Commentary Magazine


More than The Music Man

To the Editor:

While Terry Teachout is certainly correct in celebrating the unique qualities of Meredith Willson’s creative one-man Broadway musical miracle, The Music Man [“The Man Behind The Music Man,” April], a few additional aspects of Willson’s musical versatility need to be mentioned.

Willson was conservatory-trained (he studied both composition and conducting at the Damrosch Institute). During the 1930s—before his move to more popular forms—he produced two fairly impressive symphonies, premiered respectively by the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, the second under the legendary Albert Coates. Both of these are substantial four-movement works couched in the then current American pictorialist idiom, the first in observation of the 30th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and the second inspired by the missions of California. Both are still available on a Naxos CD in the label’s American Classics series.

During the 1940s, in addition to composing some lovely pop tunes such as “Two in Love” and “You and I,” Willson was affiliated with the American Decca label as a music director and as a prominent exponent of light instrumental music. Among his albums are “Chiffon Swing” and “Encore,” which included several delightful examples of his melodic felicity. He also commissioned and conducted an entire program, issued first on 78s and later on LP, entitled “Modern American Music” and containing 12 excellent original concert pieces in full orchestral guise from a variety of notable lighter composers. I suspect Willson had a hand in orchestrating all or most of them. This classic album is long overdue for a reissue on CD.

Willson was indeed a talented and many-faceted product of a now mostly forgotten era of musical Americana that flourished during the middle years of the last century.

Paul A. Snook
Jersey City, New Jersey

To the Editor:

Terry Teachout is one of my favorite critics, and Meredith Willson is one of the musical figures I most admire. The latter, like his creation Professor Harold Hill, could also be a bit of a con man, but in an admirable sort of way. His hometown of Mason City, Iowa, was more of a modern industrial city than the kind of sleepy agricultural village he reconstructed it as—referring to it as “River City”—in his hugely successful Broadway musical, The Music Man. By 1912, the year in which the play was set (Willson was 10 years old at the time), Mason City, with 11,230 residents, ranked as the 15th-largest population center in the Iowa, its trade area extending 40 to 60 miles in every direction. Its growth to 17,152 by 1915 made this the five-year period of the most rapid expansion in the town’s history. Between 1908 and 1910, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a private home, bank, and hotel for the community. 

During the decade after 1910, Mason City became a crossroads for two major highways—the Atlantic-Yellowstone-Pacific Highway and the Jefferson Highway, which connected New Orleans and Winnipeg. About $8 million in capital investment between 1910 and 1915 made the town a center for the production of Portland cement and the largest manufacturer of clay drain tiles in the world. It was also a major meat packer, a processor of sugar beets and other agricultural products, and, with a $1 million factory built in 1910, a manufacturer of automobiles for several years. The fictional River City thus served as a wonderful bouquet to Meredith Willson’s idealized, nostalgic recollections of his years growing up in Mason City, but the musical’s depiction of the town was hardly the kind of “barely fictionalized portrait of Mason City” that Teachout describes.

John E. Miller
South Dakota State University

To the Editor:

Terry Teachout’s article about Meredith Willson was delightful. I enjoyed finding out about this fine artist, songwriter, and playwright, but one little piece of his amazing creative career was missed.

After having served in the military in World War II, he returned to network radio and created one of the most memorable components of his show, “The Talking People.” In it, Betty Allen, Maxwell Smith, Norma Zimmer, John Rarig, and Bob Hanlan would sing the program’s Jell-O advertisements in a way meant to evoke the jiggling motion the food makes when in motion. I have a hunch, too, that the “Talking People” played a part in the scene in The Music Man among the townspeople when they sang “You can talk, talk, talk, you can bicker, bicker, bicker.”

Thanks so much for an informative, fun read.

Reta Tallman
Reno, Nevada




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