(Amanda Morris’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/15/21; via Pam Green; Photo: Michael Phelan as Winthrop Paroo and Rebecca Luker as Marian Paroo in a 2000 revival of “The Music Man” at the Neil Simon Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)
At the urging of producers, Meredith Willson cut a boy in a wheelchair from the early scripts for his 1957 musical. A look back shows what was lost.
Many know Meredith Willson’s 1957 Broadway musical, “The Music Man,” as a light comedy centered on a cheeky scam artist who pretends to be a musician and sells the idea of starting a boys’ band to a small town in Iowa. The show is being revived on Broadway starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, and will begin performances this month.
But several newly recognized drafts of the musical, written between 1954 and 1957, show that originally, the story focused more on the town’s persecution of a boy in a wheelchair — carrying a much more serious message than the final draft. At the time, children with disabilities were routinely institutionalized in horrid conditions and denied an education.
In the version that debuted in 1957, the only character that doesn’t fall for the scheme is Marian Paroo, a well-read single woman who has a shy younger brother with a lisp, named Winthrop. But the con man, Harold Hill, manages to charm Marian and wins her over in part by being kind to Winthrop and including him in the band.
In the earlier drafts, Marian’s younger brother was a character named Jim Paroo, a boy in a wheelchair who, in some versions of the show, has limited use of his arms and could not speak. Wherever Jim goes, townspeople want to lock him up, and in some versions, this drives him to hide and live in the school basement instead of at home.
Then, Harold comes along and challenges the community’s assumptions about Jim by bringing him into the band and finding an instrument he’s capable of playing with his limited range of motion. An early title for the show, “The Silver Triangle,” highlights Jim’s instrument of choice and contribution to the band.
“I think that Jim was very much at the heart of the show,” said Dominic Broomfield-McHugh, a musicology professor at the University of Sheffield in England who discovered many of the earlier drafts in 2013 at the Great American Songbook Foundation in Indiana. These discoveries were published in May in Broomfield-McHugh’s new book, “The Big Parade: Meredith Willson’s Musicals from ‘The Music Man’ to ‘1491.’” The book explores the musical’s journey from “The Silver Triangle” to “The Music Man” we know today — and has a chapter devoted to the various early drafts of the show.
“When you read the first draft, it feels quite thin until you get to the scenes with Jim or about Jim, and suddenly it becomes very dramatic and serious,” he said. “I still feel astonished when I look at it.”
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Most of the songs and scenes in earlier drafts are also significantly different, according to Broomfield-McHugh. In one deleted song, Jim, who is nonverbal in this version of the show, starts to sing onstage alone.
“What Willson was trying to do was to sort of say, even though he can’t physically speak, he has all these thoughts and ideas going around in his head,” Broomfield-McHugh said.