Morton Da Costa’s Best Is the Best There Is

Meet the Former Muny Director Who Added “Jiggle” to The Music Man

So what does the producer do? We talked about that last week, with regard to David Merrick. For one thing, the producer hires the director. In the case of The Music Man, after producer Kermit Bloomgarden (The Diary of Anne Frank, Equus)chose to present Meredith Willson’s ode to his home state of Iowa on Broadway, Bloomgarden hired director Morton Da Costa.

Who, you might ask, was Morton Da Costa? In 1957, when he took on The Music Man, Da Costa was one of Broadway’s most in-demand directors, with three back-to-back hit shows – Plain and Fancy, No Time for Sergeants and Auntie Mame – to his credit.

Da Costa began his Broadway career as an actor in the Elia Kazan-directed production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. After playing Osric to Maurice Evans’ Hamlet, Evans sensed the makings of a director in Da Costa and gave him the opportunity to direct several starry productions (among them, The Alchemist with Jose Ferrer, Dream Girl with Judy Holliday) at New York’s City Center. These productions caught the eye of Municipal Opera productions manager John Kennedy, who brought Da Costa to St. Louis to direct the entire 1952 summer season, 11 shows over 13 weeks between early June and Labor Day.

His first show in Forest Park was Show Boat, featuring the incorrigible Mary Wickes as Parthy. (Ten years later Da Costa would cast Wickes in the film version of The Music Man.) Show Boat was the first of three musicals that summer with music by Jerome Kern. There also were three operettas with music by Victor Herbert. The summer ended with the Muny’s debut staging of Annie Get Your Gun.

Da Costa stood up well under the pressure and returned to St. Louis in 1953. In addition to staging 11 musicals, he and Muny musical director Edwin McArthur collaborated on that summer’s children’s show, a new version of Rip Van Winkle. Da Costa ended the summer by directing the Muny’s debut staging of Kiss Me, Kate. The crash-course training Da Costa received during his two St. Louis summers would prove incalculable when he returned to New York.

In 1955 he scored his first Broadway hit. The musical Plain and Fancy also provided one of its ingénues, Barbara Cook, with her first long-running success. Later that same year No Time for Sergeants introduced Broadway audiences to Andy Griffith. Don Knotts also made his Broadway debut in that Ira Levin comedy, so Da Costa was the first director to pair Griffith and Knotts, who, as we all know, went on to become a memorable duo.

Da Costa was on a roll. The following year he staged the comedy Auntie Mame, which ran for nearly two years, and he followed Auntie Mame with The Music Man, where he again cast Barbara Cook, this time as Marian Paroo in her longest-running musical. Coincidentally, immediately prior to beginning rehearsals for The Music Man, Cook made her one and only appearance at the Muny. In July 1957 she played the title role in Irene. And here’s an asterisk of Muny history: Throughout the early decades of the Muny, no actor received star billing – until the week of July 15, 1957, when Barbara Cook (and her co-star Jerome Thor) became the first names to appear above a Municipal Opera title. The show’s comic relief was provided by a little-known comic actor named Paul Lynde, still three years away from Broadway success in Bye Bye Birdie. Irene was also Lynde’s sole Muny credit.

Even before Music Man rehearsals started, Meredith Willson and Morton Da Costa hit it off like the proverbial house on fire. Willson would later write of his director, “I never met anyone in the theatre less complicated, less frantic or more artistically creative. Morton Da Costa’s best is the best there is.”

What does the director do? For one thing, Da Costa cajoled Willson into auditioning Robert Preston for the title role when Willson had his heart set on Danny Kaye. That worked out pretty well. Then there was the opening number, “Rock Island Line.” It was always a big hit during the backers’ auditions. The audience loved it at the gypsy run-through. But when The Music Man opened out-of-town in Philadelphila, the opening number lay there like a big flat pancake. No one could figure out how to restore the song to its early glory – until Willson suggested that the actors sing “Rock Island Line” without any orchestral accompaniment, not even a snare drum.

Then Da Costa got into the act. He told the actors to “jerk big in your seats” when the train comes to a stop at the end of the overture. Then he had the actors “jiggle” in time with the words “You’re on a rattle-bang passenger train approaching Meredith’s home town!” Da Costa enthused. And that’s how “Rock Island Line” has been staged for 58 years. There’s not actor anywhere who hasn’t sung that opening song in a Broadway revival or in one of the Muny’s nine stagings (this is the tenth) or in a high school production without jerking and jiggling.

Thank you, Morton Da Costa.

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SPEAKING OF MEREDITH’S WILLSON’S HOME TOWN … One year ago this week, the Muny was in rehearsals for The Buddy Holly Story. There might not be a lot in common between West Texas rocker Buddy Holly and the classically-trained Iowan, Meredith Willson, except for this:

Everybody knows that River City in The Music Man is a fictional stand-in for Willson’s actual home town, Mason City, where he was born in 1902 and where he has been buried since 1984. On February 2, 1959, while Robert Preston was starring as Harold Hill onstage at the Majestic Theater, 1,150 miles west of Broadway Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and James “Big Bopper” Richardson were performing before an equally appreciative audience in Clear Lake, Iowa. In the wee hours of the next morning, the three young rock ’n rollers would meet their deaths in the crash of a plane that took off from the Mason City Airport.

In 1959 the Beatles were still five years away from the British invasion. But after they hit it big, John, Paul, George and Ringo were effusive in their admiration for the music of Buddy Holly. As a group, the Beatles covered one Holly song, “Words of Love” – which is the same number of Meredith Willson songs the Beatles recorded. In January 1964, the release of “Meet the Beatles,” their first blockbuster long playing album, contained 12 songs. Ten were by John Lennon & Paul McCartney, one was by George Harrison – and yes, one song was by Meredith Willson. “Meet the Beatles” is composed of eleven quintessential rock songs – and “Till There Was You.”

All these decades later, the same man who owns the rights to the Buddy Holly song catalog also owns the rights to the Meredith Willson catalog: Sir Paul McCartney.