 42 songs for the production, but cut 22 of them before opening.
- The Broadway cast album remained in the No. 1 slot on the Billboard charts for 12 weeks and was named Best Original Cast Album at the first Grammy Awards ceremony in 1958.
- Warner Bros. bigwigs wanted Frank Sinatra to play Harold Hill in the movie. Willson told them: “No Robert Preston, no movie.”
- One of the songs from the show, “Till There Was You,” was covered by the Beatles on their 1963 LP Meet the Beatles! Paul McCartney contributed the vocal.
- Shirley Jones was pregnant during filming, which required the costumers to regularly adjust her dresses to cover the baby bump. During her first kissing scene with Preston, the baby kicked so hard that the actor jumped back in alarm. Years later the baby, Patrick Cassidy, was introduced to Preston, who said: “We’ve already met.”
- Morton DaCosta, a veteran stage director, made his film directing debut with The Music Man. He had also staged the Broadway show, thus ensuring that the film was an unusually faithful reproduction of the stage production. He made only two other movies, neither particularly successful. One was the musical Mame (1974) with Lucille Ball, the other Island of Love (1963), a gangster comedy set in Greece starring Preston, Tony Randall, and Walter Matthau.
- For the movie’s final parade scene, Warner Bros. chief Jack L. Warner employed the marching band of the University of Southern California. The Olds Instrument Company in Fullerton, California specially built all the musical instruments in the production. Afterwards they were refurbished and sold by Olds. Buyers had no idea they were getting instruments featured in a major movie.
- The Music Man was the first film to sell to television for more than $1 million.
Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- July 7: The Music Man (1962) Not Rated
- July 14: That Touch of Mink (1962) Not Rated
- July 21: Ride the High Country (1962) Not Rated
- July 28: Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.