Willson, (Robert) Meredith (Reiniger)

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Willson, (Robert) Meredith (Reiniger)

Willson, (Robert) Meredith (Reiniger), American songwriter, conductor, and flutist; b. Mason City, Iowa, May 18, 1902; d. Santa Monica, Calif., June 15,1984. Willson did not produce the work he is known for, the Broadway musical The Music Man, until he was 55 years old. Before that he had a varied career that included stints as a flutist and piccolo player, a composer of classical works and film scores, a musical director and performer on radio and television, a memoirist, a novelist, and a hit songwriter. Nevertheless, he is best remembered for his three musicals of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the others being The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here’s Love, and for being the composer and lyricist of such standards as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’’ and ’Till There Was You.” Willson’s work often evoked a sense of turn-of-the-century Americana, although his patriotic themes reflected not just nostalgia but also the exuberance and raffishness of a young country: his most memorable character, Professor Harold Hill of The Music Man, was a con man.

Willson’s mother, Rosalie Reiniger Willson, was a piano teacher, and he took his first lessons from her; he also learned the flute and piccolo, which he played in the Mason City H.S. Band. After finishing high school in 1919, he moved to N.Y. and attended the Damrosch Inst. of Musical Art (since renamed Juilliard). He undertook private study with Georges Barreré (flute; 1920-29), Julius Gold (1921-23), Henry Hadley (1923-24), Bernard Wagenaar, and Mortimer Wilson. On Aug. 29, 1920, he was married for the first time; he and his wife Elizabeth divorced in 1947. In 1921, at the age of 19, he was hired as first flutist in John Philip Sousa’s Band, a position he held until 1923, when he joined the Rialto Theatre Orch. led by Hugo Riesenfeld. In 1924 he moved to the N.Y. Philharmonic-Symphony Orch. under Arturo Toscanini and also played with the N.Y. Chamber Music Society. He had his first song in a motion picture in October 1928, when “My Cavalier” (music by Riesenfeld, lyrics by Willson) was used in The Cavalier.

In 1929, Willson moved to San Francisco and became musical director of the Northwest territory for the American Broadcasting Company (not the current ABC) and of local radio station KFRC. In 1932 he became musical director of the Western division of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

Willson’s Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, titled San Francisco, was written to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake. It was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony Orch. with the composer conducting on April 19, 1936.

In 1937, Willson moved to Los Angeles, expanding his duties with NBC to include conducting the music on various radio programs and gradually becoming an on-air personality. The play The Little Foxes (N.Y., Feb. 15, 1939) featured a song, “Never Feel Too Weary to Pray,” written by Willson, and he was responsible for the score of the motion picture version, which was released in August 1941. He also composed and arranged the music for the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator, released in October 1940. Meanwhile, he had written a second symphony, titled The Missions of California, which was premiered by the Los Angeles Symphony Orch. with Albert Coates conducting on April 21, 1940.

Willson wrote “You and I” as the theme song for one of his radio programs, Maxwell House Coffee Time; when it was recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orch. in 1941 it became his first Top Ten hit in September. (Bing Crosby’s version also made the Top Ten.) His second came in December, when Tommy Dorsey and His Orch. with Frank Sinatra on vocals scored with “Two in Love.”

Upon the entry of the U.S. into World War II, Willson joined the army and became musical director of the Armed Forces Radio Service, a position he held until he was mustered out in 1945. In 1946 he had his own radio series, The Meredith Willson Show, on NBC. He married actress and singer Ralina (Rini) Zarova on March 13, 1948. (She died of cancer Dec. 6,1966, at age 54.) Having previously published a musical instruction book, he wrote a memoir of his childhood in Iowa, And There I Stood with My Piccolo, published in 1948. This led his friend, songwriter Frank Loesser, to suggest a musical based on his reminiscences, which he began to work on a few years later.

The Meredith Willson Show came to television for four weeks in the summer of 1949, although Willson continued to be occupied primarily with radio, appearing in 1950 on the series The Big Show with Tallulah Bankhead, for which he wrote the popular closing theme, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.” In December 1951 he became a panelist on the TV quiz show The Name’s the Same, staying with the program for two seasons. That same month his seasonal standard, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” became a hit for Perry Corno. In 1952, Willson published a novel, Who Did What to Fidalia?

Willson’s “I See the Moon” was introduced by The Mariners on the TV show Arthur Godfrey and His Friends and became a hit for them in the fall of 1953. In 1955, Willson published another memoir, Eggs I Have Laid. But much of his time in the mid-1950s was taken up writing the libretto, music, and lyrics for The Music Man, the story of a con man posing as a band instructor in the fictional town of River City, Iowa, in the summer of 1912. When the show opened on Broadway in 1957 it became one of the biggest hits of the decade, running 1,375 performances and winning the Tony Award for Outstanding Musical.

The impressive score, largely written in the musical styles of the period, such as marches (“Seventy-Six Trombones”) and barbershop quartets (“Lida Rose”)—and also featuring songs closely integrated into the story, notably the patter song “Ya Got Trouble”—was not conducive to producing outside hits. (The exception, “Till There Was You,” which became a Top 40 hit for Anita Bryant a year and a half after the show opened and became a standard recorded even by The Beatles, was the only song Willson did not write specifically for the show; it was a revised version of a song he had written in 1950 called “Till I Met You.”)

The cast album, released in early 1958, was a massive hit, reaching #1, staying in the charts for more than four years, selling a million copies, and winning the Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album. Its success spawned several other recordings of the show’s music, including one by Willson and his wife, …And Then I Wrote the Music Man, in 1960. (Willson also wrote a book about the creation of the show, “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory.”)

Willson’s second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (I960), also was set in the early part of the century in the U.S. While not as successful as The Music Man, it ran 532 performances; its cast album reached the Top Ten and stayed in the charts almost a year. (Nat “King” Cole had a singles chart entry with the song “If I Knew” from the show.)

The film version of The Music Man, released in August 1962, closely followed the stage version. The soundtrack album was a gold-selling Top Ten hit that stayed in the charts for over a year. Willson’s final Broadway musical, Here’s Love (1963), based on the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, ran 334 performances, and its cast album spent several months in the charts. The film version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown was released in July 1964 and its soundtrack album stayed in the charts more than six months.

Willson married for a third time, to Rosemary Sullivan, on Valentine’s Day, 1968. Under the auspices of the San Francisco and Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, he wrote the operetta 1491,“a romantic speculation” based on the life of Christopher Columbus. It was given a try out in Los Angeles in September and October 1969 but never brought to Broadway. Willson then retired; he died of heart failure at age 82.


MUSICALS: The Music Man (N.Y., Dec. 19, 1957); The Unsinkable Molly Brown (N.Y., Nov. 3, 1960); Here’s Love (N.Y., Oct. 3, 1963). FILMS: The Great Dictator (1940); The Little Foxes (1941); The Music Man (1962); The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964).


What Every Young Musician Should Know (N.Y., 1938); And There I Stood with My Piccolo (N.Y., 1948); Who Did What to Fidalia? (N.Y., 1952); Eggs I Have Laid (N.Y., 1955); “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” (N.Y., 1959).

—William Ruhlmann

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