A little more than sixty years ago, after many unsuccessful attempts to sell his pet idea as a television special, a former piccolo player in John Philip Sousa’s band who had moved on to a career as a musical director for the NBC radio network and as a successful Hollywood composer, scoring such movies as The Great Dictator, and The Little Foxes, premiered his most famous work on the Broadway stage. His play was enormously successful and won five Tony awards including that for Best Musical. The cast album won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and spent 245 weeks on the Billboard charts. In 1962, the Broadway play was transformed into one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time.
The man with the plan was Meredith Willson, and his magnum opus was that most American of American musicals, The Music Man.
Now, I freely admit my cultural identity gene is somewhat damaged, as I spent almost all of the first 10 years of my life in West Africa, where the only purveyor of popular culture was the BBC World Service on the radio, accompanied by whatever 33, 45, and 78 RPM records my parents either brought with them from the UK or scrounged up from the local Officers’ Club. Having started out that way, I never quite got back in sync with the rest of either my generation or the prevailing popular cultural dynamic, and I’m pretty sure my musical tastes are still somewhat out of round and quite eccentric.
But even I knew about The Music Man from a very early age. 76 Trombones? Goodnight, My Someone? Lord, my mother loathed them both. “All the songs sound the same,” she’d complain. Well, actually, Mum, no. Just those two. As Mark Steyn explains it in his wonderful tribute to the show,
“Goodnight, My Someone” is a dreamy, slowed-down three-quarter-time modification of “76 Trombones”. For a show that’s often dismissed as a hokey crowd-pleaser — especially alongside the 1957 season’s supposedly more demanding “West Side Story” — the music is very skilled, and has a real logic to it: Why are “Goodnight, My Someone” and “76 Trombones” essentially two takes on the same theme? Because their respective singers, Marian the Librarian and Professor Hill, have, as Willson put it, “something more in common than meets the eye” — even if it takes them a while to figure it out.
It’s a feature, Mum, not a bug.
And when my family at last settled down in the United States, I actually was a “by God stubborn” Iowa townsperson in the high school’s annual musical showpiece. So, I’ve always had a special fondness for both the play and the 1962 movie.
Fast forward from there about 50 years on, and I’m the proud granny of a four-year-old whose mother occasionally entertains her with screwball comedies from the golden era of Hollywood — ones like Bringing Up Baby and You Can’t Take It With You — but who, if she had her druthers, would rather watch what she calls “pretty dancing movies” than just about anything else. So, one weekend, we brought out one of the prettiest dancing movies of all and let it rip.
Which brings me to my point. Finally.
I was a bit dismayed when I started to read some blogs about, and reviews of, The Music Man before writing this post, because there are, it seems, some folks who think it sends a bad message –that a charming confidence man and trickster can waltz into town, win the minds and hearts of the people, lead them, like a sort of pied piper, down the primrose path and make off with the winsome bluestocking librarian.
Could it be, I started to wonder, that I’d got it all wrong? That the movie is a bad influence on impressionable minds? Like Cap’n Billy’s Whiz Bang? Or like Pool? “Trouble with a capital ‘T,’” maybe.
Fortunately for us all, though, I’m not the family expert on The Music Man. That distinction belongs to a young lady who’s twelve now and who has seen this movie, I should think, at least 40 times to this point. So, a few years ago, and a little worried that we’d ruined her for life by exposing her to such an insidious film, I asked her if she’d write a review and explain it to me. She obliged. Here it is:
I can still remember the first time I watched The Music Man. I was only four years old. It’s a love story, an adventure, and a musical all mixed into a movie. It will bring laughter and tears to people of all ages.
Imagine you’re a young boy who lives in River City, Iowa and the year is 1912. Then a mysterious salesman visits your town and promises to teach you to play in a band. After you sign up, you realize that you might not learn to play after all. Or maybe you will. The suspense will kill you the first time. But it will motivate you to watch it many, many times more.
It has something for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s one of my favorite movies. I bet you’ll love it too. That is, if you watch it.
Phew. She totally gets it. She’s not messed up at all. What a relief.
The quote of the day, “I always think there’s a band, kid,” occurs near the end of the movie. Harold Hill has been exposed as a fraud. He can’t read a note of music, he’s never delivered on the promise of a boys’ band anywhere he’s made it, he didn’t graduate from the “Gary Conservatory of Music Class of Aught Five,” and he’s never been faithful to a woman in his life. He’s on the cusp of losing everything, and being exposed as the fraud that he is.
And yet . . .
He makes his confession to Winthrop (a very young Ron Howard in the movie version):
The second thing Winthrop’s “entitled to know,” we discover, has to do with his older sister, Marian the Librarian. Gosh. Harold Hill, conman extraordinaire, for the first time in his life, has got his “foot stuck in the door.” He won’t run. He won’t hide. He won’t go. He’s in love.
Marian, who returns his feelings and then some, anticipates by several decades that saccharine saying that was so popular in the 1970s, the one that starts out “If you love something set it free” (I said my cultural identity gene was damaged, not nonexistent), and immediately tells Harold to get out of town before he’s tarred and feathered. But, again, for the first time in his life, he won’t. For the first time in his life, he’s going to stand and, literally, face the music, with Marian by his side. And, of course, he does. And, of course, for the first time in his life, there is music. “And wonderful roses. In sweet, fragrant meadows, of dawn and dew.” Etc. Awwww. Omnia vincit amor.
We can argue whether or not Harold Hill is a “good” man, if he’s really redeemed by love, or if he believes in the band only because it’s his hustler and swindler means to an end but, in many ways, isn’t belief in a band what keeps us going a lot of the time, even if we’re not confidence tricksters like “Professor” Hill? The belief that if we just have faith and keep trying, it will come out right? That if we think it, we can do it? That there is something magical, something good, perhaps just beyond our grasp, and that we all have it in ourselves to find it, seize it, and make it so, if only we try hard enough? I think so. Like other great forces in the world, such singleness of purpose can be turned to evil, but when it’s turned to good, wonderful things (like this country — which is why I think this is such an American story) can, and do, happen. That’s what I think.
But, just to be sure, I consulted the expert. What does, “I always think there’s a band, kid,” mean, I asked.
“It means that there’s music inside of all of us,” she said.
Bingo. That, too.