Randy Hobler at a read-through for Banjo Boy at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Creative Center in 2006.
A good story can happen in an instant, but more often it builds over time, gathering momentum until it reaches a saturation point, then pouring forth and making itself known. Such is the case with Banjo Boy, the biographical musical by Randy Hobler about Iowan Meredith Willson, who wrote the American musical theater classic The Music Man. This month, the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts hosts its first world premiere, presenting Banjo Boy August 8-17.
Banjo Boy’s story really begins with Meredith Wilson and The Music Man. In 1951 Broadway composer Frank Loesser urged Willson to write “his story” about life in Mason City. Willson did write a musical about his hometown, but The Music Man tells the story of many other people, nothing about himself. At the center of this all-American hit is conman Harold Hill, who poses as a band leader in order to sell band instruments and uniforms to naive townsfolk before skipping town with the cash. Chaste Marian the librarian sees through him, but when Hill helps her younger brother, Marian falls in love with Harold. Harold, in turn, falls for Marian, and risks being caught to win her.
Willson began writing The Music Man in his 50s, but it took six years before it saw the light of day—six long years of writing, rewriting, adding songs, dropping songs (22 songs were eventually dropped along the way) until he was satisfied. When it finally opened on Broadway in 1957, The Music Man became a huge hit, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and running for 1,375 performances. In fact, Music Man beat West Side Story, also nominated for Best Musical in the same year. The show’s success led to revivals and a popular 1962 film adaptation. Today The Music Man is licensed 500 times a year and plays in theaters around the country. Meredith Willson also wrote The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here’s Love.
Enter Randy Hobler
What about Meredith Willson’s story?That’s where Randy Hobler and Banjo Boy come in. Randy’s father and grandfather were both close friends of Willson’s. As a young boy, Randy remembers that “My father would occasionally talk about this guy named Meredith Willson and I could feel a sense of awe in his voice, but didn’t really understand.”
Then in 1967 the Hobler family visited Meredith Willson’s home in Los Angeles. The memory of that visit added more fuel to the creative fire. “What struck me first about that visit was that everything was all white,” Randy says. “There were two white grand pianos facing one another on a big white shaggy rug, all the walls and furniture were white, all white. Meredith took me to his bedroom and pointed at a small, framed piece of musical notes scratched out. He explained that he always kept music staff paper by his bedside in case he ever got an idea he needed to write down. The notes were the opening notes to ‘76 Trombones’ [from The Music Man)].”
In 2002, Randy, his parents, and girlfriend Alexa Smith attended the 100th anniversary of Meredith Willson’s birth in Mason City. On this visit, he absorbed the sights and sounds of Meredith Wilson’s Mason City. At some point, Alexa suggested he write a musical sequel to The Music Man. Randy had already done some composing and had considered writing a musical. Coming to Iowa was the potent event during which seemingly unrelated incidents and impulses coalesced into something larger. It was the threshold opening to what would become Banjo Boy.
Six Years in the Making
From there Randy was eager to start writing songs, although at Alexa’s behest he did nothing but story development and background research for over a year, thus allowing the songs to integrate perfectly into the story. He read everything that Meredith had written and as much as he could find about him. He researched the time, the fashion, the politics, San Francisco, Chinese-Americans, Louis Armstrong, John Philip Sousa, and much more. To research the song “Play it From Your Heart” he conducted telephone interviews with many music teachers, including five from the Juilliard School. He got an old Mason City Globe-Gazette from 1928, and a 1928 Sears Catalog. After six years crafting the long overdue story of Meredith Wilson, Banjo Boy was completed.
The first reading of Banjo Boy took place at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Creative Center in November 2006; the second reading was at The New World Stages in Manhattan in October 2007 before an audience of 200. Now this, the first and only biographical musical about Willson’s life, is ready to take to the stage. “I’m thrilled that the Sondheim Center has chosen Banjo Boy for its premiere,” Hobler says, “and what more appropriate place than Iowa to open it.”
The story of Banjo Boy is a tale with a twist. It takes place in both the present and in 1928. From the present, an elder Mere d ith who has gone “to that great treble clef in the sky” goes back in time to get inside the head of his teenage self to “change a few notes of my life.” The main change he wants is to repair the poor relationship he had with his father. The first act of Banjo Boy is set in Mason City and the second in San Francisco. The show’s original, hummable score is in the spirit of Willson’s work and includes several homages, like “Sears, Dear Sears” and a catchy barbershop quartet number, “The Clip-Clop Life.” The show’s showstopper, “Thanks Be to Music,” is an upbeat gospel song sung by a young Louis Armstrong who Meredith meets on his way to San Francisco. Many of the songs are available in piano-voice versions online at www.banjoboys.net.
Banjo Boy will be directed by Randal West, the Artistic Director of the Stephen Sondheim Center. This will be West’s sixth production with Iowa’s only professional theater company, Way Off Broadway Productions, and with the Sondheim Center. Musical Direction will be by Bloomfield resident Justin Hill, and Adam Cates from New York City will choreograph this production.
The thing about a good story is that it often takes on a life of its own, continuing to roll on, gathering more and more until yet another saturation point is reached. For some stories, there are no beginnings and no endings, just a continuum. In that light, I offer this to you. When I asked Randy Hobler what Meredith Willson’s contribution might mean to Iowa, he replied, “I’d want to ask the people of Iowa what they think his contribution is.” Now you can be apart of the story. If you have something to contribute, please reply to Randy’s request at firstname.lastname@example.org
Performances will run August 8-17. For tickets, call or stop by the Sondheim Center box office, (641) 472-2787, open M-F, 12-6, or online at www.iowatix.com. For more event information, please visit www.fairfieldacc.com
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