With a Capital “T” and That Rhymes with “B” and That Stands for “Book.”Posted: November 7, 2009
Back in the summer of ’08, I saw (and wrote about) a production of The Music Man at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The production was revelatory to me, because (although I’d seen, as a child, the national touring company starring Forrest Tucker as Professor Harold Hill), my main experience of the show came from the movie. Seeing the show, the real show, that Meredith Willson created the book, music and lyrics for — and which Stratford’s production served so well — gave me an appreciation for Willson’s level of invention. The Music Man is not always remembered as a particularly innovative musical, perhaps because its small-town, 1912 Iowa setting doesn’t immediately put one in mind of “innovation.” The adjective is more often applied to another musical that opened in 1957 just three months before The Music Man, West Side Story. But, without taking anything away from the Bernstein-Sondheim show, it’s possible to appreciate that The Music Man was also unlike any musical that had come before it. The opening number, “Rock Island,” performed by traveling salesmen on a train, isn’t even sung, yet it is music, so rhythmic is the dialogue Willson wrote, and so well does it capture the rhythm of the train that is the number’s setting. And then the show takes off from there. Willson strove to write dialogue so rhythmic it could become music, and song lyrics so conversational they could become speech, so that one could blend into the other with the audience scarcely being aware of the difference.
Two years after The Music Man opened, Willson wrote a book about the experience of creating the show. The show’s birth was not easy. It took years, and many false starts; Willson’s script went through forty drafts in all. Not surprisingly (given the surplus of charm and wit Willson was able to put into The Music Man), the book about the creation is a fun and fascinating read. Titled But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, it went out of print and stayed that way for a long time, but this past summer it came back into print, and if you like musical theater, you should get it and read it.