“Seventy-Six Trombones Led The Big Parade”

I’ll watch this musical anytime, but it’s one of my favorites to watch in the summer. It’s got that small town, patriotic vibe, mixed with a little romance and the hints of long-gone era. Brass bands, U.S. flags, capitalism at its best (and worst), and a local library – this has got to be one of the classic American musicals!

Let’s talk about The Music Man…and you’ve been warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.

A Brief Plot Synopsis

“Professor” Harold Hill is the bane of traveling salesmen because he’s a swindler who’s always coming up with schemes to get money. Hill decides to “give Iowa a try” and climbs off the train in the little town of River City where he receives a chilly welcome from the town citizens. After meeting up with an old friend, Hill sets off to create trouble in town and a market for his boys’ band sales package which includes instruments, uniforms, instruction books, and music lessons.

His plan runs into trouble when the local librarian and music teacher – Marian Paroo – isn’t easily won over by his scheming and wooing and quickly figures out that he’s a fake when it comes to reading and teaching music. However, Marian’s little brother – who’s been a sad, shy kid ever since his father died – becomes friends with Harold Hill.

“Seventy-Six Trombones” – Harold Hill (Robert Preston) sells his idea of a local band on Fourth of July (IMBD photo)

Hill sells his big ideas to the townfolks, breaks up the local gang, organizes a dance committee for the town’s busybodies, and keeps trying to catch Marian’s attention. As the town changes and draws together as a happy, excited community, Marian starts to fall in love with “the professor.”

Then, it falls apart. Just when Hill is ready to propose to Marian, another traveling salesmen arrives and tells everyone that Hill is thief and exposes his swindling scheme of the “boys’ band.” Hill gets hauled off to the city hall, but just as the mayor begins a trial, the boys’ band arrives and attempts to play the song Hill has been “teaching” them. The parents and townspeople are so impressed that they overlook the faulty notes and poor uniforms, learning a valuable lesson that love can blind faults and kindness and good intentions can pull a community together.

On Stage & In Film

Poster for the Film version

The Music Man was Meredith Wilson’s first music and was inspired by his boyhood in Iowa and his memoir And There I Stood With My Piccolo (1948). After years of writing, re-writing (it took over 40 drafts!), and working with others in the music industry, Wilson’s musical was ready for theater, opening in December 1957. Three years later, the show hit Broadway and ran for 1,375 performances. It won numerous awards – including five Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The show went on national tour, starting in 1958, and later enjoyed international success and continued revivals in the United States, including several Broadway returns.

The musical has been adapted for film twice. In 1962, Robert Preston and Shirley Jones starred in the production and it won six Academy Awards. In 2003, the musical became a television movie which was nominated for five Emmy Awards.

Some of the hit songs include:

  • Goodnight, My Someone
  • Seventy-six Trombones
  • Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little
  • Marian, The Librarian
  • Wells Fargo Wagon
  • Till There Was You

Early 20th Century

The Music Man is supposed to be set in about 1912, though a few details in the script were cultural references from a slightly later time period. The early years of the 20th Century in America were times of prosperity. Culture reached new heights as families had money and more leisure time. Materialism had started with unending advertisements, sales catalogs, and – yes – traveling salesmen bringing products to the home’s doorstep.

Patriotic feelings ran high. Civil War veterans were still alive. The Spanish-American War had just passed into history. The world was not afraid of global conflict, epidemics, or atomic bombs yet. It was an era of excitement. Cars hit the streets. Railroads crisscrossed the country. Flight had been achieved and was still a novelty.

The feelings of the era and small-town, Midwest America was well captured in the script and scenes of this musical.

The Wells Fargo Wagon

An 1870’s advertisement for Wells Fargo

In 1852, the Wells Fargo Company emerged as a joint-stock venture, offering transportation across the continental United States, with an emphasis on transportation from the California Gold Fields. Three years later the company expanded into carrying the mail and went into the stagecoach business. After the Civil War, they started taking over other stage lines and the company grew quickly.

By the early 20th Century, Wells Fargo offered one of the most recognized and reliable express shipping companies in the United States.

The song The Wells Fargo Wagon brings the cast of townsfolk together and they sing about local and exotic items they have received when the express wagon came to town. Maple sugar, curtains, “salmon from Seattle,” “raisins from Fresno,” the D.A.R.’s cannon for the courthouse square, and grapefruit from Tampa are some of the items listed in the song. The iconic Wells Fargo Wagons connected small town communities to the commerce and material purchase opportunities across the nation!

Inspired By History

The Music Man is not a history lesson or a documentary, but through entertainment it brilliantly captured the excitement, the patriotism, the friendly innocence, and emerging materialism of American society around 1912. Loosely based on Meredith Wilson’s own childhood and memories, this fantastic musical is a classic favorite for its setting, songs, and brilliant, old-time humor.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What’s your favorite song from this musical?

3 comments

  1. Gotta be “Wells Fargo Wagon!” Nowadays I sing, “Oh ho the brown UPS truck’s coming down the freeway. Please let it be for me!”

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