THE MUSIC MAN Fact #1: "The Little Spastic Boy"

THE MUSIC MAN Fact #1: "The Little Spastic Boy"
Winthrop(1).png

As any writer can attest, the blank page offers no shred of consolation. The longer you stare, the worse it gets. Your brain floats on fog awaiting an idea (...any idea) to approach the mooring. And, if you’re lucky enough to finally spy something on the horizon, you better scribble it down right quick— if you aren't fast enough, the germination may be forever lost at sea.

One such idea visited Meredith Willson in the earliest days of work on a new musical he’d been kicking around. The idea was of a little boy (scribble, scribble). The boy would be called Winthrop (scribble) and he was to be a janitor’s son (scribble, scribble, scribble.) He would be approximately 12 years of age (scribble, scribble). And, per the author, he would have “a brilliant mind locked up in a body with no muscular control.” That’s right, folks— as originally conceived, Winthrop was confined to a wheelchair.

The idea haunted the author. In fact, that bee had become so thoroughly stuck in Willson's bonnet that the “spastic” Winthrop went on to survive umpteen drafts. Hell, he even outlived the show’s original title! (In early rumination, the piece forever more known as "The Music Man" was still being called “The Silver Triangle.”) All throughout, Willson refused to loosen his grip on this iteration of Winthrop. His intentions were quite noble, too. As he put it, “I was glued to the spastic boy submit— how badly I wanted to tell on a stage that spastics are muscularly retarded not mentally.” Granted, that statement sounds like shit by today's standards, but you have to admit it was rather forward thinking for 1957.

And it's not like he didn't have his detractors. Willson's decision was met with boundless resistance; no one thought the "spastic boy" was a good idea. Somewhat surprisingly, however, not all of his opponents' reluctance was founded in cynicism. According to Willson, the show’s original producer Cy Feuer thought the concept for Winthrop was just too good! (Well, that's from Willson's recounting, so at least that’s what Cy got him to believe.) The producer thought the inclusion of a boy in a wheelchair could potentially throw the whole show out-of-balance: “You have an awful time keeping such a boy from not only stealing his scenes, but from stealing the whole show.” Still, Willson kept tossing boulders in attempt to crack the nut. At one point there was even a draft where the audience never once saw the boy onstage. Still, no matter what he tried, it didn't work.

Eventually the show changed producers from Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin to Kermit Bloomgarden. Still, the wheelchair-bound Winthrop just kept rolling along. Bloomgarden  desperately wanted the “spastic boy to go.” Then, when the show found its director in Morton “Tec” da Costa, he parroted the concern. “Meredith’s working on that,” Bloomgarden assured him, and that he was,“trying to sneak up on it instead of tearing it out of there.” As the show’s new producer surmised, the decision to retain the character was not based solely on the lingering streak of his author’s pride. No, retaining Winthrop had become an issue of practicality. As it turns out, Willson had churned out so many drafts with the aim of “fixing” Winthrop that the character had become too ingrained. He was now integral to the plot; tearing him out of the story would leave a massive hole. Willson was already in too deep.

In an effort help the author dig his way back out, producer Kermit Bloomgarden paired him with a man named Franklin Lacey. Willson documented their collaborative sessions in his 1959 book “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory.” His new writing partner firmly believed that the meandering issue of the “spastic boy” could be easily solved with a little “theatre magic”. According to Willson, their eureka was found in an already proven hit. So said Willson:

“I’ve seen [My] Fair Lady three times and in that ‘Rain in Spain’ scene I don’t think I’m hooked at all. So, I’m setting in the theatre each time being far from identified with the people up there and not giving a rap if the girl ever gets so she can say ‘Rain in Spain’ or not. There’s an indication of some hours of elapsed time. It’s very very late. The other guy’s asleep. Professor ‘Iggins has his shirt loosened and his tie disheveled, and he is weary and bleary with fatigue, half asleep in his chair mumbling, ‘once more— the rain in Spain.’ And the girl, who is hysterically weary herself, tries again without success. And then. And then. After a perfectly timed lull, she suddenly speaks in upper clahss Oxford English as follows: ‘The rain in Spain lies mainly on the plain.’ And every time she said it, when I’m in the theatre, I get goose pimples. Not just a reaction. Goose pimples. Big ones. And that is theatre magic. I can’t even stave it off when I set there and know it’s coming and try my darnedest to escape it.”  

According to Lacey, theatre magic is routinely found in the unexpected. That’s why backers had been so charmed when the members of school board stopped bickering to sing "Ice Cream" in glorious barbershop harmony; no one saw that coming. Willson noted another example where the element of surprise was working in the show's favor: “In the first-act finale where the Wells Fargo wagon is coming down the street— the spot where the lisping kid comes out of the crowd so excited he busts our singing, ‘Oho the Wellth Fargo wagon ith a comin’.” In that version of the script, the lisping kid was never identified. Rather, he stepped forward, sang his solo-- thus showering the room in theatre magic -- then returned to his previous anonymity.

Willson continued to excavate the idea. “Imagine if the lisping kid were somebody we know— some character in the story— then you’d have some real—“ He stopped when he realized his partner had been lost to a thought. “What’s the matter?” Willson asked.

Franklin Lacey did not respond; he was too busy scribbling.