Recently, I was astonished to read that Broadway will soon host a third revival of my favorite musical, “The Music Man.” I can’t wait!
Since I became aware of Meredith Willson’s masterpiece more than six decades ago, it has enchanted me. (Yet I readily concede that such contemporaneous shows as “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story” have greater artistic merit.)
In 1958, while on a business trip to New York City, my father obtained a cast recording of “The Music Man.” He knew that it would be just right for my twin brother and me, since we enjoyed our music lessons.
Theo began with clarinet and would graduate to oboe; I tried flute, but wanted something louder and flashier, so switched to alto saxophone. Both of us were quite proud to play in our elementary school orchestra.
A major turning point for us occurred in seventh grade, when we entered Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High. We could play in its band, which featured stentorian brass and percussion sections! Although we marched on only a few occasions, we wore blue-and-white uniforms with shiny gold epaulets.
In about 1961, when the movie version of “The Music Man” was going to be filmed at Warner Brothers, Emerson’s most talented musicians were invited to audition for the final scene, when Robert Preston leads 1,000 kids marching down Main Street.
Both Theo and I were crushed not to receive an invitation. When the movie reached theaters, we did spot a few of our close friends in it, but union rules had prevented the amateurs from being heard. So much for all their talent!
I fell in love with “The Music Man” movie for many reasons. In addition to Preston’s dazzling performance, I relished such characters as Mayor Shinn, his wife Eulalie, and Winthrop Paroo, who were played by Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold and Ronnie Howard. The beguiling Shirley Jones, who replaced Barbara Cook from the Broadway version, was surely another reason. I would in fact meet her when she dated my Uncle Marvin. How could she have married another Jewish eccentric, Marty Ingels?
My father’s law firm specialized in entertainment, and many years after the movie’s release, he invited me to tag along when he visited a client, Meredith Willson – author, composer and lyricist of “The Music Man.”
I tried to shower Willson with praise, but he wouldn’t accept it. He said, essentially, “Oh, that’s nice, kid, but that was a long time ago.” And finally, he murmured, “Please don’t bother me.” I felt crushed.
Still later, when I was invited to interview for a position at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, I still fondly remembered “The Music Man.” Yet Iowa City in the dead of winter reminded me nothing of River City, Iowa, in the story. Would I have any Jewish colleagues or close friends here? How would I find my Marion?
Fortunately, in 1983, Betsey granted my request to have the song “Till There Was You” played at the first dance at our wedding.
Two years later, when preparing to move from our home in Los Angeles to accept new positions in St. Paul, Minnesota, I suggested that we stop in Mason City, Iowa. This was Willson’s childhood home, his fabled River City.
Betsey wasn’t exactly thrilled, but I insisted, so we made a detour from Interstate 35 to search for such landmarks as the train station, the library, the Town Hall and the wooden bridge in a park. As we drove around this gloomy backwater, however, we couldn’t find anything resembling these charming edifices.
Before returning to the interstate, we stopped for lunch at a somewhat attractive restaurant. After our meal, I asked the hostess, “Doesn’t anybody around here care about Willson’s golden musical?” She replied, “Please, I’m the music teacher at the high school, and if I have to do that f--- show one more time, I’m going to blow my brains out!”
While growing up in Providence, our kids, Molly and Michael, listened to cassettes and watched videos of legendary Broadway musicals. Even before learning to ride bicycles, Betsey and I took them to a community theater production of “The Music Man” near Boston.
Around the time they were 6 and 4, when we were visiting my family in Los Angeles, I spotted Buddy Hackett and Louie Nye, two Jewish comics, who were eating lunch in the same restaurant where we were dining. After reminding the kids that Hackett had played Marcellus Washington in the movie version of “The Music Man,” I asked, “Why don’t we go over to tell Mr. Hackett how much we enjoyed his performance?” So I led Molly and Michael by their little hands over to the celebrities’ table.
After we apologized for interrupting, and expressed our admiration, Hackett said, “You don’t take your kids to the movies very often, do you?” I said, “Yes, of course I do.” He countered, “Then you should know that I was the voice of Scuttle in ‘The Little Mermaid.’ ”
Though I enjoyed Oskar Eustis’ revival of “The Music Man” at Trinity Rep, in Providence, in 1998, I know that some shows cannot survive the era in which they were created. For example, when Betsey and I took the kids to a pathetic revival of “Hair” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, we left at intermission.
So what is it about “The Music Man” that I can’t abandon? Am I still a boy who craves a bright uniform and a sense of belonging? Or townsfolk who are more gullible than mean-spirited? Or, am I simply a sucker for happy, harmless endings?
One may further ask, “How does my love for ‘The Music Man’ square with my commitment to Jewish values?” I could point out that the show’s original producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, was a Jew (who had previously produced “The Death of a Salesman” and “The Diary of Anne Frank”). Or I could explain that the American musical, as a business enterprise and an artistic venture, owes so much to countless Jewish producers and Jewish audiences.
But isn’t a wonderful story, delightfully told, good enough? Dayenu!
GEORGE M. GOODWIN is in his 16th year of editing Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.