The (Word) and Music Man
The classic 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man is the latest victim of political correctness. The show has recently been revived on Broadway with two big-name actors in the leading roles, Hugh Jackman (as Harold Hill) and Sutton Foster (as Marian Paroo). According to Helen Shaw’s review in Vulture, the song called “Shipoopi,” a silly number (sung by Buddy Hackett in the 1962 film version) about the mating rites of small-town men and women circa 1912 (the year in which the story is set) has been altered so as not to offend today’s listeners. A stanza which once proclaimed:
Shipoopi, shipoopi, shipoopi, The girl who’s hard to get Shipoopi, shipoopi, shipoopi, But you can win her yet. Now reads: Shipoopi, shipoopi, shipoopi The boy who’s seen the light Shipoopi, shipoopi, shipoopi, To treat a woman right.
The song itself is fairly silly (“shipoopi,” was apparently a slang term for a sweetheart who is hard to get), so it’s difficult to get worked up over a minor change to its lyrics, but it still seems a shame to alter something so well-known to so many people without a more compelling reason than…to be honest, I’m not really sure why the lyric had to be changed. Shaw calls the altered song “a kinder, gentler version” that improves upon the “slightly more assault-y lyrics of the original.” But if you can find anything “assault-y” in the original, well, as my grandmother used to say, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din” (oops, that’s another lyric that’s likely not fit for polite company any longer).
“Shipoopi” isn’t the only thing that has been altered for the recent revival. The play is set in a small Iowa town in 1912, where the local girls have formed a group called the Wa Tan We, whose purpose seems to be honoring the Indians who once populated the area. This is a fairly common convention of small town American life, spoofed in the TV series Parks and Recreation, the film Waiting for Guffman, and many other cultural products. The fictional Wa Tan We girls bear a resemblance to the real-life organization known as Camp Fire Girls (formally founded in 1912), whose motto, “Wohelo” sounds vaguely like an Indian word but is actually a portmanteau combining the words work, health, and love.
According to Wikipedia, “Native American culture influenced the early years of Camp Fire, serving as the inspiration for ceremonial activities and attire, camp and council names, respect for nature and the environment, and the use of symbols… For Camp Fire, Native American symbolism was a natural outgrowth of an appreciation for differences and cultural inclusiveness.” Naturally, the efforts of small-town whitebread Americans to emulate Native Americans could sometimes grow silly, and it was this silliness that the Wa Tan We girls in The Music Man were meant to spoof.
No one intended the bit to be taken seriously. Reviewing the revival for the New York Times, critic Jesse Green applauded the elimination of the Wa Tan We girls, noting that, “Even though such ludicrous appropriations are authentic to the setting, a musical comedy need not be a documentary.” That’s true. And I can see why a contemporary stage director might want to get rid of parts of the play that no longer have anything pertinent to say. But cultural appropriation is a hot-button topic in America these days. If you are opposed to it (and I’m not) why not let it be spoofed on Broadway?
Elsewhere in Green’s review of the revival he notes that, “The boy who is secretly dating the Mayor’s daughter is no longer the son of ‘one a’them day laborers south a’town,’ presumably because the suggestion of class prejudice is too hot for a comedy to handle in 2022.” Maybe so, but why make those small-minded bluenoses of yore look better than they actually were? Isn’t that the kind of prejudice that Meredith Willson was calling out when he wrote the play?
Probably no Broadway musical in history was wrought with more care than Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Though the show finally debuted in late 1957, the idea had been marinating in Willson’s head since the late 1940s. Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1902. He spent the rest of his life telling stories about his small-town Middle American upbringing. He told so many tales that, after he became a successful musician and composer, friends and family were always urging him to write a musical play about his small-town upbringing. For years, he resisted this advice. A flute and piccolo virtuoso (he could also play the piano, the banjo, and many another instrument) he became a member of John Philip Sousa’s band and then, later, joined the New York Philharmonic when it was under the direction of Arturo Toscanini. He was a bicoastal success, leaving New York and moving to Hollywood, where he became the musical director of NBC Radio and wrote Academy-Award-nominated scores for films such as Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941). At this point, he may have considered himself too much of a sophisticate to write a play about small-town rubes.
In 1951, Willson was living in Southern California with his second wife, a Russian-born opera singer named Ralina Zarova, whom Willson always refers to in his memoirs (he wrote three) as Rini. One day, a couple of successful Broadway producers named Ernie Martin and Cy Feuer (they produced, among other shows, Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) called him from New York and urged him to write a musical comedy about the small-town Iowa of his boyhood. Willson was sick of being badgered on this topic, “So, one day, without giving the matter too much thought, I wrote Act One, Scene One on the empty paper, not, of course, to show these people that I could write a musical comedy but to show them I could not. And for the next six years, I was way out in front.” That quote is from But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, his third and final memoir, which entertainingly lays out just how painstakingly he created his masterpiece.
