The Music Man opened in 1957. It was Meredith Willson’s first musical, based on his hometown of Mason City, Iowa, and a life very similar to what you see onstage. He honed his ideas for years, writing a brilliant show packed with musical and lyrical joy and innovation. The train scene at the opening of the show may be the first rap tune on Broadway, cleverly mimicking the clacking of the tracks and steam brakes. Hill’s sales pitch whips the crowd into a Southern revival, and Marian’s lovely ballad at the end of the show was later covered by the Beatles.
There are so many great themes in the Music Man, but what I love most is that it shows how the arts can transform, inspire, and heal. Harold Hill is a tempter, yes, but the characters in River City need very little seducing. All that is required to lure the town-fathers away from considering Hill’s qualifications is a brief song fragment, and off they go, consumed with the joy of making music. Standard bearers for dignity, such as the society women of the town, melt when given the opportunity to dance. And our heroine, Marian the librarian, is won over when she witnesses her own brother’s metamorphosis. Winthrop’s stuttering has made him so shy that he barely speaks to his own family. And yet, when the shiny brass instruments arrive, Winthrop absolutely sprays Marian with words and affection. Marian realizes the magic that Hill makes possible, and she too becomes a supporter.
The citizens of River City were waiting for someone like Hill to reveal the magic underneath their lives. This is what art does. It makes us stop and pay attention to the sound of the “bells on the hill,” and the “love all around.” It reveals us to ourselves; it makes us look at things anew; it transforms the mundane into the magical. This is why we must always keep art flourishing in our lives, and especially the lives of our children.
Editor’s Note: Jessica Sporn is the director of the Gas Lamp Player’s Music Man, which opens on February 10. She wrote this essay for the program. For more information, click here.