STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: But He Did Know the Territory? Willson & The Music Man

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: But He Did Know the Territory? Willson & The Music Man Aren't you glad the Dodgers have announced a new production of The Music Man for next season? Susan Stroman will, I'm sure, do a good job with this classic that beat West Side Story in the 1957-58 Tony race for Best Musical.

Aren't you glad the Dodgers have announced a new production of The Music Man for next season? Susan Stroman will, I'm sure, do a good job with this classic that beat West Side Story in the 1957-58 Tony race for Best Musical.

Still surprised all these years later? Nevertheless, give bookwriter- composer-lyricist Meredith Willson his due. Sure, at first glance The Music Man may seem like just another '50s commercial musical. A con man (Harold Hill) turns respectable once he meets a prim librarian (Marian Paroo) and her adorable little brother (Winthrop). Yet if you read "But He Doesn't Know the Territory," Willson's 1958 memoir, you'll find he did aim to make the show much more than that.

In 1951, when Willson began writing book, music, and lyrics for The Silver Triangle, a musical about a con-man who shook up an Iowa town and its librarian, he was intent on employing unconventional song forms that didn't rely on rhymes. Not only did he do it successfully with "Rock Island," in which traveling salesmen on a train speak in time to the train's accelerating rhythm and no music, but also with "Ya Got Trouble," which is so smooth it almost seems to rhyme.

What's more, Willson wrote in a most unconventional character in his show: Winthrop would be a spastic child in a wheelchair. "How badly," wrote Willson, "I wanted to tell that spastics are muscularly retarded, not mentally retarded."

Once he finished writing in 1953, he called Feuer and Martin, because he had admired the team's three hits (Where's Charley; Guys and Dolls; Can-Can). They had Willson audition the musical, liked it, and said they'd do it as soon as they finished producing The Boy Friend and Silk Stockings. Feuer even came up the new title for the show: The Music Man. The pair didn't just want to produce. Feuer would direct, and Martin would co-write the libretto. Though Willson wasn't hungry for a collaborator, he did acknowledge the book wasn't working perfectly. So when he proposed that he keep the con-man element of Harold Hill's character as a surprise -- and Martin told him that a "lovable rogue" shouldn't be denied an audience for any length of time -- he changed it so we'd know up front that Hill was a phony.

Feuer and Martin first tried to sell The Music Man to TV. They were close to a $100,000 deal with CBS to broadcast the show, but once the network wanted casting approval, the producers said no.

For that matter, the musical almost made it to film before Broadway. Jesse Lasky, the famous MGM mogul, thought about making two movies: Not only The Music Man, but also a documentary called "The Big Brass Band," which would play together as a double-bill.

Most fascinating, though, is Feuer and Martin's asking Willson to put aside his project to work on a new musical on which Norman Krasna would write the book. "A guaranteed hit," said Martin, who, after all, hadn't experienced anything but (for by this time, The Boy Friend and Silk Stockings had opened and were in the black).

Willson said no, and Feuer and Martin dropped The Music Man, which Willson says he learned only after a friend showed him an item in the Times that said so. The producers poured their energies into the other musical -- which turned out to be the notorious Whoop-Up. Sometimes there's God so quickly.

After Willson read the raves for Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, he called its producer -- Kermit Bloomgarden, who'd also mounted Death of a Salesman and The Diary of Anne Frank. Willson recalls auditioning the show for him and musical director Herbert Greene at the latter's apartment at midnight, after Greene had conducted a Fella performance. Though Greene showed the greater enthusiasm, Bloomgarden was soon on the phone asking, "Meredith, may I have the privilege of producing your beautiful play?"

Feuer was a good sport when Willson told him. "You'll get a top production from Bloomgarden. I think he'll do your show better than we could."

Soon the team was dream-casting a mountain of names for Hill. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Dan Dailey, Gene Kelly, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason (if he'd lose 40 pounds), Jason Robards, Art Carney, and Bert Parks (who would eventually do it). Greene, though, said "The only one to play this Harold Hill part is Ethel Merman" -- to which Willson adds, "And if you think she couldn't, you're crazy."

