Similar Musicals; Different Successes: The Music Man vs 110 In the Shade

David Culliton

The following is a transcript of a surreptitiously recorded dialogue between rainmaker Bill Starbuck and music man Harold Hill in no particular place during no particular time.

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Starbuck: Say, ain’t you that fellow who became a music man for a little town in Iowa without knowing a lick of music?

Hill: That certainly sounds like me! Professor Harold Hill at your service, my friend. Who might you be?

S: The name’s Starbuck, Bill Starbuck. I’m a rainmaker, ending droughts and bringing that sweet water from the sky for only $100 per location!

H: Truly a pleasure, sir. Can’t say I’ve ever met a rainmaker before.

S: Oh no, sir, we’re a rare breed. Though I reckon you might be more familiar with my way of business. We may be of vastly different professions, Mr. Hill, but something tells me we’re in the same line of work. Or at least were, ‘till you settled down with that sweet little librarian.

H: Ohhhh a con man, then! Perhaps I have—

S: I ain’t never said that, my friend.

[Transcription note: a brief pause in the audio followed by a slight chuckle from Hill seems to indicate a wink from Starbuck after his ostensibly coy rebuttal of that label]

H: Oh, yes, you must excuse me, my tongue has the nastiest habit of slipping on occasion.

S: [laughing] Oh it’s quite alright.

H: Now how can it be that I’ve never heard of a man of such unique talents as yourself?

S: You tell me. I’ve had my story told a few times; some northern theaters thought it would be a keen idea to bring my tale to the stage set to some quaint music. I always enjoyed the little show they wrote about me. Now keep in mind, I got a brother with the voice of an angel, so you best believe I grew up with an appreciation for the musical arts; this ain’t no untrained ear’s opinion…

H: I seem to be the king of untrained ears, my friend, I’ll trust your judgment.

S: Well, they gave me some mighty fine songs, some good ones too to the wonderful spinster I met in the southwest, and to her family, too! The script they wrote is nice and simple, accurate to how it all happened, some good performers have been in it over the years, and yet with all that, the good people of the world barely know my name!

H: Fascinating! Now what is this theatrical piece of yours called?

S: 110 in the Shade. Damn accurate title, too. The town I was in when that story of my life took place was about as hot as could be, on account of the drought I had rode in to cure. There was actually a non-musical play about that same story of mine BEFORE my musical, called The Rainmaker, but even fewer people done heard o’ that one.

H: How truly ignorant of them! You know, I’ve had my own stories told in a similar medium…

S: Oh I know, it’s how I heard o’ you in the first place! The Music Man, one of the most popular musicals of all time.

H: [chuckling] Very good! Yes, truly an honor to have such a wonderful piece written about me, and to have it reach such success! It’s won awards, been seen by millions, even brought to the cinema a couple of times.

S: Must be nice…

H: Oh well, yes, don’t mean to brag, another one of those bad habits of mine.

S: Hey, we all got our vices.

H: I thank you for understanding, friend. But you must understand, it is nice to have such a legacy!

S: Well naturally; it’s what we all want from life, really.

H: Exactly! And mine is quite rewarding. When my story was first put on stage, it was heralded as a veritable modern masterpiece! People called it funny and inventive, comparing it to some other popular theatrical piece about gamblers or something.

S: No kidding!

H: You wish I were. I’m telling you, this musical play had everything! I was portrayed by some dashing fellow called Preston, my lovely wife by a gifted soprano whom I believe was named Barbara Cook; she even won an award for it!

S: For playing your wife?

H: Only she!

S: Hell of a world we live in…

H: Well that’s not even the best part! The whole piece itself won some sort of huge award that only the best of the best of these kinds of things do. Erhm… did yours win an award like that?

S: Not as far as I remember.

H: Oh, pardon me, I hope you took no offense at that.

S: None, friend; just the facts of the case. I don’t think we won any such awards, but that doesn’t mean folks didn’t like it.

H: Well I should hope not!

S: No, no, people certainly have said nice things about my story over the years! They seem to enjoy its simplicity, theatrical journalists callin’ it things like charming and sturdy. Almost everyone who knows about it seems to like the music at least. The guys who made the music for it I guess created some other show that holds some sort of fantastick record, like longest running ever somethin’ somethin’, so they’re known for solid tuners.

H: What kind of music, pray tell?

S: Oh, it’s all some sort of simple, rural, classical style. Originally, they wrote it more like one of those operas you always hear about, but they ended up changing it to how it is now. You got your ballads and a showstoppin’ song or two, but it mostly is all straightforward and melodical, a real southern, folks-of-the-land flavor, ya know?

H: I think I follow, yes.

S: How about you? What’s the music in yours like?

H: Well it’s got a flavor for the folks of the land as well, but bear in mind these are northern folks, as you might call them. It’s simple, too, like yours, but they like their music big and brassy! It was written to try to reflect the kind of American band music of which I became the purveyor in River City.

S: Same stew, different spices.

H: My thinking exactly! Makes me wonder then why my spices ended up making my proverbial stew so much more popular than yours.

