Meredith Willson (b. Mason City, IA, 18 May 1902; d. Santa Monica, CA, 15 June 1984), whose name is practically an American household word as the composer, lyricist, bookwriter, and story-originator of the musical The Music Man, was also surprisingly prolific in related fields: radio producing and directing, classical composition, and film scoring (for which he was twice nominated for Academy Awards®). He wrote the scores to two more Broadway musicals, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960) and Here’s Love (1963). Many of his individual songs have become standards, performed by the likes of Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Peggy Lee, and The Beatles, and turning up in movies and television series with or without credit. At the top of the list are “Trouble,” “Till There Was You,” “76 Trombones,” and “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas,” followed by “Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Lida Rose,” “I See the Moon,” and “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.”
The inhabitants of Mason City, where Robert Meredith Reiniger Willson and his older sister and brother grew up, made a profound impression on the young man – many of them would later materialize in his famous musical and film. He learned to play the flute and piccolo as a child, and in high school got plenty of experience as a member of a marching band. He would live at home, however, only up until the age of seventeen, when, with a battered piccolo in his pocket, he took a train to New York City and enrolled in the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (later to become the Juilliard School). There he studied under the world-renowned Georges Barrère, and with Henry Hadley, Mortimer Wilson, Bernard Wagenaar, and Julius Gold.
Only a year later Willson married his high school sweetheart (the marriage soon ended in divorce), and shortly thereafter joined the band of John Philip Sousa. With Sousa between 1921 and 1923 he toured the U.S., Cuba, and Mexico, then in 1924 played briefly with the Rialto Theater orchestra in New York. From late 1924 to 1929 he was the principal flutist with the New York Chamber Music Society and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini.
During the 1930s Meredith Willson was on the West Coast, first in San Francisco as concert director for radio station KFRC, then in Hollywood as a musical director for radio network NBC. Inevitably, as soon as the movie industry developed soundtracks he was writing music for films (The Lost Zeppelin 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front 1930, Undersea Kingdom 1936), usually uncredited. In 1940 he composed the score to Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, earning an Academy Award® nomination for Best Original Score, and in 1941 arranging the music for The Little Foxes (starring Bette Davis), which snagged another nomination: Best Music Scoring of a Dramatic Picture.
World War II intervened, during which Willson served as a Major in the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service. He performed as a bandleader on the Burns and Allen program with George Burns, Gracie Allen, and their announcer Bill Goodwin, sometimes taking part as a regular comic character; this show continued for some time after the war, while Willson returned to directing the music for various radio and television networks.
Another offshoot of AFRS programming was The Big Show, a Sunday-night NBC radio variety showcase hosted by Tallulah Bankhead that ran for two seasons 1950–’51. Willson, as music director and interlocutor (his running gags always began, "Well, sir, Miss Bankhead...."), wrote the song that closed each installment, "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You." He also worked on Jack Benny's show on CBS (a direct rival in the same time slot), and was a regular panelist on the game show The Name's the Same.
In 1950, while working at the Hollywood Bowl as Musical Director for California’s centennial production The California Story, Willson met writer Franklin Lacey who helped him to develop the story line for the musical that would become – seven years, 40 songs, and 30 revisions later – The Music Man. This “Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state,” starring Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, opened on Broadway in December 1957, won six Tony Awards® including Best Musical, and ran for a hefty 1,375 performances until April 1961. Its Original Cast Album won the first Grammy Award® ever offered in its category; it was adapted for the large screen twice (1962, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Score, and 2003), and enjoyed two Broadway revivals, first at City Center with Dick Van Dyke in 1980, and twenty years later – long after Willson’s death – at the Neil Simon Theatre, catching eight Tony® nominations and eight Drama Desk nominations, and running for 699 performances, with Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker.
Halfway through the first Broadway run of The Music Man, Willson and his second wife Rini (whom he had married in March 1948) recorded a sort of fireside history entitled "...and Then I Wrote The Music Man,” in which they talk and sing songs from the show. A cabaret reading based on this album, supplemented by material from his three published collections of memoirs (And There I Stood with My Piccolo, 1948; Eggs I Have Laid, 1955; But He Doesn't Know the Territory, 1959), was presented at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in June 2010, with Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara.
Willson’s second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (with book by Richard Morris), starring Tammy Grimes, ran on Broadway for 532 performances from 1960 to 1962 and was made into a movie starring Debbie Reynolds in 1964. His third Broadway musical, Here's Love with Laurence Naismith and Janis Paige, ran for 334 performances from October 1963 to July 1964. Willson completed one more musical, 1491, tracing the efforts of Christopher Columbus to raise money for his voyage to “Cathay.” The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association produced it in 1969, but it never made it to Broadway.
Meredith Willson’s musical accomplishments were not limited to music theatre; he wrote classical music in many genres: two symphonies (A Symphony of San Francisco; Missions of California), orchestral suites, symphonic poems (one, titled Ask Not, incorporates verbal quotations from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address), chamber music, and a grand secular oratorio for orchestra, choir, vocal soloist, and alphorn called In Idyllwild. He also composed hymns and anthems for his church ("Anthem of the Atomic Age," 1953).
Three CBS television variety specials were produced in summer 1964 with Willson at the helm, assisted by his wife Rini: the first featured a production number with four marching bands made up of 500 high schoolers; the second starred Debbie Reynolds singing selections from the motion picture The Unsinkable Molly Brown; the third featured a thousand marching Marine Corps volunteers from Camp Pendleton.
Although he never again lived there after leaving in 1919, Willson often returned throughout his life to Mason City, Iowa. It was the site of the premiere of the film version of The Music Man, held during the annual North Iowa Band Festival in 1962; stars of the film Robert Preston and Shirley Jones were present, and Willson led the Big Parade through the town. Since 2002 the “Music Man Square,” encompassing Willson’s boyhood home, has been established as a major tourist destination.
Rini died of cancer in December 1966, and in 1968 Willson married his third wife, Rosemary Sullivan. His home was in Mandeville Canyon in Brentwood, California, where he loved to play the piano and sing for friends and neighbors. He was an active member and deacon of Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Los Angeles, where a stained glass “Music-Man Window" now glows above his accustomed pew.
Willson died of heart failure at the age of 82, and is buried at the Elmwood Saint Joseph Cemetery in Mason City. His collected honors include membership in Kappa Kappa Psi, the National Honorary Band Fraternity, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him posthumously in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. The Juilliard School of Music in New York City, his alma mater, has named its new (in 2005), and only, residence hall on 66th Street for Meredith Willson.
– Lucy E. CrossBack to Artists