Shipoopi: Some Thoughts on Two Meredith Willson Memoirs

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Who wouldn’t have liked Meredith Willson (1902-84)? Two of his autobiographical volumes, And There I Stood With My Piccolo (1948) and “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” (1959), long out of print, have been re-published by the University of Minnesota Press, and are superb reads. Don’t read them out of order. Don’t read something else between the two. They’re a play in two acts, farce and tragedy akimbo, full of showmanship.

As the earlier book was published nearly a decade before The Music Man conquered Broadway, it occurred to me perhaps it could be read as a document of its time, and not reexamined with a 2010 lens. Why? Because And There I Stood With My Piccolo isn’t just an artifact of the antecedents of The Music Man, the back-cover copy notwithstanding. I think of it as artistic foreshadowing. If Willson hadn’t paid tribute to his roots, if he hadn’t saluted the humanity, flaws of all, of his origins, he might not have written The Music Man at all.

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And while a 2010 lens would dictate reading And There I Stood With My Piccolo with the image of Willson as eternally synonymous with Broadway, the book was published well before that idea took hold. It was band playing and orchestra playing, it was popular song and film scores, that America linked to Willson — if America saw him in any indelible way in 1948 at all. And to think that the youth he recounts in the Mason City, Iowa, before World War I wasn’t so distant, so hazy, back in 1948, makes you grateful for such a vivid link to yesteryear.

Yet another pleasure, probably the greatest pleasure, in the volume is found in savoring Willson’s distinct voice — no one’s syntax, no one’s word choice, no one’s palpable sense of irony could ever be confused with his. The first book isn’t merely a paean to early-20th-century Midwestern values but a work of living history, times that once existed in tones beyond sepia.

Willson’s wonderfully self-actualized fetish for colloquialisms and slang, so unquenchable in the first book, calms down in the second, which tracks the evolution of The Music Man from idea to more drafts, it seems, than an open window in a thunderstorm. We think producing on Broadway is a Byzantine, labyrinthine process today! This is the 1950s, the storied supposed apotheosis of the supposed Golden Age of the American musical. To read Willson’s view of it, it was just as messy, just as cataclysm-prone, just as commercial-slick, just as nutty and personality-driven as it is today. The theater and film industry characters who parade through “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” are at once jaundiced and idealistic, confirmed hucksters and honest brokers of art (and music and comedy and theater).

If it seems I’m writing in generalities, trust me: Willson cites more legendary Broadway names that you might expect as the second volume opens; the marvel is how he kept himself together as an odds against The Music Man, at one point, seriously begin to stack up. Unquestionably part of what powered him was his wife, Rini, of whom he writes so lovingly and with such compassion. Unquestionably another facet of Willson’s peculiarly self-sustaining attitude toward life is his fascination for odd, kooky people, a category that fits people in the arts exquisitely. The one thing he didn’t do, in life or in his art — even when conceiving the world of Professor Harold Hill — was artifice. No, that he could not abide.

(Next I plan to read Willson’s Eggs I Have Laid. Any advice?)