top of page
  • Kerry Auer Fergus

The Music Man: Spotlight on the Score

Let’s take a look at The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s tribute to Midwestern small town life in the early twentieth century. For those of you whose parents didn’t drag you to Willson’s childhood home on a road trip through Northern Iowa, it might interest you to know that the River City of Music Man is based heavily on the composer’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa. (On a side note, there really is very little of interest to see in Mason City itself despite its famous associations. I did happen to have a very good milkshake there – recompense from my parents for having been dragged twenty miles off our course.)

Mason City may be less than enthralling, but the River City of Music Man is a delightful portrait of small town life full of cantankerous old ladies, barbershop quartets, and precocious children. Willson’s score, though simple in some ways, perfectly captures the essence of its characters and setting. One need look no further than the opening number, “Rock Island” for confirmation of this.

“Rock Island” is a fantastic expositional opening number. In one piece, Willson establishes the setting (small town Midwest), the era (early 20th century), the protagonist (Harold Hill), his profession (salesman), and the con he currently plays in these small Iowa towns (selling boys’ bands). But the great fun of “Rock Island” is that it establishes all the necessary information while simultaneously using the music to set the physical scene. By using spoken word instead of sung melody and by emphasizing certain consonants at the right moments, Willson has perfectly mimicked the sound and movement of a train. To really appreciate the genius of this, I suggest listening to the original Broadway cast album. There’s something particularly brilliant about the way the actor vocalizes the consonants in “Cash for the merchandise. Cash for the hard goods.”

(Skip to 2:10 for "Rock Island")

“Rock Island” also does a fantastic job matching the musical sensibility of the characters to their profession. These are salesman and as such, they are very good at talking. Fittingly, there are about 8,000 words crammed into this one number (okay, I didn’t actually count, but it certainly feels like 8,000). Although a spoken (as opposed to sung) opening number may seem like an odd choice for a musical from the pre-Hamilton era, it makes sense when you consider the nature of the characters. What could be more natural than salesmen who talk and talk fast?

Having established the lingo of the salesman, the next number “Iowa Stubborn” neatly establishes the identity of the townsfolk. I’m going to let you take a look at that title and come to your own conclusions about what kind of people they are. My absolute favorite part of “Iowa Stubborn” is the insane amount of accents on lyrics like “treat you, when we treat you which we may not do at all” or “attitude we’ve never been without that we recall.” Willson indicates an accent on every single syllable of these phrases. If the title and the lyrics weren’t enough to tip you off, the music of the townsfolk certainly establishes their inflexibility.

Okay, so now we’ve set the scene. We’ve met the townsfolk and established their intractability (thus setting up a key conflict of the show – Harold vs. the town). Now it’s time to meet Harold Hill himself. And what better way to get to know a salesman than by hearing his pitch? If you thought the salesmen of “Rock Island” spoke quickly, just wait ‘til you hear Harold. There are 62 words in the first 16 bars of “Ya Got Trouble” (and yes, this time I actually counted). 62 words in 16 bars. Harold barely even gives himself time to breathe. No sooner has he finished one thought than he jumps immediately on to the next. For a great example of this, take a look at the passage where Harold explains, “Trouble, with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool! Now I know all you folks are the right kind of parents.” You might expect him to let the word “pool” settle for at least a whole measure before the next phrase begins. Instead, Harold moves immediately to his next thought with barely a breath in between the phrases. Listen to the incomparable Robert Preston to get the full effect.

But what does this accomplish? Why introduce Harold Hill in this manner? The beauty of “Ya Got Trouble” is that it establishes Harold as the consummate salesman. This is a man who knows his pitch backward and forward. He doesn’t need to pause because he knows exactly what buttons to push and when to push them.

However, Epic Salesman Harold Hill is about to meet his match in local piano teacher and librarian Marian Paroo. Just as Harold’s musical introduction establishes his identity as a salesman, Marian’s first musical scene is likewise influenced by her line of work. The choice to set Marian conversation with her mother against a piano lesson allows Willson to clearly establish Marian’s identity as a music teacher. More importantly, in it’s inherent musicality it distances her musical language from Harold’s. And cleverly, the fact that Amaryllis continues to raise the key of her exercises allows Willson to continually escalate the drama of the scene.

