The music people

Knowing how much I love musicals, Darcy Danielson kindly gave me a copy of the book "But He Doesn't Know the Territory" by Meredith Willson. Published in 1959, it is Willson's story of how he came to write "The Music Man."

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has mounted a stunning and faithful production of Willson's magnum opus this season. Danielson is assistant music director for the show in addition to conducting the orchestra and playing the piano.

The book starts in 1951 when the idea to write a musical first was suggested to Willson by two of Broadway's most successful producers at the time, Ernie Martin and Cy Feuer. The last page of the book brings us to Dec. 19, 1957, the night "The Music Man" opened on Broadway with Robert Preston as Harold Hill.

In between, the 190 pages tell the long, grueling, joyous, "rolly coaster" ride that the journey entailed. We are rarely privy to such inside details — and Willson shares many of them in his delightful matter-of-fact, down-home, Iowa-sensible way.

In the process we come to know "The Music Man" as a giant labor of love, a vision that kept Willson and his wife, Rini, in its thrall for six hard-working years before hitting Broadway for a run of 1,375 performances and five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, beating "West Side Story."

Seen from the daily experience of its expectant parents, godparents and midwives, the conception and birthing of an artistic creation is a wonder to behold. And it is as much about faith in people and an idea as it is about music and business.

Willson himself was a man of music. He played the piccolo and the flute in John Philip Sousa's band, went to what would become Juilliard, played in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini and won Academy Award nominations for the music he scored for Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940) and William Wyler's "The Little Foxes" (1941). He wrote the songs "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" and "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and a few symphonies.

He loved music. He loved words. And he loved people.

In the book we are there when Willson happily announces that he is working on a musical titled "The Silver Triangle." And we are there when Cy Feuer decides to re-name this gestating child "The Music Man."

We are there when Willson finally is able to realize his vision of songs with no rhyme, melody or orchestration, just rhythm and the cadence of carefully crafted dialogue intoned by the human voice: "Rock Island" and "Trouble."

And we are there with Willson on the Saturday of the final week of performances in Philadelphia before opening in New York when Robert Preston loses his voice. The understudy, Larry Douglas, would have to go on. He prepared all afternoon and was still rehearsing when the overture began.

"Well, Larry went on. That night we had the great privilege of seeing the heart of Show Business and the pulsebeat that makes it life and death to those smitten with it — not the explanation as to why they go through what they go through to get to be part of it — I don't know any explanation for that — but the amazing raw revealment of what a real pro can do on a stage when he has to, and the strength that rises up in his fellow performers to carry him through. Every member of the company followed Larry's lines and lyrics along to himself in every scene, at the risk of going up, just to be ready to throw a word or cue. There were prompters in every portal — not only the stage managers but the light men, the stagehands and carpenters. The children were there, too, helping the prop men with Larry's props — the wig handlers and wardrobe ladies were up from the basement helping the dresser with his changes — no one getting in any one's way, a feat in itself, a big, loving, zealous human machine taking care of one of its own, and when Larry came out for the final '76 Trombones' march-on, the house exploded."

More than offering us a glimpse "behind the scenes," Willson treats us to a guided tour of creative process by someone who does this for a living but still finds it full of wonder. Contrary to the title of his own book, Willson definitely knows the territory.

I look forward to reading similar accounts in Richard Rodger's autobiography, "Musical Stages," Oscar Hammerstein II's book "Lyrics," and Alan Jay Lerner's "The Street Where I Live." And "Kander and Ebb" by James Leve that just came out.

Meanwhile among the books I have read that explore the history of musical theater, writing lyrics, composing songs and producing musicals is "Making Musicals," by Tom Jones, who wrote the lyrics for "The Fantasticks."

Jones offers the kinds of candid insights found on the pages of Willson's book and goes into great detail about how to write a musical. He closes his book with the advice he received back in the 1950s from his mentor, the distinguished director and teacher B. Iden Payne.

"He was saying that if you want something enough, if you believe in it enough, if you dare enough, people will respond and they will help you. He was saying that faith has enormous power; that it can, in fact, move mountains." Or get a musical about a small Iowa town onto the Broadway stage after six years and onto the stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 52 years later.

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