Mark Cabaniss’s Miracle of the Music Man does a fine job of stitching interviews and research into the story of Meredith Willson’s life and career on the Broadway stage. There is no doubt that Willson (with two L's) has become--America’s classic Music Man, but Cabaniss admits in the last pages of the book that his career “started at the top and went progressively downhill.” Unfortunately, this makes for a book that follows the same pattern.
The material on the making of the iconic musical is filled with drama and inside bits about the struggle to get the show mounted. Right off the bat we learn that one big turning point was when the title was changed from Music Man to The Music Man. We also learn a lot about Mason City, Iowa, Willson’s family and musical training, his radio career, his stint with the John Philip Sousa band, and finally about performing in the NBC orchestra of Arturo Toscanini.
Like most musicals, The Music Man went through years of re-writes and multiple producers before achieving even the status of a potential Broadway Show. Especially interesting to me was the evolution of the character of Winthrop from a character in a wheelchair to a boy with a lisp, and the story of how Robert Preston got the part of Harold Hill. Preston is quoted as saying until he got the part, he had been playing “the lead in all the B pictures and the villain in all the epics.” The story of how the barbershop quartette, The Buffalo Bills, got the job is another intriguing inside bit.
I must admit to never hearing or seeing the term “gypsy run-through” before. It is apparently the name given to the final run-through of a show in front of an invited audience before it goes on the road to try out before hopefully returning to New York and opening on Broadway. I also learned that composers have songs in what is called their “trunk.” They have been written and not used or have been discarded from a show and await repurposing. Willson admits taking two or three from the trunk to use in the score for The Music Man. Till There Was You” was from the trunk, as were many versions of what turned out that most compelling rhythmic talk song “Ya Got Trouble”.
As implied from my comment in the first paragraph, the reader in a hurry can probably stop two-thirds of the way through the book and not miss much other than the reasonably successful run of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the disappointing Here’s Love, and the failure of 1491, which closed before ever reaching Broadway. However, if you have a soft spot in your heart for River City, you can certainly take a quick dip into this readable biography of a man and a musical that continues to hold thousands of theatre goers in its grip through its professional revivals and amateur productions around the globe. Three and a half stars.