‘Music Man’ character was inspired by NJ woman’s grandmother


When Iowa is the center of attention, it’s usually for one of two reasons.

Un: It’s an election year.

Two: Someone revived the perennial 1957 Broadway hit, “The Music Man.”

At this particular moment, it is the latter.

The splashy big-star revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, and directed by Paterson native Jerry Zaks, finally opened last week at the Winter Garden after lengthy COVID-related delays. Cresskill’s Janet Sharma has no tickets, but one certificate to get tickets.

“It was like an IOU,” she said. “My husband gave it to me for Christmas. We didn’t get the tickets because of omicron.”

She has a particular interest in “The Music Man”. She has, you might say, a long-time investment in this particular show.

Sharma was born in Mason City, Iowa — the birthplace of series creator Meredith Willson and musical comedy model River City.

Agnes and Albin Phillips, grandparents of Janet Sharma of Cresskill.  He was the mayor of Clear Lake, Iowa.  She was the model for Eulalie Macckecknie Shinn, the wife of the mayor of

“‘The Music Man’ is very near and dear to my heart,” she said. “I wouldn’t miss that.”

Both his father and uncle knew Willson, growing up. And his grandmother, Agnes Allan Phillips, had an even closer connection to the show.

She seems to have been the model for Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the gossipy and overbearing mayor’s wife, played by Jayne Houdyshell in the current revival and, memorably, by Hermione Gingold in the 1962 film version.

In one of the show’s smartest songs, “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” she leads the town’s gossip as she unravels the show’s heroine, Marian the Librarian. “She brazenly approached a man who had never had a friend in this town until she came here,” Ms. Shinn said knowingly.

“She wasn’t as flamboyant as Hermione Gingold, but she was definitely talkative and she was always surrounded by her friends,” Sharma said. “It was definitely her.”

The view from Iowa

“The Music Man” is what many foreigners know, or think they know, about Iowa.

From this we know that Iowans are (a) stubborn, (b) gullible, (c) occasionally utter the name of their state Io-pathbut don’t like others, (d) love marching bands.

That last bit, at least, is correct, says Sharma, born Janet Phillips, who grew up in Clear Lake and Des Moines.

“Groups are very important in Iowa,” said Sharma, a New Jersey resident since 1974, coordinator of Age-Friendly Englewood and president of the Flat Rock Brook Nature Association.

“High school marching bands were always a big deal,” she said. “There were five public high schools in Des Moines, and each of them had a really spectacular marching band.”

She remembers going to orchestra concerts in the park on Sunday afternoons with her grandfather, and until sixth grade she played flute in the school orchestra. But by the time she arrived at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, she had dropped out. “I was a swimmer and I didn’t know how to swim and be in the group, so I chose swimming.”

Janet Sharma

Willson, the creator of “The Music Man”, was also a flautist – good enough to become a member of John Philip Sousa’s band for several years in the 1920s.

It was his love of marching bands, and his nostalgic memories of the Mason City of his youth, that led him to cook up (with co-writer Franklin Lacey) his show about a bewitching salesman who against the River City rubes in buying hundreds of dollars worth of instruments he has no intention of teaching their children to play.

Sellers take note. Real Iowans, Sharma said, aren’t such easy targets.

“The people of Iowa aren’t that gullible,” she said. “They are more sophisticated than that.”

Still, it’s no surprise that residents of The Hawkeye State have a soft spot for “The Music Man.” Willson, like his salesman, knew the territory. “People loved it because it rang true,” she said.

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River City is a caricature, of course — and not of Iowa today, but of a small town in Iowa 110 years ago. In fact, Mason City had pretty much become an authentic town by the time Sharma got to know it in the 1940s. “That’s where the department store was where the movie theater was,” she said. .

Far more like the show’s River City was Clear Lake, 10 miles to the west. It was the town where his grandfather Albin Phillips was mayor, and his grandmother Agnes was the memorable prototype of the fictional mayor’s wife.

“I remember my grandmother as always hair-dressed, always in a dress, quite talkative and quite a woman in the small town,” Sharma recalls. His grandfather, on the other hand, had nothing to do with the show’s Mayor Shinn. “He was a quiet country doctor,” Sharma said.

It was a classic, idyllic little town: very much like the one Willson portrayed in the series.

“People are driving everywhere now,” she said. “But in Clear Lake, people were walking. Everyone knew each other. There was an openness that you saw in people.”

Her grandmother and grandfather, she recalls, had rocking chairs on the porch, as did the people of Willson’s River City.

“They had two rocking chairs – one large and one small – on the porch,” Sharma said. “They were dark green. They would sit on the porch every night after dinner, and people would stop and visit them.”

Perhaps, like the characters in the film, they burst into a chorus or two of “Lida Rose” – one of the many tunes that made “The Music Man” a Best Musical Tony winner in 1957, and have made it exceptionally revivable ever since. “Trouble”, “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Till There was You” (covered by the Beatles) are a few others.

Shirley Jones, as Marian the Librarian, and Robert Preston in the 1962 film version of

“When I saw the movie recently – and I hadn’t seen it in years – I realized I knew the words to every song,” Sharma said.

So maybe a lot of us – not just people from Iowa. Which, by the way, is definitely pronounced Io-uhnot Io-path.

“Maybe some people in rural areas pronounced it that way,” she said. “But not someone I knew.”

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to its insightful reports on how you spend your free time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1

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