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The Music Man

Hollywood’s biggest singing stars, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, tried to buy the rights to Meredith Willson’s musical portrait of a small-town con artist, but Willson held out for the show’s original star, Robert Preston. That’s the kind of grit it took for the composer to bring his first musical to Broadway in the first place, even after producers told him it would never sell.

Drawing on his memories of growing up in Mason City, Iowa, Willson created the tale of self-styled Professor Harold Hill (Preston), who travels from town to town selling band instruments and uniforms, along with the promise to turn his marks’ children into musicians, only to take off before anybody can find out he’s a fraud. When he gets to River City, Iowa, and falls for the town’s pretty librarian (Shirley Jones), however, things change.

Preston hadn’t been the original choice for the Broadway role. Willson had written it for big band-leader Phil Harris. When Harris decided not to take the chance, the role was offered to Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and Ray Bolger before they turned to Preston, who had spent the ‘40s playing minor roles in Hollywood. Although the part would later be played by everyone from Hugh Jackman to Miss America host Bert Parks, it is still indelibly associated with Preston. His performance helped make the film one of the year’s biggest hits and brought him a new career as a Broadway star.

d. Morton Da Costa, 151 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Meredith Willson Music and Warner Bros. Classics. New DCP courtesy of FotoKem