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Meredith Willson

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Meredith Willson

Biography

Robert Meredith Willson (May 18, 1902, Mason City, Iowa – June 15, 1984, Santa Monica, Calif.) was an American composer, songwriter, flutist, conductor and playwright, best known for writing the book, music and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical The Music Man.

Willson attended Frank Damrosch's Institute of Musical Art (later The Juilliard School) in New York City. A flute and piccolo player, Willson was a member of John Philip Sousa's band (1921–1923), and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini (1924–1929). Willson then moved to San Francisco, California, as the concert director for radio station KFRC, and then as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood.

His work in films included composing the score for Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) (Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score), and arranging music for the score of William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941) (Academy Award nomination for Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture).

During World War II, he worked for the United States' Armed Forces Radio Service. His work with the AFRS teamed him with George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bill Goodwin. He would work with all three as the bandleader, and a regular character, on the Burns and Allen radio program. He played a shy man, always trying to get advice on women. His character was dizzy as well, basically a male version of Gracie Allen's character.

Returning to network radio after WWII, he created the Talking People, a choral group that spoke in unison while delivering radio commercials. He also became the musical director for The Big Show, a prestigious comedy-variety program hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead and featuring some of the world's most respected entertainers. Willson wrote the song, May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You for the show. Bankhead spoke the lyrics over the music at the end of each show. He also worked on Jack Benny's radio program, and hosted his own program in 1949. For a few years in the early 1950s, Willson was a regular panelist on the Goodson-Todman game show The Name's the Same.

Willson's most famous work, The Music Man, premiered on Broadway in 1957, and was adapted twice for film (in 1962 and 2003). He referred to the show as "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state". It took Willson some eight years and thirty revisions to complete the musical, for which he wrote more than forty songs.

His second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, ran on Broadway for 532 performances from 1960 to 1962 and was made into a 1964 motion picture starring Debbie Reynolds. His third Broadway musical was an adaptation of the film Miracle On 34th Street, called Here's Love (1963). His fourth, last, and least successful musical was 1491, which told the story of Columbus's attempts to finance his famous voyage. It was produced by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association in 1969, but was never produced on Broadway.

His Symphony No. 1 in F minor: A Symphony of San Francisco and his Symphony No. 2 in E minor: Missions of California were recorded in 1999, by William T. Stromberg conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Other symphonic works include O.O. McIntyre Suite, Symphonic Variations on an American Theme and Anthem, the symphonic poem Jervis Bay, and Ask Not, which incorporates quotations from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. In tribute to the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA), he composed In Idyllwild for orchestra, choir, vocal solo and Alphorn. Willson's chamber music also includes A Suite for Flute.

In general, it was recognized that Willson wrote well-crafted, complex music with intricate and sometimes startling counterpoint, well-crafted melody, and subtle orchestration. Willson penned a number of very well known songs, such as You and I. which was a No. 1 for Glenn Miller in 1941 on the Billboard charts. It was also recorded by Bing Crosby, and by Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra on vocals. Other popular songs composed by Willson include It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You, and I See the Moon. He wrote the University of Iowa's fight song Iowa Fight Song, and Iowa State University's For I for S Forever. He also wrote the fight song for his hometown high school Mason City, Go! He honored The Salvation Army with a musical tribute, Banners and Bonnets.

An oddity in Willson's body of work is Chicken Fat, written in 1962. In school gymnasiums across the nation, this was the theme song for President John F. Kennedy's youth fitness program. It was time to get the country's youth into shape, and Willson's song had youngsters moving through basic exercises at a frenetic pace: push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, torso twists, running in place, pogo springs, and plenty of marching. With an energetic lead vocal by Robert Preston, orchestral marching band, and full chorus, it was likely recorded during sessions for the Music Man film.


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References