But let's get a director first. Bloomgarden had Willson audition it for his neighbor, Moss Hart. "He didn't like it," was all that Bloomgarden would say the morning after. Fosse said all the songs sounded alike to him.

Morton Da Costa, who'd just done Auntie Mame, responded and signed on. When he was told that Lloyd Bridges, Van Heflin, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, James Whitmore, James Cagney, or Andy Griffith would be good in the lead, DaCosta made a different suggestion: Robert Preston.

Not many hats flew into the air, so they returned to their A-list. Gene Kelly turned them down. Phil Harris never returned phone calls. Dan Dailey stood them up to purchase a horse in Phoenix. Sylvia Kaye liked "Ya Got Trouble," but, says Willson, "she says the part is not right for Danny and is pretty sharp with me when I disagree."

So they gave the perennial second-lead Preston "Ya Got Trouble" to learn, and once they heard him do it, that was that.

There was still that book, though. Willson acknowledges that he got help from Franklin Lacey while doing a 1,300-actor pageant called California Story, and got some significant help from him. (Look hard on your album, and you'll eventually come across Lacey's name.) One of the reasons they got along: "Franklin taught spastic children." But neither could maneuver that aspect of the script so important to both.

For months, though, they feared they never might. Willson finally stumbled onto the solution when he wrote in a nameless little kid to come out during "Wells Fargo Wagon" and lisp out the lyric. Once he realized the lisper could be Winthrop, he replaced this lesser affliction.

Now to find someone to play him. After a peck of auditions, Willson's wife, while watching TV game show Name That Tune, saw a young kid named Eddie Hodges whom she thought would be perfect. The kid was lucky that he won enough to be on for a few more weeks, because in those pre VCR days, more appearances were needed before all the brass could see him. When they did, it was on a black-and-white TV, so they were delighted when Hodges showed up with a shock of little-boy red hair.

They went to Philadelphia, along with Onna White, heretofore Michael Kidd's assistant, who was getting her first choreographic shot. They got good reviews, but DaCosta warned Willson, "Plain and Fancy murdered them out-of-town, but in New York over 50 percent of the critics hated it." Bloomgarden told the same tale on Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest.

No matter. The Music Man majestically opened at the Majestic on Dec. 19, 1957 -- exactly one year to the date of that first audition for Bloomgarden and Greene. Those were the days!

At one Philadelphia performance, traveling salesman Paul Reed (whom we know from How to Succeed and Here's Love) sang a second act reprise of "Ya Got Trouble" to Harold. And while Willson doesn't carefully catalogue the songs, he does make passing mention that "Lida Rose," named in honor of his aunt, went in during rehearsal. "The Sadder but-Wiser Girl" was originally written in counterpoint to "My White Knight." "No one ever noticed that those two songs go together," he lamented.

Willson tells that he dropped "Chicago," "Blessings" (intended to replace "Iowa Stubborn," but then thought to be inferior), and "I've Already Started in to Try to Figure Out a Way to Go to Work to Try to Get You." That would show up in Willson's next hit, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, as "I've Already Started in to Try to Figure Out Exactly How to Go about to Get You." Finally, he mentions that he wrote a new second act song for his barbershop quartet The Buffalo Bills -- but once he played it for Frank Loesser, who didn't like it, he dropped it.

The one thing that bothered me, though, is that Willson seems reluctant to give Loesser credit. How often I've heard that he was the one who spurred Willson into writing the show. But the first reference to Loesser doesn't take place until page 70, and that only mentions him as the author of The Most Happy Fella. Willson then mentions him on page 126 (only to say he wrote Guys and Dolls) and 143 (when he offhandedly remarks that Loesser's company, Frank Music, would publish the score). Not until page 183 (of the book's 190) does Willson truly acknowledge Loesser, when he reprints the opening week article he wrote for the Herald-Tribune: "In 1949, a couple of people including Frank Loesser said, 'I think you ought to write a musical comedy about Iowa." At last! At least!

That said, let's credit Meredith Willson for The Music Man. Whether or not it was as revolutionary as West Side Story, I'm looking forward to seeing a first-class production once again.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You can E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com