“Whadaya Talk Whadaya Talk Whadaya Talk”
“Words holler at me.” — Meredith Willson
Oh ho, another revival of Meredith Willson’s seminal classic The Music Man is coming down to Broadway and with it the agonized groans from its detractors. “UGH, why is this backwards, old school, boring piece of Norman Rockwell idealism being dragged out of its grave when there are more important things to put on our stages like BEETLEJUICE?!” The easy answer is that it’s a well-established classic with Wolverine attached as the lead so it’s going to sell as quickly as Harold Hill’s trombones. However, the truer answer to the show’s staying power is a little more nuanced than one might initially see.
Everyone has a classic musical that they cannot stand, but it seems that in recent years The Music Man receives most of this ire. Why is that? One reason could be that people consider the musical old fashioned. That the show is a relic not only of the time it takes place, 1912, in but the time it was written, 1954. A musical that could look back at the “Aw shucks” normalcy of small-town American life before industrialization, two world wars, and an economic depression hit the country like a ton of bricks cannot possibly connect to modern audiences. It is a “nice” story taking place in a “nice” time written during another “nice” time for American prosperity. Therefore, how can something like that be relevant in today’s cultural climate?
The Music Man’s just-folks appearance is just that. An appearance. Underneath the surface is a much more deceptive story about a man conning an entire town, selling them on a dream knowing that he’s taking them on a ride. That is until the tables turn as he becomes invested in the people he befriends and the very ideals he’s selling. It is a story of a man entering a repressed town only to liberate them and rehabilitate himself thanks to the unifying power of music.
The biggest strength of The Music Man lies in its use of music. Writer and composer Meredith Willson was fascinated by the relationship between speech and song and used The Music Man to explore that idea. What makes The Music Man so effective is its ability to seamlessly transition from dialogue to song and vice versa. It finds the music within our own reality and it’s clear even from its opening number.
“Rock Island” opens the musical as a primer of the entire plot and contains the entire essence of The Music Man. It tells us everything we need to know about what this show is all about. It is, much like the other numbers in the show, “an exercise in onomatopoeia,” as Meredith Willson explores how easily words can sound like other things we encounter in the world. By using onomatopoeic lyricism and skilled rhythmic technique, “Rock Island” firmly establishes The Music Man’s place in the musical theatre pantheon.
The Music Man, for those who are unaware, centers on one Professor Harold Hill, a local sales/conman who grifts town after town selling band instruments and uniforms only to skip town before he can teach the citizens how to play them. His latest target is the podunk town of River City, located in the heart of the American midwest: Iowa. He successfully charms the citizens except for the skeptical Marion Paroo, the local librarian. However, as Hill’s scheme gets deeper and deeper, he becomes just as enamored with the citizens as they are with him. By the show’s end when his lies are exposed, he is redeemed because his idealism inspires the boy’s band to become more of a reality than anyone could have hoped for.
Suffice to say that The Music Man is not just some dreamy eyed-view of an America long, long ago. It is a musical that is holding onto the past to prevent itself from being dragged into the future. It is a world that is facing the brink of extinction as the world becomes more modernized. In the midwest, “conservative small-town American life,” was being “challenged by newer, less reliable values.” The past presented in The Music Man seems so outlandish to us, yet speaks to our own fears and doubts about the evolutions in our present society. The entire musical starts on one of the first big inventions to bring that change across the United States during the Industrial Era: the train.
“Rock Island,” opens on a train car filled with salesmen. They lament how things have become more difficult for them in the wake of all these newfangled developments in modern society. They are “philosophy and politics in motion” as they face the dawn of a new age and a new country that will make their way of life a thing of the past with dread. These are terrified and desperate men, eager for something to pin the blame on for their misfortune.
As these salesmen discuss the world changing around them, they speak to the rhythm of the train they ride on. They start with “Ca-ssshhh for the merchandise” as the train starts up, and the immortal “Look whadayatalk, whadayatalk, whadayatalk?” to replace the “chugga-chugga” noise trains usually emit once they get going. Their words become the sounds of the train, blending seamlessly into a timbre of noise where one cannot distinguish one from the other.
Once the audience has gotten accustomed to the tempo and pace of the piece long enough to listen to the words, a salesman mentions the name we’re about to hear nine times in a row: Hill. Nine times in rapid succession so we don’t miss a daggum thing. This is our hero they’re talking about and soon we learn of the same rumors as everyone else: he’s our titular “music man” and he makes a killing conning towns left and right. This is someone to watch out for. Little do we realize he’s been with them the whole time.
The train stops in the station and one salesman vows to expose Harold Hill as the sham he is and that he’ll never last in the harsh Iowan town of River City. That’s when our hero exposes himself, case in hand, eager to accept the challenge. Before the salesmen can catch their breath, our hero is off the train and we are off and running.
“Rock Island” tells us a number of things: the country is changing, traveling salesmen are a thing of the past, Middle America is especially cruel to these salesmen, these salesmen are scared, and there’s a new flimflam man named Harold Hill who is making them all look bad. Everything we need to know about where we’re at and where we’re going all in the space of three and a half minutes.