S: Beats me, seems both the pieces based on our lives have so many similarities.

H: A dashing con man rides into town…

S: [chuckling] Dashing, nice touch.

H: Well I certainly thought so.

S: The charismatic fella promises a miraculous solution to a problem, falls for a skeptical young woman…

H: [gasps] You fell for the spinster, didn’t you?

S: Harder than Icarus when he lost his wings.

H: Ouch.

S: Didn’t end quite as perfectly for me as it did for you, either, but I hear she’s all happy and fulfilled with her town’s sheriff so at least she’s not lonely no more…

H: But regardless, fell for her, changed her mind about the man…

S: …AND the whole town’s minds while he’s at it, even if they don’t find the gentleman’s business practices totally… legitimate.

H: Well it doesn’t matter; he brought joy and excitement to a somber little American town!

S: And the girl…

H: And everyone learned something about themselves in the process.

S: Those sound a hell of a lot alike to me! And yet…

H: Curious, isn’t it? So similar and yet one vastly more well-known than the other! But why?

S: Well, maybe it doesn’t help that my story was first being told around the same time as some much bigger stories about people like some matchmaker and a popular comedienne who came after my time, Fanny something…

H: And the people liked it bigger and flashier than just a simple piece about some folks in the south, didn’t they?

S: I reckon. I think the one about the matchmaker won that award you were talkin’ about. It’s a shame, really. There weren’t all that many worthwhile stories being told when mine first came out, but just a few months down the line those other one overshadowed us. Suddenly no one cared much for the tales of a town in a drought.

H: But I don’t understand! My story is the same simple idea: a small town and a man with a big personality, and no one could get enough of it! It was said to be a “fresh slant on Americana,” a loving send up to a bygone era—just like yours!

S: From what I remember of YOUR story, though, it was first being told at a time that wasn’t as crowded with these mega-tales. The only other theatrical piece I really can recall comin’ across at the same time as yours was some big, sad tale about fighting gangs and starcrossed lovers. It was damn good, but it was far from enough to overpower your story.

H: And mine was big, too. Bigger than yours, at least. I think the first time it was shown, the crafty fellows telling it had an actual smokestack blow onstage at the beginning of each telling.

S: Now you’re gettin’ it! Like you said, the people of the north like it when things are big. You had big, brassy music, my friend. There were probably a lot more people up on that stage than mine had, you even had some impressive technical effect to kick it all off! People remember that, especially when there’s only one other really good story to remember any way.

H: It might have had something to do, too, with that fantastic talente who portrayed me in the first go-round. He had told some other stories in the past but hadn’t had the chance to really tell a good one in a while. Portraying me is what really made him a star, especially as… do you mind if I brag a little more?

S: [laughing] Go on ahead, Hill.

H: Well, especially as someone like me, full of bombast and charisma. People love a man with confidence and swagger, and as I think we both know they LOVE a good success story. With that Preston fellow in the lead, the people who heard my story got both of those things rolled into one!

S: That sounds like it’s got some merit. The guy who played me when MY story premiered was already well known. I’m about as charismatic and memorable as you are, but it was another solid spangle in an already well-decorated belt. Not quite as exciting as your Preston.

H: My word… is it really all down to that? Timing and a single well-placed man is what makes people know who I am and draw a blank on you?

S: Certainly sound like that to me, but it’s hard to draw solid conclusions in such a metaphysical plane of existence...

H: Oh, undoubtedly. Mr. Metaphysical Author, would you kindly conclude for us?

David: Gladly, thanks guys! The Music Man had a lot of things going for it upon its opening: an exceedingly strong cast and creative team, relatable success stories in the form of Preston and Meredith Wilson (himself finding great success on his first big Broadway foray), a nostalgic but still large and impressive homage to an idealized (if not a little silly and puritanical) old Americana, not a lot of overwhelming competition, memorable bombast, technical prowess, the works. It came out at the perfect time with all the right pieces in place to create one of the most iconic American musicals of all time. 110 had some good stuff going for it, too: the composers responsible for New York’s longest-running musical EVER, two powerhouse stars, a solid and emotionally-driven book, but it showed up too late for what it was. It was TOO small and TOO simple in a time when Broadway was coming back from a slump better than ever with musicals that were large and complex. It didn’t have room to breathe and so it petered out, a sweet little gem undeservedly lost to the ages. There are so many little intricacies and details that can’t be covered with a speculative dialogue like this, and I encourage you all to look into both shows (and generally look up and listen to 110 if you never have before) and see if you can draw your own conclusions based on what you find.

S: Neat trick!

H: Oh, that was nothing. The con man’s greatest talent, you know it! When you’re not sure where to go next, you can always pull that extra ace card out of your sleeve.

S: Hell of an ace card, though.

D: Thank you, I take that as a compliment!

S: You gotta teach me how to pull that one, Hill.

H: Well hey, you need to show me how to conjure some rain first, Starbuck.

S: With pleasure! Now, your “think method” ain’t bad, but I find props come in real handy. Let’s see if we can find you a hickory stick…

[the two voices fade away]

[end transcript]