Writing Your Own Territory

Like a lot of theatre people I know, I grew up on the Rogers and Hammerstein classics my parents would play on movie nights: South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Carousel, not to mention Cinderella staring Brandi (anyone else still obsessed with that classic?). But occasionally thrown in among the R+H oldies was the other cornerstone of musical theatre, The Music Man.

Now I know we have some fans of Meredith Wilson’s classic here in the NMT Green Room already, so I’m not about to write another post about how great “Ya Got Trouble” is (and it is! Rap!), but after reading his book, But He Doesn’t Know The Territory!, on the history of the show, it dawned on me just how much Harold Hill and his legacy impacts contemporary musical theatre today. In the book, Wilson talks about how major producers and choreographers of the time, including Ernie Martin and Cy Feuer (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed…) and Bob Fosse passed up the work several times. Reasons? Book doesn’t work, it’s too long (the days when Les Mis didn’t exist), small town in Iowa not relatable enough to the big city, etc etc. However, what a lot of people commented was how many of Wilson’s musical ideas were so revolutionary for the time they weren’t quite sure they would work.

Odd, thinking of The Music Man being risky for it’s time when now it’s one of the most performed musicals in the world, but at the time it changed musical theatre. Take the opening. Explaining to directors and producers that the audience will learn the salesmen are on a train through their speech patterns mimicking a locomotive? Crazy. And what’s with “Ya Got Trouble” and the intro to “76 Trombones”— speeches that rhyme to a rhythm, but aren’t really poems and yet aren’t really songs? Or the piano number with the bare-bones tune? Or a barber shop quartet on stage? Crazy. That’s not musical theatre.

Well obviously we all know what a success Music Man went on to be. Won a million TONYs including Best Musical over West Side Story (I know I’m sorry everyone who’s still not over it, let’s all have a sleepover and talk it out), and today everyone’s basically sick of it and how clean it is. It’s funny looking back at something that today is considered so stereotypically musical theatre when in 1957 it was one of the biggest gambles on the stage.

Columbia Theatre's 2011 production of the music man (via Rande Archer)

Columbia Theatre’s 2011 production of The Music Man
(via Rande Archer)

To me, Meredith Wilson’s story of going from never having written a musical (after all, he didn’t know the territory) to creating a legendary piece is incredibly inspiring. The show not only encapsulated his small-town life but also became one of the first shows where character-driven musical moments were woven into the dialogue without being “songs.” I know a lot of people don’t necessarily take The Music Man seriously because it’s not as over the top as other shows or feature as many dramatic moments, but I think it opened a gate for more composers to write about what they know and incorporate their music into theater to play with typical structure, instead of working the other way around trying to squeeze their sound into the stereotypical musical theatre mold.

I love listening to The Music Man finding parallels to today’s newest composers in their innovative structure or simplistic tone, like with “The Piano Lesson” and a “Dear Professor Thompson” (Ordinary Days) number. I think The Music Man set the bar for finding musical moments in everyday life, and isn’t that one of the themes of new musical theatre today?

Not that I’m telling you what to do of course, but I recommend next time you need inspiration for something creative, trying listening to Wilson’s score. Remember how it changed musical theatre and how thrilling it would’ve been to hear the men re-create the sound of a train opening night and let that push you to defy your own pre-conceived boundaries. It’s definitely helped me when I write.

Or, if you need something to confuse you yet intrigue you, there’s always:

Watch this video on YouTube.

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