In Willson’s studies of musicals, he recognized the age-old dilemma that exposition is incredibly difficult to write. Exposition is a tricky beast as it’s a necessary evil to set up your story, but oftentimes difficult to execute properly. Willson sought to use “Rock Island” as a bypass of all that. A literal locomotive of an opening while also managing to sneak in “considerable exposition.” By the time the train arrives at its destination, we need no longer worry about what’s going on.
Willson spent years staring at a blank page struggling to come up with something for The Music Man. The first four words were easy enough: “ACT ONE, SCENE ONE,” but according to him, “the fifth word was the sticker.” It wasn’t until he began to think about how to craft a seamless transition from dialogue to song and vice versa that it finally got him to type that fifth word and the others that followed.
Willson’s chief criticism of musicals of the day was that they often pushed the audience in (and pulled out) of songs and scenes that it created a sense of whiplash. Ideally, he wanted a show that was “like one big song lyric, dialogue and all. All in one place.” In This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin notes how “most artists describe their works as experiments,” designed to examine our relationship to the world around us through expressive and emotional means. The Music Man is Meredith Willson’s grand experiment, toying with our relationship with music in the modern world.
With “Rock Island,” Willson explores the music of how we speak and communicate with one another. “People don’t talk in rhyme,” he described to a colleague who failed to understand his vision, “I want to have an underlying unsuspected rhythm underneath the dialogue.” The songs in The Music Man oftentimes sneak up on you and for the most part, aren’t songs at all, but rather dialogue with a musical track underneath. It’s a sneak attack and the audience is clued into it right at the beginning.
Music permeates our world and is embedded deep into our brains. Levitin speaks of his experiments regarding how music activates our cerebellum (aka “the lizard brain”) and takes over our emotions and minds in surprising ways. It is one of our oldest forms of self-expression. In many cultures, singing is just as essential as talking. It surrounds us all and is deeply a part of our collective psyche. There is music all over the world around us and The Music Man is a chief example of a musical comedy exploring the very idea of the music of the world around us.
The human brain is always categorizing the things we do and experience. Music is no different as we collect sounds and groupings into schemas. It’s how we know what is familiar, so we can recognize when it is not. Willson uses speech to create a musical tempo that sounds like real-world objects and sounds to create a whole new sense that everything can be musical if you’re creative enough to write it.
Many of the musical numbers in The Music Man stem from the scene naturally instead of a character bursting into song out of nowhere. The most oft-parodied example may very well be “Ya Got Trouble,” which is simply one big speech from Harold Hill with some melodic help from the chorus of townspeople. But there are many other numbers that play with the context of the scene from the piano lesson “If Ya Don’t Mind My Saying So,” and the gossip hens of “Pick a Little, Talk A Little.” These numbers show a community whose passion for music and expression has been beaten down and so it must come out in nontraditional ways.
Harold Hill rolls into River City expecting to make some cash but instead brings its citizens the joy of self-expression. River City presents itself as a stubborn, backwards town where idle gossip can ruin reputations and anyone willing to shake up the status quo is instantly shot down. But then this man blows into town promising that a boy’s band will change everything and all of a sudden the town is awash with excitement. People who used to be bitter enemies are now joining one another in song.
Willson explores the unifying power of music. The members of the school board, deemed notorious enemies for years, are brought together by Harold Hill to form a barbershop quartet. They become inseparable, years of animosity shattered into literal harmony. The more obvious example of course is the melodic link between our romantic leads. Harold Hill’s “Seventy-Six Trombones” and Marion’s “Goodnight My Someone” have the same melody but at different tempos. It demonstrates their own connection to one another, especially when they swap lyrics. Even the salesmen on the train create a unifying sound to make a steam train.
The Music Man was a massive success, winning 5 Tony Awards and running for 1,375 performances. Part of its success was due to its ability to invoke something in its audiences every night. Walter Kerr noted at the show’s finale the entire audience started clapping alone and it “was the only time I ever felt a single irresistible impulse sweep over an entire audience and stir it to a demonstration that could not possibly have been inhibited.” The power of music, and of The Music Man was so powerful that the audience was stirred into becoming one big unit.
One of the easiest criticisms of musicals is that people don’t just erupt into song to express their emotions and thus its lack of realism is a deterrent. What those people fail to understand is that we are constantly searching for order and expression and music is one of the enduring forms of those two ideals. Music is inherent in all of us. It’s why we constantly are drawn to movies like Singin’ in the Rain or even Baby Driver. These films explore the sense of rhythm and tempo hardwired into our brains. We are always marching to a beat. Willson understood this better than anyone and sought to expose that in The Music Man.
Is The Music Man old fashioned? Yes and no. It’s using an old-fashioned time to talk about the issues that arise with societal and cultural change caused a shift in communication. However, music continues to be a continuous method of self-expression. “Rock Island” may sound like a lot of fast-talking to sound like a train, but it is truly one of the most masterful opening numbers in musical theatre history. It is Willson’s thesis statement about our relationship with music, unifying us all into one powerful machine, barreling forward towards the future.