Meredith Wilson tops my list of great American songwriters. In my mind, there’s a cage match raging between Meredith Wilson and Irving Berlin, but the Gershwin brothers are probably going to jump whoever wins in the parking lot.
Anyway, Meredith Wilson is one of my favorite purveyors of one of my favorite musical styles. Beyond Jazz, Rock, Bluegrass or Gospel (all great art forms which I love), the popular song stands as a definitive American craft. From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to the Billboard Hot 100, pop music is unique in its ability to create mood, tell a story and lift the spirit.
Few have done it as well as Meredith Wilson; few have ever understood the art of popular music as well as he did.
Wilson’s career spanned decades and traversed the American musical landscape. He was a member of John Phillip Sousa’s band, band leader for the George Burns and Gracie Allen program and, of course, a songwriter and composer of pop songs, classical orchestral works and even hymns.
But the crowning achievement of this distinguished career has to be “The Music Man.” Wilson wrote the script and the music for this classic musical; and he composed something like forty original songs for the show, many of which are now considered classics of the genre.
Gems like “’Til There Was You” and “Goodnight My Someone” serve as a sweet compliment to the boisterous “76 Trombones” and the pulsing “Madam Librarian.” Beneath it all, there’s a gentle longing and a lighthearted prodding — the tension between a beloved world that has passed into history and a new age that brings new challenges, but also the opportunity for new greatness.
Many have pointed out that “The Music Man’s” gently drawn portrait of life in early 20th century rural Iowa is a paean to that simpler time and place. It’s also a reminder that change is constant and unavoidable. Life happens, plans change; there’s no escaping progress, no matter how much one might want to hold on to the past.
Wilson’s brilliantly plotted story brings these ideas into the forefront in a variety of ways that are at once highly entertaining and organic to the plot.
The play opens with a train full of traveling salesmen discussing the changing times. Credit has become a more popular way to pay for the wares they peddle from town to town, and the salesmen prefer “cash on the barrel head.” The discussion morphs into a chant in time to the movement of the train. The men lament the changing terms of sale, new-fangled packaging and the obsolescence of many of their products. They fear they may become obsolete as well.
In the small Iowa town of River City, where the majority of the play takes place, change is coming as well, and Wilson’s script signals it with a humorous bit that repeats throughout the story. The be-monocled Mayor Shinn has a tradition of reciting the Gettysburg Address at the town’s annual 4th of July exercises. But this year, every time he attempts his presentation, some catastrophe prevents him from sputter out anything more than “Four score …”
The hero of the piece, Professor Harold Hill, uses change as a tool of his trade, as he attempts to swindle the townspeople into supporting his River City Boys Band. The newly installed pool table becomes a panic button for the people of River City. They’ve got “Trouble” with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for “Pool.”
At a more intimate level, “The Music Man” is a love story. More than that, it’s a redemption tale.
Harold Hill is a man whose life has been without purpose. Marian Peroo, the River City librarian (Hill’s love interest in the play), is a woman whose life has never quite taken off. When they meet, it’s obvious they need each other to be whole.
In their love story, Harold Hill is the white knight that wakes Marian from her daze, and she is the agent of Harold’s salvation. “There were bells on the hill,” they sing to each other, “but I never heard them ringing, ’til there was you.”
As Harold Hill’s swindle unravels around him, he can’t bring himself to run, as he always had before. And in that moment of decision we get our most direct look at this man as he really is. He’s confronted by Marian’s kid brother Winthrop, and his only defense is “I always think there’s a band, kid.” Harold’s lies are as much to himself as to anyone else.
What we see, as we look at the lives of these characters, is that they desperately need change, no matter how they might resist it. There is trouble in River City, and in the hearts of each of us; we don’t want to see our own brokenness, but we have to face it to be made whole. In the changing world, we’re forced to come to terms with who we are, and to adapt, to heal, to love and to be made whole.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend, Maryville, Tennessee.