By Peter Royston
(Center Stage Magazine, Winter/Spring 2002)

When asked about how he created The Music Man, Meredith Willson would always speak of his hometown: "I didn't have to make up anything. I simply remembered Mason City as closely as I could." He told the Los Angeles Times, "I can remember waking up Sunday mornings and hearing my mother play hymns downstairs on the piano, and after I got out of bed, I would hear the noise of her scraping the burning toast in the kitchen." Years later, writing the musical that would become his best-loved work, creating River City and that rascal Harold Hill, he would draw on these memories and the power of music he had learned as a boy.

Born in 1902, Willson's early life in Mason City, Iowa was full of music. His mother, Rosalie, was a music teacher and gave lessons to hundreds of Mason City's sons and daughters, including her own. Every day, he and the daughter of the local barber would play piano and flute duets during the lunch hour at the Mason City Cafeteria, splitting the $1.50 salary. Although he mastered many instruments, the flute was always Willson's weapon of choice; he later titled his autobiography "And There I Stood With My Piccolo."

As much as he loved Mason City, Willson's talent and ambition pushed him out of his Midwestern nest. At 17, he moved to New York City where he studied at the Institute of Musical Art. After graduation, his love and mastery of every musical style was evident: from 1921 to 1923 he played flute in John Phillip Sousa's famous band and from 1924 to 1929 he played under Arturo Toscanini in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

During the 1930s, he was a musical director on many national radio shows including Tallulah Bankhead's program, "The Big Show." He wrote many memorable standards, such as "It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas," "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" and "'Till There Was You," which became a big hit for the Beatles in 1963.

In 1949, many people, including the songwriter Frank Loesser, suggested that Willson write a musical about his early life in Iowa. So using his memories of Mason City, Willson created The Music Man.  Each character in The Music Man's River City is based on someone he knew from Mason City. Marian Paroo, the famous librarian from the song "Marian the Librarian" and the show's female lead, is based on Willson's mother, complete with her music lessons and love of knowledge and culture. Marian's mother in the show is based on a German woman who would come to clean the Willson's house every Saturday, and the boy Winthrop who solves his lisp problems with the song "Gary, Indiana" is Willson himself as a ten year old.  And the lovable con man, "Professor" Harold Hill? Before the opening of The Music Man in 1957, Willson wrote in The New York Herald,  "Harold so many people that I remember different ones every time I see the show."

But beyond the characters, Willson uses The Music Man to poke affectionate fun at the unyielding Iowa bull-headedness that melts when Harold Hill comes to town. Like a reverse Pied Piper, Hill gives the adults of River City back their childhood by introducing them to music and dance: bickering men become the best of friends when formed into a barbershop quartet; a boy too shy to speak breaks out of his shell when Hill teaches him a song. Willson's breathless and full-of-life music creates a joyous parade of everyday life.

Willson wrote two more Broadway musicals after The Music Man (The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here's Love) but he will always be best known for the musical recreation of his boyhood. The Music Man is, in the words of Jay Nordlinger writing in the National Review, "totally, almost lustily" American. A love of free spirits and stubborn independence runs through the show like a river. The Music Man recreates an innocent time before the conflicts that dominated the 20th century, but Willson never sugarcoats his memories. "The attributes and the ideas in The Music Man are exactly as I remember them from my childhood," he said, "And if it had been overly romanticized, if there were notes in it not in keeping with the times and the place, I don't think people would have responded so warmly to it. The innocent Iowa of 1912 is part of our heritage."

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