Meredith Willson: And There I Stood With My Piccolo; But He Doesn't Know The Territory

University of Minnesota Press, 2010

3 February 2010 3.5 stars

And There I Stood with my PiccoloIn 1957, the curtain went up on two of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. But while Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story grew in popularity and importance as the years rolled by, Meredith Willson's The Music Man never again had quite the impact of its original run, which lasted 1375 performances, compared to West Side's 732 – and Willson beat Bernstein to the Best Musical award at the Tonys. The film version of The Music Man was a comparative flop, and it has never received a wholly successful revival on Broadway. And yet, its score is easily amongst the most imaginative ever to have appeared in the musical theatre (come to think of it, is there a more imaginative score?).

Willson (1902-84) was a fascinating figure. Born in parochial Mason City, Iowa, he grew to be one of the most recognisable figures in American music. He played in John Philip Sousa's legendary band; he played in the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini; he presented radio and television shows; and he wrote four Broadway musicals, the others being The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Here's Love and 1491 (which didn't even make it to Broadway). He knew everyone from Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra, and with his intelligent but accessible approach both to presenting and composing, he helped bridge the gap between popular and art music.

The two books under consideration here are inextricably linked by The Music Man. And There I Stood With My Piccolo (1948) was the inspiration for the show; But He Doesn't Know the Territory (1959) documents the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the piece. Both books have long been out of print, and were great collectors' items for many years, going for huge sums on eBay and Amazon. However, the University of Minnesota Press has had the good sense to reissue them, and they can now be had for very little money in attractive new editions.

I was surprised to discover that the earlier book is far more entertaining than the latter. To me, it seems much less self-consciously written, in the sense that Willson did not know in 1948 that the text was to be used for The Music Man, and all the stories that lie therein are cute simply for their own sake. The opening chapters describe Willson's childhood in Mason City, which later became the thinly veiled River City in Music Man, and recounts how the composer mixed a remarkably talent for music with charmingly rustic activities in his closed little hometown. He goes on to describe his arrival in New York, his eventual accession to the New York Phil and his activities during World War 2.

From the start, the anecdotes are irresistibly funny (and, I must confess, silly), and although it's not the most intellectually stimulating material, it's excellent bedtime reading for those of us with an interest in the subject. Even the title of the book derives from a joke: Willson was a piccolo player, and he recounts a story that ‘an old Moravian flute player' told him about a king who paid his musicians by sending them to his countinghouse to full their instruments with as many coins as they could manage. ‘And there I stood with my piccolo', said the piccolo player. Also typical of the book is the anecdote about a guy named Stansky who had a dream about being strapped into the electric chair, but was removed, still alive, for being a ‘non-conductor'.

In spite of all this frivolity, though, there are some serious anecdotes, for instance the one about the season when Toscanini failed to appear for all his concerts until the very last one, when he conducted the finest performance of Beethoven's Ninth that any of the musicians had ever witnessed. Willson's description of his activities during the war is also of great interest, even as a document of social history.

By comparison, But He Doesn't Know the Territory is still entertaining, but it's a little frustrating. The show starred two of the all-time Broadway greats, Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, yet they are scarcely mentioned. Willson's narrative is mostly taken up by descriptions of how he came to be asked to write the show and the various false-starts he had. All of that's very interesting, but what we really want to know is how he came to get it right in the end, and he's not nearly forthcoming enough on the subject of the final composition.

It's nice that Willson gives credit to Feuer and Martin for their role in the first years of the show's genesis – this pair was to have produced the show, but eventually gave up. The composer also gives interesting information about the planning of the show's structure, on a blackboard, going on to explain the extraordinary dramatic fluidity of the work. I was also glad to see a discussion of the evolution of numbers like ‘Trouble', which does not have a conventional rhyme scheme in spite of being noticeably structured.

Somehow, it's as if Willson held back on the more human stories connected with the show, though, perhaps because it was still very much running on Broadway. Nonetheless, it's great that these two books are back in print, and since the price is so small, they're well worth the investment.

By Dominic McHugh


The New Yorkers


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