Meredith Willson, The Lost Interview

The original article, somewhat yellow with age.

Last week, I was doing what good little girls do during a pandemic: purging old files. Surprise…I ran across a recommendation of yours truly issued by the head of Iowa State University’s journalism department. He said that though I didn’t have an exemplary academic record, some writing talent and charm did exist. He mentioned, as a writing example, a story I had written about composer (and Iowa resident) Meredith Willson. Though I remember being in a joint interview with the man who wrote “The Music Man”, I had forgotten about the story. I came across it later in the same file and found the contents strangely relevant today… For those readers who remember Meredith Willson, here is the story published May 7, 1963, (used with permission from the Iowa State Daily Media Group) in the Iowa State Daily:

Just Ask Question, Get Kiss for Answer

“Mr. Willson, I think I’m in love with you.”

The statement appeared to catch everyone off guard except Meredith Willson. He got up from his chair, walked over to the girl reporter and kissed her on the cheek.

“I didn’t expect this, but it’s a good start,” said the composer.

And so began a small press conference with Meredith Willson and his wife, Rini, who were in town Saturday to lead the Veishea parade and view the Stars Over Veishea production of “The Music Man”.

Willson with frosted grey hair, wearing a blue suit, seated his wife, Rini, next to him. Mrs. Willson wore a plain black dress accented by a large red-maroon hat.

Unorthodox Beginning

The somewhat unorthodox beginning to the interview set the tone for the entire discussion.

During a 35-minute period, the composer of Broadway hits, “The Music Man” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” answered only three questions. Answering the first question alone took the composer approximately 15 minutes.

When asked to explain his theory of writing musical comedy, the composer thought a minute. “I’ve never said this before, but I guess now is as good a time as any.”

A vintage photo of Meredith and Rini Willson.

“The only kind of theater I have faith in is the kind of theater that people enjoy seeing. It’s not uplifting, not moralizing, not anything except plain old garden variety entertainment.”

As Willson spoke, he occasionally looked up at the ceiling apparently trying to pull from the air the exact words he wanted.

“If we have a duty, it is to give people some thread of hope, some kind of reassurance. The greatest single reassurances are in the world of art.”

“It must be a great reassurance to everyone to hear a human being walk on stage and play a concerto — like a god.”

“People are scared to death in these times largely because of a depressing dragging down of literature both in books and on the stage.”

“Don’t tell me that’s what life is all about,” said Willson vehemently. “I don’t want to hear that these kinds of things don’t change. Why put them on stage… Some place there is a reason for humans to exist.”

“I try to write about certain simple, sentimental facts of human beings that are understandable and not discouraging and depressing.”

Willson’s concern for his subject was evidenced in his verbosity and physical actions. He shouted, left his chair, stood up to try and put across a point and slapped his hand loudly on his knee to punctuate remarks.

Loud Slap

A Veishea souvenir program rested on his lap and when he hit his knee, the program took a loud slap. Mrs. Willson quietly took the program off her husband’s lap.

“I have always believed that a musical story should be told with music and book. The two should be to the highest degree interchangeable one with the other,” said Willson.

“People have said that the numbers in ‘My Fair Lady’ were talk songs, but that’s not true. The songs have lyrics and tunes. The only reason they are called talk-songs is that Rex Harrison couldn’t sing.”

Talk Song

“Trouble” in “Music Man” is a talk song. The words can be used as dialogue or can be rhythmically put together to become lyrics. There is no tune, only voice inflection.

To exemplify his point, Willson leaned his elbows on his knees and spoke as dialogue the first verse of “Trouble.” “You see, this is dialogue. Now when you put rhythm with the words, they become lyrics.” Tapping his foot loudly on the floor, the author performed the entire “Trouble” number.

Willson then explained why he ended “Music Man” with the hero kissing the heroine.

“People seem to think that a good writer has to be above writing an end kiss, but no one has ever said why. I believe the audience is entitled to see the hero and heroine come together. All sentiment is not a lie at all. I believe in the clinch.”

Ruined Molly

Diane Taylor in 1963.

“Director Dore Schary reined the end of ‘Molly Brown’ when he eliminated the reunion kiss of Molly and Johnny,” said an angry Willson.

Willson’s wife, Rini, had sat quietly during the interview except for a “shh” when Willson got excited.

Rini, it was soon learned, is not always the silent partner in the Willson team. When her husband writes a song, he calls her to the piano and asks her to sing it.

“If I get tingly,” she said, “something in Meredith’s genius has hit me and I know the song is good. If I don’t get that feeling then I usually somewhat uneasily say, ‘It’s nice.'”

A Response

Willson interrupted, “Then I say, ‘You don’t like it do you,’ and I shout, ‘I supposed you could do better’ and stomp out of the room. A few minutes later, I come back into the room and apologetically call, ‘Rini’.”

Watching the clock, a member of VCC announced that Willson had better cut the interview short in order to catch his afternoon nap.

Finishing his last answer, Willson suddenly asked, “Would you like to hear a song from the new show?” The small audience smiled affirmatively. Wilson explained the story of the show and the particular spot for the song his wife was about to sing.

As Willson fed the lines to his wife, he looked at her and held her hand. Rini, with a lovely soprano voice repeated the words after the author. The song was from Willson’s newest show going into rehearsal in two weeks,”Here’s Love.”

Note: The song Rini sang was called “My Wish”, but a more well-known song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is also from the same show.


3 responses on “Meredith Willson, The Lost Interview

  1. What a great experience this must have been! I agree, it’s still very relevant. Thanks for sharing.

    And, you’ve aged beautifully!

  2. Wow! I didn’t know that fact about Rex Harrison. You have done well holding on to your best stuff as a youth. I suggest you get a blown up version of that picture and put in your hallway so you can see how young you still are.

  3. Fantastic interview! Both the interviewer and her choice of interviewee! Such talent you expressed so early in your career! You were obviously destined to become the talented writer/journalist you are today. Loved the ’63 photo. Wonderful smile, yes, the charm shows through.

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