Behind The Song: Meredith Willson’s ‘Ya Got Trouble’ from The Music Man

Joe Stilgoe
Thursday, March 28, 2024

Musician Joe Stilgoe delves into the smooth-talking salesman’s iconic number which, somewhat unusually, started life as a rather lengthy dialogue scene

Hugh Jackman in the 2022 Broadway revival of The Music Man (photography: Joan Marcus / Julieta Cervantes)
Hugh Jackman in the 2022 Broadway revival of The Music Man (photography: Joan Marcus / Julieta Cervantes)

Some of the greatest moments in theatre have been the result of a happy accident. Something the writer initially didn’t think of, but by the process of collaboration and collegiate head-bashing that has to happen for any show to make it, alchemy occurs and the unthinkable becomes the unsurpassable.

You know ‘76 Trombones’, you know ‘Till There Was You’, and of course you know ‘It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas’. Their writer, Meredith Willson, was a curious anomaly on Broadway in that he did it all. Composer, lyricist, conductor, musician, playwright. Not even the great writer Frank Loesser attempted all those pursuits, and he was an undisputed theatrical genius of the highest order. They say we are the worst editors of our own work, and so often this is true, which is why though there are plenty of composer-lyricists (Porter, Sondheim, Schwartz), it’s almost impossible to find an example of someone writing the book as well. Willson wrote The Music Man over eight years, almost 30 revisions, and this song almost didn’t make the show.

A happy accident.

Originally a long speech, the diatribe to establish the character of Professor Harold Hill, Willson had thought it overwritten, but while reading it aloud noticed the speech had such strong rhythmic language that he started to play around with a musical backing. Suddenly we had this.

‘A pool table, don’t you understand?’

He’s starting to spread the jam, to sow the seed that playing pool will be the ruin of the town. Maybe then the townspeople will see that only music can save them. The song begins:

‘Well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here / I say, trouble right here in River City.’ Descending notes in the double bass, the odd punch from the orchestra – it feels like jazz, but it sounds like a marching band. And there’s no melody. Is it rap? The first instance of rap, certainly in a theatrical context? Of course nobody would have called it that in 1957 and through human civilisation there are examples of rhythmical speech over music – the plays of Aristophanes in ancient Greece seemed to be way ahead of their time, but a Greek chorus was a common theatrical device then. Here, on Broadway, in the same year as another groundbreaking work – West Side Story (see Issue 2 of Musicals!), this caused a huge stir. I can only imagine being in that audience – Robert Preston stepping out, toothy grin, big chin, mellifluous baritone, grabbing us by the lapels of our chequered coats and without much fanfare ushering in a completely new style of music, of theatre. And all because Willson happened to read some dialogue in a different way that day, a way that lit a fuse and created this, the greatest rap there ever was, 25 years before rap was invented.

A happy accident.

The effect of this on the audience now is still unique. This guy is a salesman, a charmer. He knows exactly what he’s doing – he knows that words can be blinding so he throws them out at a hundred miles an hour. Willson happily keeps him well stocked verbally, and as the orchestra starts to flesh out the song, it really is that mix of jazz, marching band, classic Broadway and machine-gun patter, but like with all the songs I’m covering in these pieces, it is perfect. Perfect for the show, the moment, and the audience. We might miss the odd word here and there, but we are swept along in the meaning and sentiment - as Harold sweeps up more people he becomes a pied piper, chiding them for believing that shooting pool was an innocent pastime. They’ll all follow this guy, he’s talking about ‘Trouble with a capital T / and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!’ All completely logical, and it rhymes!

Having started as a man trying to sell the idea that holding a wooden stick and hitting some balls in a pocket could be the ruin of the world, it ends as a glorious celebration of a better life ahead, a release from the grip of vice and moral degradation. It’s joyous and mad and wonderful. The fact this is only the second number in the show… I’m already sold.

The reason it works so well is the same reason why 50 years later Lin-Manuel Miranda struck gold with his own mix of cultures, musical styles, morals, ethics, politics and idealism in the glorious Hamilton. When that show exploded into the world, Miranda was feted as the first person to put rap on to the stage. In fact it happened 30 years before that in the West End, and even then, whether intentional or not, they were only following The Music Man.

Wait for the next issue of Musicals and I’ll tell you who and how. (Hint: there might be roller skates.)

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today