Monday, July 7, 2014

The Making of The Music Man ( 1962 )

The Music Man captures the spirit of small town America in a way unlike any other film. It enthralled audiences when it first debuted as a stage show in 1957 and continues to delight classic film fans today who, like us, won't consider Independence Day complete without watching it. There are some films that get tiresome with repeated viewings, but The Music Man is one of those gems that only get better which each subsequent viewing.

Often, it is the films that we watch the most often that we know the least about.The Music Man was one of those pictures for us and so after this Fourth of July we delved into the making of it and found it to be the stuff that blogs are made of. Let's begin at the very beginning......


Meredith Willson was a popular film composer ( The Great Dictator ), radio actor ( The Burns and Allen Show ), songwriter ( You and I, It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas ) and conductor before he wrote the music and play for The Music Man, but it was this production which catapulted him to fame and to this day is his most memorable musical work. 


For several years Willson toyed with the idea of writing a book about the childhood memories and good feelings he had for his hometown of Mason City, Iowa but it was not until 1948, when he was pushed by his wife and his old crony Frank Loesser, that he began work on putting together a play featuring his beloved hometown and the charming Hawkeyes that resided there. 

Willson incorporated into the play songs that he had written over the years and in 1956, five short years later, "The Music Man" was completed. Many of his friends and neighbors from back home were turned into characters for his play, and in the years after "The Music Man"'s success, Willson spilled which characters represented whom....but he always left Professor Harold Hill's real counterpart an enigma. 

In spite of its promising story and great musical numbers, Willson had difficulty in finding anyone to finance the show. CBS was interested in the material and decided to turn it into a one time television special starring Ray Bolger, but the deal fell through...and it was a good thing too, for Willson found backers for the stage show. Great honk! 

Barbara Cook was selected as the leading lady, Marion Paroo; Pert Kelton was cast as her mother, Eddie Hodges as Winthrop Paroo, and David Burns as Mayor Shinn....but Danny Kaye had turned down the leading part of Professor Harold Hill. For that matter, so did Dan Dailey, Gene Kelly, and Phil Harris, thinking the story was too corny. It was the show's director, Morton Da Costa, who insisted that Robert Preston would be perfect for the role, even though Willson had his doubts about him. 


"Cowards die a thousand deaths, the brave man.....only 500"

On December 19, 1957 "The Music Man" premiered on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre. It was a box-office sensation and a critical success and ran for 1,375 performances during its five year stint. Ye gods! 

An established hit always makes it to the silver screen eventually, but Warner Brothers did not want to wait for the eventual to happen too late so they dished out $1,000,000 for the screen rights to The Music Man. Choice casting was critical and a top-drawing name to pull in the audiences was forefront in the minds of Warner Brother's producers. Frank Sinatra was the leading candidate for the screen version, but when Meredith Willson heard these whisperings he exclaimed, "No Preston, No Music Man!". So much for those early doubts. 


"For score and seven years ago...."



Pert Kelton ( Mama Paroo ), The Buffalo Bills, and Susan Luckey ( Zeneeta Shins ) were all recruited from the original stage version, while Paul Ford was selected to play Mayor Shinns, the English stage actress Hermoine Gingold as his wife, Buddy Hackett as Marcellus Washburn, Timmy Everett as Tommy, Ron Howard as Winthrop Paroo ( who was selected from a talent contest ) and Shirley Jones as the beautiful, but skeptic, librarian Marion. The film also featured a plethora of great character actors such as Mary Wickes, Charles Lane, Hank Worden, and Charles Karel. 

Warner Brother's went all out in the production of The Music Man, setting aside over $900,000 for the budget and recruiting the stage director, Morton De Costa, to direct; Onna White to plot the choreography ( it was her first film ); Dorothy Jeakins to create the sumptuous costumes, and Paul Grosse ( one of MGM's leading art directors ) to design the 18+ sets used in the picture, including the dainty ice cream parlor and the charming Madison Library interior ( which was reused for Rome Adventure that same year ). 

In the music department, Ray Heindorf, the head of the Warner Brothers, conducted lovely new arrangements of Willson's music by Frank Comstock...arrangements which earned him the Academy Award by the way.

Shirley Jones, Robert Preston, The Buffalo Bills and principal players gathered at the lot seven weeks prior to when actual filming began, recording their numbers and rehearsing for the three big dance sequences - Marion the Librarian, 76 Trombones, and the biggest of 'em all, Shipoopi. By the time filming began in the spring of 1962 the cast and dancers were thoroughly shipooped. Meanwhile, across the pond, The Music Man opened in London with Van Johnson in the lead and Patricia Lambert as Marian Paroo. 



Most of The Music Man was filmed on the backlot of Warner Brothers where a complete replica of River City was built on 3 acres. Three months into the filming Shirley Jones discovered she was pregnant with her son, Patrick Cassidy, and that put a little snag into the production. DaCosta told her to keep it hush and it was kept as a secret for several months, until her bump was becoming too evident to hide ( although Dorothy Jeakins did her best to cover it up with plenty of lace and flowers ). Robert Preston noticed the little fella when he gave a big kick during Preston's one and only love scene with Shirley Jones on the bridge ( Till There Was You ).


After five weeks of filming, the editors went to work trimming the film down into a manageable length, while Pacific Title's creative team tackled the snail-paced process of stop-animation filming for their creation of the marching men in the title credit sequence designed by Wayne Fitzgerald.


"So what the heck? You're welcome! Join us at the picnic, you can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself"

The Music Man premiered on June 19, 1962 in Willson's hometown of Mason City, Iowa. Over 100,000 Iowans attended the event, which was highlighted by a marching band contest among 100 different schools. 




The film went on to become the 7th highest grossing picture of the year. In addition to being popular among audiences, critics loved it as well, and it garnered six Academy Award nominations. 


There's som'thin' spthecial in store for each of us every Fourth of July when we watch The Music Man. Fifty-two years later and Professor Harold Hill is still marching along to those 76 trombones and gathering potential band players. And who knows, if we put the think system to use ourselves maybe we'll all be playing the Minuet in G with him by July 4, 2015. 

1 comment:

  1. Along with Harold & Maude, these are my two favorite pictures of my 59 years.Music Man the film premiered when I was 5 I first saw it when I was 7. Enthralled and bewitched by it, I couldn't tell my 4 old sibs nor parents that I was in love at 7, for the first time to my first crush from this film? Shirley Jones? NO! Susan Luckey! To this day I recall every time I see it, how my lil 7yr old body reacted by instinct. How wonderfully confusing that was to me.

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