How a white knight brought ‘Music Man’ to life

In his memoir “But He Doesn’t Know The Territory,” theatrical journeyman Meredith Willson recalls the eight long years he spent writing his homage to early 20th century life in the small-town Iowa of his youth. There were 30 revisions. There were 40 songs. And there were endless efforts to interest someone, anyone, in taking his play about the fictional town of River City, Iowa, and putting it on stage. Willson’s re-writes, his pitch meetings, his attempts to buttonhole producer potentials, were earnest, dogged — and unsuccessful.

Until the night of Dec. 19, 1956, when Willson and his wife visited Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden in his New York apartment, sat in front of a piano in the Bloomgarden family’s living room and performed every line and song in the play. Bloomgarden’s young sons John and David were there, and listened to the story of Professor Harold Hill, the charming if fraudulent musical instrument salesman who traveled the territory swindling the locals out of their money before moving on to new victims in unsuspecting pastures. Wilson introduced the Bloomgardens to songs that would go on to become American classics, like “Trouble (in River City)”, “76 Trombones” and “’Til There Was You.”

Exactly one year later, on Dec. 19, 1957, “The Music Man” opened on Broadway. Bloomgarden, the son of Polish immigrants, was the product of New York public schools who began his career as an accountant before deciding that “the theater was for me.” When he agreed to meet with Meredith Willson, he had already produced dramas like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.” Bloomgarden’s son David remembers Miller and his wife, Marilyn Monroe, coming to see his father at their apartment. It’s a vivid memory: Monroe would play with him on his bedroom floor while Miller and his father talked business.

Kermit Bloomgarden loved the Willsons’ husband-and-wife rendition of trouble in River City, and quickly told the couple he would produce it — even though he was in the middle of producing another Broadway play, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Unable to believe the good news, Willson asked one of Bloomgarden’s competitors whether he should believe him. The competitor vouched for Bloomgarden’s reputation as a straight shooter. “If he said he’ll do it,” said Bloomgarden’s rival, “he’ll do it.”

Bloomgarden did. The story of Harold Hill’s extended stopover in River City was one of small-town America: the good, the bad, the close-minded and the kindly, the ugly and the sweet. The songs brought audiences to their feet. The show ran for three years, became a hit movie and has spawned several revivals. The number of high school, college and community theater productions of “The Music Man” since Kermit Bloomgarden first brought it to life roughly approximates the number of corn fields in Iowa, and it’s no wonder. The show is cynic-proof.

Three years ago, a new revival was announced, scheduled to open in 2020, with Broadway mega-stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster set to lead the big parade. A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the opening, however: COVID shut Broadway down for two years. The revival finally opened in February.

Kermit Bloomgarden died in 1976, leaving behind a rich theatrical legacy. Earlier this month, his son David, a retired physician now in his 70s, visited the show with his wife Jane. The experience left him drained: by the show’s exuberance and by the emotional memory of accompanying his father to the theater at age 10 as the great American musical took shape. When it was over, and 1,500 theater goers had finished a standing ovation, David Bloomgarden was brought backstage so that he could pay his respects to Jackman and Foster, and they to him and, through him, to his father. The two stars were warm, even tender, leaving Bloomgarden in tears, sure that his father would be as well.

Jeff Robbins is a Boston lawyer and former US delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

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