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White Knight: The Producer Who Brought 'The Music Man' to Life

Jeff Robbins on

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 rewrites, his pitch meetings, his attempts to buttonhole potential producers, 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 "(Ya Got) Trouble," "76 Trombones" and "Till There Was You".

Exactly one year later, on Dec. 19, 1957, "The Music Man" opened on Broadway. Bloomgarden, the son of Polish immigrants, was a 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 "(Ya Got) Trouble," 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 closed-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 cornfields in Iowa, and it's no wonder. The show is cynic-proof; you would have to be the Unabomber not to love it.

 

Three years ago, a new revival was announced, scheduled to open in 2020, with Broadway megastars 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-19 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 theatergoers 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.

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Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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