The Music Man, Librarian, and 76 Trombones at 60

Shirley Jones and Robert Preston in The Music Man. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man marks 60 years since the Oscar-winning film hit the big screen during the summer of 1962.

When one looks back on 1962, it’s typically known as one of the greatest years in cinematic history. There’s no lie in this. In any other year, The Music Man might have won Best Picture. But when released up against the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, good luck with that. The film’s only Oscar win was for Best Scoring of Music (Adaptation or Treatment). At the time of the ceremony, there were two different categories for scores. Otherwise, it would have just been Lawrence of Arabia winning the sole award for Best Score. But anyway, the year was so stacked with films that none of the acting performances received any Oscar nominations. Other Oscar nominations include Best Picture, Film Editing, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color), and Sound Recording).

Where Lawrence of Arabia is the Best Picture winner, The Music Man is a film that offers catchy tunes throughout the two and a half hour run time. The film starts right off the bat with “Main Title/Rock Island.” The spoken rap sequence sets up the film and introduces audiences to con man salesman Professor Harold Hill (Robert Preston). From there on out, we pay witness to Hill conning the River City residents into buying instruments for a boys marching band. Along with this plotline, Hill woos Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones), the town librarian and piano instructor, so that she does not discredit his credentials. She learns early on that the ruse is a lie but is won over upon seeing Winthrop (Ron Howard) join in the singing. At this point, she decides to hide any evidence from Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford).

A disgruntled salesman arrives in town and sets out to expose Hill. The only allies that Hill has at this moment are both Marian and associate Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett). It’s at this point in the musical that Hill realizes he is in love with Marian and won’t leave. The mob takes him to Mayor Shin. Shin’s plan is to tar and feather the con man. But just as we fear the worst, the boys marching band arrives, plays Beethoven’s “Minuet in G,” and saves the day. This segues into a fantastical reprise of “76 Trombones” with everyone wearing uniforms and the town residents joining in. It’s one heck of a musical finale!

Back in the 1960s, it was unusual for a Broadway director to also produce and direct the film adaptation. One way of looking at it is that Morton DaCosta would not screw it up. Outside of three songs, every song makes the transition from Broadway in their entirety. Warner Bros. takes advantage of their backlot, shooting outside scenes on Midwest Street and Kings Row.

In terms of casting, you cannot go wrong with Robert Preston as Professor Harold Hill. After all, he performed this role almost 900 times on the stage. It’s hard to imagine that Warner Bros. offered the role to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant. Grant turned it down: “Not only will I not play it, but if Robert Preston doesn’t do it, I won’t even see the picture.” There’s no lie here. As great as Grant is an as actor, sometimes, movie studios should just cast the Broadway stars who originated the role. Meanwhile, Shirley Jones gets the role of Marian because Barbara Cook wasn’t seen as bankable. Not casting the Broadway stars would come back to haunt Jack L. Warner a few years later by going with Audrey Hepburn instead of Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. He would not make this mistake again with 1776.

When one is looking to watch a film with an Independence Day theme, they can’t go wrong with The Music Man. The first time that audiences hear “76 Trombones” is during the holiday celebration in the River City High School gym. It’s a song that keeps recurring throughout the score as a leitmotif. Outside of “76 Trombones,” a few other songs achieved popularity since the musical debuted on Broadway, including “Iowa Stubborn,” “Ya Got Trouble,” and “Till There Was You.” The Beatles would cover “Till There Was You” in their early years. Last year, Apple TV+ musical comedy series Schmigadoon! paid homage by way of characters, plot, costume, and set design.

The Music Man might not be remembered as highly as its movie musical contemporaries but the film is still a fan favorite.

DIRECTOR: Morton DaCosta
SCREENWRITER: Marion Hargrove
CAST: Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Hermione Gingold, Paul Ford, Pert Kelton, The Buffalo Bills, with Timmy Everett, Susan Luckey, Ron Howard, Harry Hickox, Charles Lane, Mary Wickes

Warner Bros. released The Music Man in theaters on June 19, 1962. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.