Music Man, The (1962): Popular, Oscar-Nominated Musical Movie, Starring Ro

In the popular, Oscar-nominated movie, “The Music Man,” Robert Preston had successfully recreated his stage role, but was neglected at Oscar time.

Opening on Broadway on December 19, 1957, “The Music Man” achieved a record with 883 performances.  Largely due to its gorgeous music, it continues to be revived with great success on Broadway and elsewhere.

Although Preston scored a great success in the original stage version of the show, he was not the first choice for the film version, mostly because he was not a major box office star.

Preston plays an outsider, Harold Hill, a charming trickster who persuades the council of River City, Iowa, to organize a boys’ band. “Professor” Hill pretends to be a graduate of the Gary Conservatory in Indiana, but he’s actually a down on his luck salesman.

Driven out of town, Hill finds himself aboard a train. Asked, “how far are you going friend” he says, “Wherever the people are as green as the money.” Arriving in River City, Hill encounters in the streets clean-looking and hard-working residents. “What do you do here for excitement” he asks. “Mind our own business,” is one short reply. Mrs. Sheen (Hermione Gingold) the mayor’s wife, rushes to the library to protest the kinds of books her daughter is given to read. “Keep your dirty books from my daughter,” she demands, referring to a book of Persian poetry. Along with the town’s respectable matrons, she stages educational American plays, playing the Statue of Liberty (with a torch in her hand), and an Indian. For his part, her husband-mayor doesn’t approve of his daughter’s Lithuanian suitor, a low-class who lives “on the South of town.”

The other stock characters include the spinsterish librarian Marian (Shirley Jones), who also teaches piano, and her widow mother, who reproaches her for still being unmarried. “Don’t you ever think of the future He may be your last chance,” says the mother, “no girl wants to be an old maid.” Hill functions as a magician, a conman who’s able to convert kids into talented musicians through faith. The same function was performed by Burt Lancaster’s outsider-conman in The Rainmaker. An effective demagogue, Hill preaches, “Singing is just sustained talking.”

Later on, confronted by Marian about his fabricated past, he confesses to his sin. But he also has to face her younger brother (Ron Howard); fatherless, he relates to Hill as an authority figure. “Are you a liar Are you a rotten crook” asks the kid. “Yes,” answers Hill, “but I always think there is a band.” The band, real or imagined, is the symbol of hope.

At the town’s meeting, in which collective values are tested and reaffirmed, Marian speaks in Hill’s favor: “You remember life before he came After he came, suddenly there were things to do.” The outsider, symbolically named Hill, has changed the town completely, restoring faith and bringing excitement to humdrum lives. This outsider, unlike the con man in The Rain Maker, stays in town. “For the first time in my life,” says Hill, “I got my foot caught in the door,” a sentence conveying at once the exposure of his crookedness and intent to settle down. Directed by Morton Da Costa (who also staged the Broadway musical), the film is over-literate, slavishly copying the stage production, with no knowledge or understanding of what makes a movie musical. Similarly, Marion Hargrove’s script adheres too closely to Meredith Willson’s play.

The movie’s redeeming quality is its great musical score, with such showstoppers as “Gary, Indiana,” “Trouble,” sung by Preston like a preacher, “Til There Was You,” and the rousing “76-Trombones,” performed during the tale’s Fourth of July celebration. 

As a movie, “The Music Man” is a largely photographed play, and a nostalgic evocation of what the film critic Arthur Knight described as “Rustic America as we would like it to have been.”

However, released in 1962, the movie was congruent with the optimism of President Kennedy’s ideology of the New Frontier. Needless to say, within a year, that optimistic mood would decline and vanish.


Robert Preston as Harold Hill
Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo
Buddy Hackett as Marcellus Washburn
Hermione Gingold as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn
Paul Ford as Mayor George Shinn
Pert Kelton as Mrs. Paroo
The Buffalo Bills as The School Board:
Bill Spangenberg as Olin Britt
Wayne “Scotty” Ward as Oliver Hix
Al Shea as Ewart Dunlop
Vern Reed as Jacey Squires
Timmy Everett as Tommy Djilas
Susan Luckey as Zaneeta Shinn
Ron Howard as Winthrop Paroo
Harry Hickox as Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman
Charles Lane as Constable Locke
The Pick-a-Little Ladies:
Mary Wickes as Mrs. Squires
Peggy Mondo as Ethel Toffelmier
Sara Seegar as Mrs. Maud Dunlop
Adnia Rice as Alma Hix
Jesslyn Fax as Avis Grubb
Monique Vermont as Amaryllis
Ronnie Dapo as Norbert Smith (uncredited)
Percy Helton as Train Conductor (uncredited)
Max Showalter as Salesman on the Train (uncredited)


The members of the original Broadway cast who also appeared in the film are Robert Preston (Harold Hill), Pert Kelton (Mrs. Paroo), The Buffalo Bills (The School Board), Peggy Mondo (Ethel Toffelmier), and Adina Rice (Alma Hix).

Paul Ford (Mayor Shinn) was a replacement during the original run.

Susan Luckey (Zaneeta Shinn) and Harry Hickox (Charlie Cowell) both reprise their roles from the first national tour while Monique Vermont (Amaryllis) was a replacement.

Although Preston scored a great success in the original stage version of the show, he was not the first choice for the film version, mostly because he was not a major box office star.

Jack L. Warner was known for wanting to film stage musicals with bigger stars than the ones who played the roles onstage. Bing Crosby was offered the role of Harold Hill, but turned it down.

Warner also offered the part to Cary Grant, but he declined, saying “nobody could do that role as well as Bob Preston.” Grant also reportedly told Warner that he would not bother to see the film unless Preston was in it.

Warner wanted Frank Sinatra for the role of Professor Hill, but Meredith Willson insisted on casting Preston.