Marian’s second number, “Goodnight, My Someone,” stands in stark contrast to everything that has come before. Remember the fast talking salesman of “Rock Island” and the biting, heavily accented words of the River City townsfolk? Every piece so far has established a musical language that is incredibly verbose. Willson has crammed a lot of words into a small time frame. This fast-paced musical lingo accurately reflects the characters we have met so far. These are people who know who they are and what they want and they are not afraid to express it. Even Marian uses this fast-paced style as she argues with her mother. But “Goodnight, My Someone” is different. It is our first real look into a character’s innermost thoughts. In a moment of vulnerability, Marian expresses her loneliness and exposes herself as a romantic despite her frosty exterior. This change in tone is mirrored by a shift in the musical language of the show. Marian slows down the pace considerably. Whereas Harold needed 62 words to express himself, Marian uses only 37 in her first 16 bars.

“Goodnight, My Someone” is followed by Harold’s signature number “Seventy-Six Trombones.” I’ve always loved the fact that Harold reprises material from “Ya Got Trouble” before launching into the body of his pitch. You can just tell that he has this whole thing down to a science. He knows exactly how to transition from the problem he has invented to the solution he will provide.

However, the most significant thing about “Seventy-Six Trombones” is actually not it’s reference to “Ya Got Trouble” but rather it’s connection to “Goodnight, My Someone.” As a kid, I was obsessed with the 1962 movie version of Music Man, but it was YEARS before I realized that “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Goodnight, My Someone” are actually the same song. Willson dresses them up with different lyrics, distinctive orchestrations, and a handful of altered notes, but at their core the melodies are one and the same.

As an actor playing either of the main roles, what can this tell you about your character? It’s certainly no accident that Marian’s heartfelt confession and Harold’s signature number share the same melody. I, for one, am inclined to believe that Willson was making a definitive statement about the characters and their relationship. You might look at Music Man and be tempted to dismiss it as an “opposites attract” narrative, but instead Willson has indicated that these characters are in essence the same. With the score as proof of this claim, I would encourage the actor involved in Music Man to look for the qualities that Marian and Harold share. You might find they have more in common than you had thought.

Marian gave us a glimpse of her true nature in “Goodnight, My Someone,” but so far we have only had a chance to meet Harold Hill: Salesman. “The Sadder, But Wiser Girl” gives us a better idea of his true motivations and introduces us to the musical language of Harold Hill: Con Man. It’s written in the same fast-paced, half spoken style that has by now become his signature, but Willson has added some jazzy accents on off-beats and sleazy trumpet riffs between verses that reflect Harold’s seedy agenda far more accurately than his previous musical material.

Later on, Willson further explores Marian’s deepest desires in her gorgeous solo number, “My White Knight.” (If you haven’t heard Barbara Cook’s rendition of this song, do yourself a favor and go listen to it.) Beautiful as it is, I’ve always felt that this number doesn’t quite belong within the Music Man score as a whole, although it’s difficult to articulate exactly why that is. Perhaps it’s the melody that at times lends itself to comparisons with recitative – an operatic tradition in which the singer mimics the rhythm of everyday speech. (I’m thinking in particular of passages like “to sit with me in a cottage somewhere in the state of Iowa” or “and if occasionally he’d ponder...”) In other passages, Marian makes great use of large intervallic leaps (for example, consider the minor 6th interval between “white” and “knight” in the opening phrase). Traditionally, composers have used large leaps to indicate great longing and it would seem that Willson has done the same thing here.

Or perhaps it is the modulation from Db major to B major, or the triplet rhythms, or the shifting tempos that set “My White Knight” apart from the rest of the score. As a whole, the Music Man score is very square – even rhythms (one might even call them predictable), diatonic melodies, simple AABA song forms. Willson rarely even changes the keys of pieces in the show. But “My White Knight” breaks the mold. If “Goodnight, My Someone” were not enough, this piece certainly marks Marian as separate from the rest of the town: more mature, and more emotionally complex than any other character in the show.