Willson was not just a music man but a word man as well. In fact, much of his final memoir is taken up with his love of words. He opens the book by telling his readers,
Words holler at me. I mean they are more sound than symbol. So I’d like to say that I am not illiterate to the point indicated by the way I misuse, in the following account, some of the simplest words in the dictionary. The reason is that I can’t always bring myself to put down the word “sit,” for instance, when I know good and well I say “set,” more than half the time. Also my brother and I and the rest of the people from home never just say “over,” it’s always “overt.” “Overt” the store, “overt” your house, “overt” our house. Most everybody at home says “prob’ly,” too; some people I know back home with three, four diplomas say things like, “they come in and set down.” And we always say “of” when we mean “have” like “I could never of done it.” Anyway, I like my speech to look in some degree like it sounds.
Over and over again throughout the book Willson emphasizes his love of words. Like his love of music, his love of words was a bequest from his mother, a word-freak if ever there was one. The histories of Mason City always noted that the Indians had built the original township between two rivers, now known as Willow Creek and Lime Creek. This infuriated Willson’s word-obsessed mother, who insisted that creeks and rivers were not the same thing, and either the histories should be altered to note that the Indians built the town between two creeks or, the best option in Mrs. Willson’s mind, the names should be changed to Willow River and Lime River.
Willson also delights in the way his wife Rini would use the English language, saying things like, “I was certainly knocked down for a loop” and, “I knew they’d prance on it [a song Willson composed] the minute they heard it.” Willson himself is full of wordplay, such as when he dubs his neighbor’s dangerously aggressive little dog a “vixer (a word I just made up out of viper and vixen).”
Willson spent six years writing The Music Man. The book (i.e., the spoken part of the play) went through at least 32 drafts. Eventually the stack of previous working drafts grew to be two feet tall. Willson wrote a total of forty songs for the play, of which only eighteen made it to the stage. He notes that those four words—Act One, Scene One—sat alone atop page one of the book for more than six months. “I hadn’t found word number five as such but I had written some thirty priming ‘essays’ about my Iowa boyhood plus twenty songs about the people and the situations therein.”
So concerned was he with capturing the English language as it was actually spoken by Iowans of the year 1912 that he often eschewed rhyme and, sometimes, even music when writing “songs” for The Music Man. The opening number, Rock Island, famously has no music. It consists of a group of traveling salesmen talking shop aboard a railroad car—“Cash for the merchandise/Cash for the button hooks/Cash for the cotton goods/Cash for the hard goods”—in a cadence that mimics the sound of a train reducing and then picking up its speed. A later song, called “Piano Lesson,” also eschews rhyme. It has no real melody either, but the performers allow their voices to rise and fall in concert with a child who is practicing her scales on a nearby piano. As Willson writes in his memoir, “I had developed an abiding conviction through the years that in a musical comedy the musical numbers ought to grow out of the dialog without interruption or jerkiness.”
Again and again, as producers came and went, Willson refused to make his play more conventional, more accessible. He writes, “The Music Man now entered his fifth year of incubation. I was really getting Iowa-stubborn about the talking-rhymeless-rhythm songs as being the way I was determined to bridge dialog and song.”
When asked why he obsessed so over each and every word of the play, Willson gave this answer:
James Agate, the great English critic, was asked a pretty ingenious question once: “What standards do you apply to a play to decide if it’s any good or not?” To this all-inclusive query the great man gave, not a stony silence, nor a two-volume treatise on dramatic criticism. He merely replied that in his view a play is good if he finds himself interested in what word the various players were going to utter next. Yes, the words, there’s the rub, and the only way to get them is to hunt around for some good ones…Then go home and put them down on the paper. One after the other.
The Music Man is one of the greatest works in the entire canon of American musicals. The original show ran for 1,375 performances over the course of three and a half years. It won five Tony Awards—including Best Musical—and the cast album spent two hundred and forty-five weeks on the Billboard charts and won the first ever Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. The show is truly a product of America, having been inspired by the author’s Iowa boyhood, written largely in California, produced for the stage in New York, and then produced for the cinema back in California again. Thousands of high schools and colleges and local theater groups across the country (and, indeed, the world) have performed versions of the show.
The Music Man became a huge success because of the care that Meredith Willson put into each and every word of it. The changes that have been made by the producers of the current Broadway incarnation of the play are not major ones. It’s possible that, were he still alive today, Willson might not even have objected to these changes. Still, any alterations to a show whose creator toiled so doggedly over every word seem like a diminishment. If Willson had filled his show with racial slurs that, though historically accurate, made it hard to listen to these days, some bowdlerization of the work might be understandable. But Willson did nothing of the kind. If Willson’s original version of The Music Man can’t pass muster with today’s wokest playgoers, what play written prior to yesterday afternoon possibly could?
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