The end Meredith Willsona prolific but somewhat unexplored figure in 20th century entertainment, is gaining more and more attention these days in multiple directions:
- An ongoing Broadway revival of Willson’s best-known work, The Music Man, featuring Hugh Jackman;
- A new book by a British scholar about the life and work that led to the perennially popular 1957 musical and its film adaptations;
- An upcoming biographical documentary, believed to be the first ever, from PBS filmmakers in Willson’s home state of Iowa.
A common thread running through all three projects has been the need for research in the Great American Songbook Foundation’s Library and Songbook Archive. The Indiana-based nonprofit foundation is dedicated to preserving the history – and demonstrating the continued relevance – of America’s timeless popular music. Its historic collections contain more than half a million items representing the performers, composers, lyricists, arrangers and other artists behind those popular pop, jazz, Broadway and Hollywood standards that still resonate. today.
Among the most comprehensive collections is the Meredith Willson Documents, the contents of which include original photographs, personal and professional correspondence, sheet music, arrangements, and audio and visual recordings from the personal collection of the musician-broadcaster-playwright. Donated to the Foundation in 2012 by the Meredith and Rosemary Willson Charitable Foundation (now The Music Man Foundation), the materials will play a key role in an hour-long documentary with the job title Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man, which is slated to premiere early next year on Iowa PBS and is targeting national distribution via public broadcast networks.
Iowa PBS producer-director Tyler Brinegar said the concept of a Willson documentary has been floating around for at least two decades, but it wasn’t until recently that two key elements fell into place: funding for secure the necessary music and film rights, and the availability of the Willson collection as cataloged and curated by the Songbook Foundation.
“For a documentary film, having photos, letters and scores in your own handwriting is just invaluable,” says Brinegar, who has spent the past week in the archives poring over files, scanning images and to conduct interviews. “If this stuff didn’t exist, I think I would have been skeptical of doing this from the start… Without it, we’d just have a Wikipedia page as a movie.”
Dominic Broomfield-McHugh, professor of musicology at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, revisited the archives alongside the Brinegar team. Broomfield-McHugh has worked with the Songbook Foundation since acquiring the Willson Collection, and last year published what is arguably the most comprehensive book ever written on the man’s life and work. , The Big Parade: Meredith Willson‘s Musicals from The Music Man to 1491.
A December article in The New York Times highlighted some of Broomfield-McHugh’s finds in the songbook archive, including early drafts of TMM with previously unknown songs and characters who never do the final assembly.
“This book would never have seen the light of day without the Meredith Willson collection here, and without it being made available so easily and everyone being so useful,” says Broomfield-McHugh, who has also written books on Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady and other topics. “The collection contains all aspects of Willson’s life, from his childhood to his last years when people paid him homage.”
Executive Director of the Songbook Foundation Christopher Lewis said the researchers laying the groundwork for TMM’s current Broadway production have visited the archives multiple times.
“Our ultimate goal is always to make Songbook Library & Archives materials available and accessible,” says Lewis. “It’s not enough to catalog and preserve these objects if people can’t see them and learn from them. We’re honored to be stewards of the Willson Collection, and it’s been exciting to see the interest in this particular collection grow in recent years.”
Born in 1902, Willson began his extensive career as a young flautist for Sousa and Toscanini, found success as an NBC bandleader in the golden age of radio, composed scores for films Hollywood like Charlie Chaplin‘s The Dictator and wrote popular songs such as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”.
“If he had just done The Music Man, I don’t think there would have been much of a story,” Brinegar says. “But the thing is, The Music Man was really the pinnacle of a 30-year career in music.”
Before visiting Indiana, Brinegar and Broomfield-McHugh spent a few days in New York, reviewing some of Willson’s manuscripts at the Juilliard School and interviewing Broadway personalities with ties to his work, including award-winning orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. of the EGOT, who worked on the current. revival of MMT; Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman, who led a revival in 2000; and Tony Award-winning actor John Cullum92 years old. Cullum was the male lead in 1491, which closed quickly and never premiered on Broadway.
“He felt he let Meredith down by not taking her to Broadway,” Brinegar says, “but if (Willson) was disappointed, he didn’t show it, because he’s the kind of guy it was.”
Both scholars agree that the emerging image of Willson shows a humble, generous and hard-working artist, who got into musical theater in his 50s when he could have comfortably retired to Beverly Hills.
“With The Music Man, everyone assumes, well, he woke up one day and wrote about his childhood, and from what we can tell from the Songbook collection, that’s not the case – it was a difficult process,” Brinegar says. “In four or five years, he not only didn’t give up, but he reinvented himself again and again to cross the finish line, so much so that some of the songs we know best came quite late in the process. “
Reconstructing the process behind classic musicals is what interests scholars like Broomfield-McHugh, and why he traveled so many times from Britain to Carmel, Indiana.
“That’s the real value of the archives here more broadly, is that they document the process of making the Songbook,” says Broomfield-McHugh. “I’m in my element when I’m in the songbook archive.”