Act I of Music Man finishes on the high note (literally) of “Wells Fargo Wagon.” This song is sort of unintentionally hilarious from a modern day standpoint. These ornery Iowa townsfolk are psyched out of their minds for the arrival of this delivery wagon. (These days, thanks to Amazon Prime, I fully expect all of my packages to arrive within 48 hours.) Willson uses the music to elevate this otherwise mundane experience because, after all, the arrival of the Wells Fargo Wagon was an important event in small town America. In particular, Willson uses the sopranos to emphasize the significance of the moment. They sustain high A’s and B’s over the top of the final refrain – lending it an almost religious fervor.

Act II continues very much in the same vein as Act I. Harold’s sidekick, Marcellus, picks up the fast-paced lingo so prevalent in the previous act with his toe tapping “Shipoopi” number. The barbershop quartet continues to serve up a nostalgic dose of Americana. In “Will I Ever Tell You?” and “Til There Was You” Marian again sets herself apart from the rest of the town by using fewer words per measure and indulging in larger intervallic leaps.

Act II gives Marian’s little brother Winthrop his first (and only) solo number. There’s not a lot to it – the melodic motion is mostly stepwise, the form is pretty simple, and cutesy dotted rhythms give it a childlike air. And yet, what I love about “Gary Indiana” is its wordiness. Remember, Winthrop learned this song from Harold. As Marian’s brother, you might expect Winthrop’s musical vocabulary to be similar to hers. But instead, his song clearly bears the stamp of Harold’s influence. There are a lot of words in “Gary, Indiana” (although thoughtfully Harold has provided a song with hardly any s’s in it). In Winthrop, we can see the first major effects of Harold’s presence in River City. He has changed Winthrop’s life for the better.

(On a side note, my parents have also dragged me to Gary, Indiana and let me tell you, it is NOT the magical paradise that Harold makes it out to be. But maybe that’s the point.)

By the end of the show, Marian and Harold have come to recognize the deep connection between them. Willson, of course, established this connection from the beginning through the juxtaposition of “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.” But what would be the fun of going to a Broadway show if the characters who are so clearly meant for each other had been able to recognize this from the start?

Willson celebrates their union by having Harold join Marian on the final phrase of “Til There Was You.” Remember, this is a character that previously shunned the kind of sweeping melodies that Marian loves. In fact, this may be the single most melodic thing that Harold has sung in the entire show. And yet, I’d like to think that it is a glimpse of the real Harold. Not Harold Hill: Salesman or even Harold Hill: Con Man, but rather Harold Hill: Actual Human Being.

Furthermore, Harold and Marian call the audience’s attention to the ways in which they have changed each other in the double reprise of “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.” I can’t believe that I never realized the connection between these two songs when Meredith Willson literally lays it out for us by switching back and forth between them. Sigh.

"Goodnight, My Someone"/ "Seventy-Six Trombones" Reprise from the 1962 movie version of The Music Man

But anyway, in this reprise each character begins by singing their original number, but halfway through, they switch. This switch-up has clear symbolic implications. Marian has brought out the softer side of Harold, whereas he has challenged her to become bolder and more adventurous. What better way to illustrate this than through music?

So what do we take away from the score of The Music Man? In some ways, it is a very simplistic score. You’ll notice I haven’t given a lot of attention to numbers like “Pick a Little, Talk a Little,” “Marian Librarian,” or “Shipoopi.” In some ways, these songs are filler. They function as comedic interludes or perhaps provide a much needed dance break. Not everything in Music Man lends itself to intensive musical analysis. And yet, the active listener can pick up quite a few insights into character from Willson’s treatment of the score. The rate of words is certainly significant, as is the connection between Marian and Harold’s musical material. In both cases, one can hopefully gain a better sense of who these characters are and how they relate to one another.

3,362 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page