Directors' Choice Award Winner
The Spirit Of River City
by Randolph Hobler
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On June 15, 1984, Meredith Willson arrives in a bureaucratic heaven, with departments staffed by white-eye-shaded clerks. He ends up in the “Remorse” department, and conveys his deep regret about never having done anything to repair his non-relationship with his father, John Willson, who had never acknowledged Meredith’s achievements—even on his death bed. Nor did he call him by his name. This spirit Elder Meredith is dispatched back in time to Mason City (the real “River City”) in 1928 to invisibly influence his 16-year-old self to help open up his father’s heart to him. In fits and starts, he gets young Meredith to confront—not mollify—his father to open up his heart, resulting in an uplifting reconciliation at the climax of the show.
The story is embedded in a musical context that celebrates the spirit of American music. Young Meredith yearns to get his music on the radio. His father, the bandmaster for the Mason City High School band, revels in his memories of playing cornet with John Philip Sousa in the Word War I Victory parade in Paris. His feisty sister Dixie wants to play clarinet in that band but is repeatedly rebuffed by her father. His religious mother, Rosalie has taught Meredith piano and encourages her children’s musical ambitions. John wants Meredith to play trombone in the band, but Meredith ends up playing banjo. The scintillating score includes gospel, barbershop, marches, uptempo, ballads and charm songs.
Throughout the show, Meredith works on a Sousa-like march, “People of the USA’ which celebrates the spirit of diversity in America. He runs away from home to San Francisco, meeting a young Louis Armstrong along the way, then meeting Sousa, learning his father was never in the parade in Paris, falling in love with a Chinese-American girl, Zi Ling, forming a banjo band, and returning to Mason City with Zi Ling and the Banjo Boys in tow to help his father win the annual Iowa High School marching band contest.
Upon returning to Mason City, Meredith confronts his father about Sousa and learns his Dad was an ambulance driver in the war. This, combined with the efforts of his mother to get John to listen to his children, helps hasten the reconciliation. Halo effects include the repair of John and Rosalie’s marriage, and Dixie getting to join the band for the contest. The winning band gets to perform on WEAF radio in New York, so Meredith’s dream is fulfilled.
All along the way, Meredith is invisibly counseled by his Elder spirit-self (thinking he’s just debating with himself) and learns he has many more choices than he realized in life. While the framework of this upbeat musical is the alternative history of a prominent American composer, the vast bulk of the story incorporates over 100 factoids about Meredith Willson’s life. We learn what his life was like in Mason City. We get to experience the hole in The Music Man, because while Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), advised Meredith to write a musical about his childhood in Mason City, Meredith left out one character—himself. The Spirit of River City enchantingly and poignantly fills that hole, including various foreshadowings of The Music Man.
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