Trouble, oh we got trouble, Right here in River City! With a capital “T” That rhymes with “P” And that stands for Pool, That stands for pool. We’ve surely got trouble! Right here in River City, Right here!
There is little evidence that American composer, musician and playwright, Meredith Willson encountered much trouble in his impressive career, which included writing the book and libretto for the beloved American classic The Music Man! He drew inspiration for the musical from his upbringing in Mason City, Iowa, where he was born in 1902. As a child he learned to play the flute and while still in high school began playing professionally. The Music Man was the first musical he ever wrote and it went on to win 8 Tony Awards in 1957, followed by a very popular film version starring Robert Preston (reprising his Broadway role), Shirley Jones, Buddy Hacket and a very young Ron Howard.
Meredith Willson left Iowa at age 17 to study music at the Julliard School in New York City. While there he was hired as principal flutist and piccolo player for the John Philip Sousa Band and then the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. By age 27 he was conducting and composing his own works. Willson later moved to radio working as musical director at NBC, first in San Francisco and then Hollywood as a musical director and conductor for popular radio programs such as Maxwell House Coffee Time (1940-49) and Tallulah Bankhead’s (an Ogunquit Playhouse alum) The Big Show (1950-1953). During this time he wrote the theme song for Maxwell House Coffee Time (“You and I”) which became a number one hit, as well as “May the Good Lord Bless You and Keep You.” During World War II he was the Musical Director for the Armed Forces Radio Service and in 1951 he wrote the song, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” made famous by Perry Como.
Meredith Willson had begun developing the theme for The Music Man in his 1948 memoir, And There I Stood With My Piccolo. After several unsuccessful attempts at getting it produced, Willson invited Franklin Lacey to help him edit and simplify the libretto. The Music Man opened on Broadway on December 19, 1957 and ran for 1,375 sensational performances. In addition to its 8 Tony wins, with Willson winning for Best Musical Author and Best Composer and Lyricist, the cast album won the very first Grammy Award ever presented for Best Original Cast Album. Of the award winning songs many have long become American standards: “76 Trombones,” “Trouble” and “Till there Was You,” the latter of which was performed by the Beatles on their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. It was a favorite of Paul McCartney’s and is the only Broadway show tune the “Fab Four” ever recorded. Today Sir Paul McCartney holds the rights to Willson’s song catalog.
Meredith Willson’s impressive resume also included writing The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which opened on Broadway in 1960 and Here’s Love (a musical adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street) which opened on Broadway in 1963. In addition to his memoir that inspired the Music Man, Willson published a second autobiography, Eggs I Have Laid and a memoir about the making of The Music Man titled, But He Doesn’t Know the Territory. He died in Santa Monica on June 12, 1984 at the age of 82 and was buried in his hometown of Mason City, Iowa where a museum and entertainment complex dedicated to Willson now stands. In 1987 he was presented posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. Two revivals of The Music Man ran on Broadway, one in 1980 starring Dick Van Dyke and Meg Bussert, who graced our stage last year as Mother Abess in the Sound of Music, and the other in 2000 with Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker.
The Ogunquit Playhouse production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man will feature James Fouchard’s lovely sets and William Ivey Long’s costumes from the 2000 revival, with the brilliant comedic actor Peter Scolari as Harold Hill together with an all star cast, 2 groups of 30 children handpicked from local casting calls and under the direction of Ray Roderick who helmed the National Tour of The Music Man for three years and with choreography by the fabulous song and dance man, Jeffry Denman. Right here! Right here on the Ogunquit Playhouse stage! Enjoy!