Irrational exuberance ... in Iowa!

Opinion: Columns

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One of the blessings of summer is surrendering to what former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan famously called "irrational exuberance," although he said it in a funereal manner. Indulging in irrational exuberance may not be good for the economy, but it's good for the soul. I gave in a little when I saw the movie Yesterday, which renewed my appreciation for the genius of the Beatles. I gave in again last Thursday when I saw Festival Theatre's terrific production of Much Ado About Nothing, which made me ponder anew what makes Shakespeare great. 

But for the past month, I've been irrationally exuberant about Meredith Willson and his show, The Music Man, which still has a few days left in its extended run at Goodman Theatre (I saw it last Friday, after viewing the 1962 film at Pritzker Pavilion, with subtitles, in July).

All of which renewed my exuberance for the genius of Wordsmith Willson, who is America's answer to Gilbert & Sullivan, all rolled into one remarkable Iowan. Here's a taste:

We're so by God stubborn we can stand touchin' noses

For a week at a time and never see eye to eye.

But what the heck, you're welcome, glad to have you with us,

Even though we may not ever mention it again.

You really ought to give Iowa a try …

Iowa is also the ground-zero focus of the 2020 election, serving as the launching pad for the presidential primary season, beginning next February.

Nothing captures the heart and soul of this heartland state — at least as Willson remembered it, growing up in Mason City in 1912 — quite like Music Man. In most musicals, I would argue (some would disagree), the lyrics are secondary to the music. With all due respect to Hammerstein, Loewe, and other great Broadway lyricists, no one has ever matched melodies to lyrics the way Music Man does — patter-songs, love ballads, barbershop quartet ditties, and all. Willson was prolific, writing upward of 40 songs for this show — they only had to cut 22!

To celebrate his achievement, I have taken the liberty of channeling my irrational exuberance into a mash-up of patter-song poetry and lyrical wordplay from what is arguably the Great Midwest musical. Here's my verbal tribute* to "the Iowa way":


Whaddaya talk? Whaddaya talk?

Never heard of any salesman Hill. What's the fellow's line?

Never worries 'bout his line.

He's just a bang beat, bell ringing, big haul, great go, neck or nothin', rip roarin', every time a bull's eye salesman. That's Professor Harold Hill.

But he doesn't know the territory!


A patter-song masterpiece

Either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge

Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.

Weeell, ya got trouble, my friend, right here, I say trouble right here in River City …

And the next thing you know your son is playin' for money in a pinch-back suit

And listenin' to some big out-o-town Jasper here to tell about horse-race gamblin'.

Not a wholesome trottin' race, no, but a race where they set down right on the horse! …

Get the ball in the pocket, never mind gettin' dandelions pulled or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.

Never mind pumpin' water till your parents are caught with the cistern empty on a Saturday night and that's trouble

With a capital "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for pool!


A more adult romance

No golden, glorious, gleaming, pristine goddess — no sir!

For no Diana do I play fawn, I can tell you that right now.

I snarl, I hiss, how can ignorance be compared to bliss?

I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is. 

I cheer, I rave for the virtue I'm too late to save.

The sadder-but-wiser girl for me …


Barbershop quatrain

How can there be any sin in sincere? 

Where is the good in goodbye?

Tell me what can be fair in farewell, dear.

Are we sincerely in love? 


Flim-flam flirtation

When I try in here to tell you, dear,

I love you madly, madly Madam Librarian … Marian,

It's a long-lost cause I can never win 

For the civilized world accepts as unforgivable sin

Any talking out loud with any librarian such as Marian …


A more mature romance

All I want is a plain man, all I want is a modest man, a quiet man, a gentle man

And I would like him to be more interested in me than he is in himself

And more interested in us than in me …

And if occasionally he'd ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great,

Him I could love till I die!


Even the Beatles covered 'Till There Was You'

And there was music, and there were wonderful roses, they tell me

In sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew.

There was love all around, but I never heard it singing,

No I never heard it at all till there was you …


Rows and rows of the finest virtuosos

Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun

With a hundred and ten cornets right behind …

And trumpeters who'd improvise

A full octave higher than the score!


Can you imagine! You can if you use Prof. Hill's revolutionary "Think System" for musical pedagogy. But I'm getting carried away. Wait, that's the point of irrational exuberance, isn't it?

Ultimately, Music Man is a love story — yes, with Iowa, but also between a charming spellbinder, who brings a small town to life, and a sadder-but-wiser romantic with very high standards.

"You pile up enough tomorrows," says the good professor to the "spinster," who is more than his match, "and you'll find you're left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don't know about you, but I'd like to make today worth remembering." 

That they do.

*Dedicated to Marilyn Mooney Trainor, who inspired appreciation for great musicals and who was a huge fan of Robert Preston.

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