‘Music Man’ composer documentary set for April 11


The Great American Songbook Foundation will host the Indiana premiere screening of a new public television documentary that draws heavily from its vast music archives.

“Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man” is a profile of the composer, arranger, bandleader and playwright behind “The Music Man,” one of the most popular stage and film musicals of all time. The program debuted in February on Iowa PBS and soon will be available for broadcast by other PBS affiliates across the nation. Key research and interviews were conducted at the Songbook Library & Archives in Carmel, to which Willson’s estate entrusted his personal papers, including correspondence and previously unseen early drafts of his best known works.

The free public event will take place April 11 at The Tarkington at the Center for the Performing Arts, with a display of archival items opening at 5:45 p.m. in the lobby, a conversation with the director at 6 p.m., and the screening of the 55-minute film starting at 7 p.m. Heartland Film and WFYI Public Media are partnering with the Foundation on the event, which is part of the WFYI Live event series.

Free general admission tickets can be reserved online at TheSongbook.org/MWscreening or through the Center’s Fifth Third Bank Box Office at [email protected] or 317-843-3800. The prescreening talk will feature writer, producer and director Tyler Brinegar of Iowa PBS, who visited the local archives last year to pore over files, scan images and conduct interviews.

“For a documentary film to have photos and letters and sheets of music in his own handwriting, that’s just invaluable,” Brinegar stated at the time. “If that stuff didn’t exist, I think I would have been skeptical about doing this from the beginning. Without it, we’d just have a Wikipedia page in film form.”

Joining in the talk will be professor of musicology Dominic Broomfield-McHugh from the UK’s University of Sheffield, who drew from the archives for his 2021 book “The Big Parade: Meredith Willson’s Musicals from The Music Man to 1491.” Broomfield-McHugh served as associate producer of the documentary and also provided a key interview, as did Songbook Foundation Founder Michael Feinstein. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Cary Peñate, assistant teaching professor of music history at Ball State University.

The prescreening activities also will include performances by alumni of the Songbook Foundation’s annual Songbook Academy music intensive. Olivia Broadwater and Hayden Elefante, both Zionsville Community High School graduates who are studying musical theater at Ball State University, will sing previously unknown songs from early drafts of “The Music Man” as well as some of Willson’s iconic contributions to American popular music. Aside from his famous musical, Willson gained national celebrity as a radio host and bandleader, composer of film scores and writer of songs including “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”

The lobby display will feature rare items from the Meredith Willson Papers in the Songbook Library & Archives, including some seen in the film. The materials will include correspondence and scrapbooks featuring notable Willson associates such as President Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney and Doris Day.

“We are honored to be the stewards of the Meredith Willson Papers and thrilled to share these materials with fans and scholars around the world,” stated Christopher Lewis, executive director of the Great American Songbook Foundation. “This documentary is a wonderful illustration of the amazing history preserved in the Songbook Library & Archives.”