The Spirit of River City is about the struggle of The Music Man’s creator--Meredith Willson--to recompose his life through a surrogate—his younger self. Upon his death, Willson finds himself in a corporatized, St. Peter-less heaven. A white-visored “Remorse” clerk allows him to go back to 1928 to his home town of Mason City, Iowa—the real “River City”--to convince his younger self to reconcile with his stone-hearted father, who had never, even on his death bed, acknowledged Meredith’s greatness. Nor had he ever called him by his name. His younger self—with whom he invisibly debates--keeps resisting his arguments. This collision between a ghost from the future and a kid from the past leads to Meredith running away from home by hopping a freight train to San Francisco.
Adventures bitter and sweet ensue as he meets a barnstorming young Louis Armstrong at the Omaha train station, who sings the showstopper song “Thanks Be to Music”, a rousing, infectious gospel song about the importance of music in people’s lives. The story is further infused with the spirit of American music as Meredith meets his hero, John Philip Sousa, in San Francisco, who helps him improve a march he’s writing called “People of the USA” which becomes the triumphant final song of the show, replete with colorful mummers’ costumes.
Young Meredith, who has rebelliously taken up banjo, forms a multi-ethnic group called “The Banjo Boys”. He falls in love with Zi Ling, a laundress ambitious to escape her indentured servitude, whose love of English is matched by Meredith’s love of lyrics. The Banjo Boys and Zi Ling return to Mason City to help the Mason City Mohawks band win the Iowa band contest with his march “People of the USA”. And for Meredith to reconcile with his father.
The Spirit of River City is chock full of original, imaginative word play. And the effervescent, tuneful score includes marches, charm songs, list songs, ballads, plainsong, rhumba, a faux gospel. Included are a barbershop homage to “Lida Rose” (“The Clip-Clop Life”) and “Sears, Dear Sears” in homage to “Wells Fargo Wagon.” (One reviewer said this number alone was worth the price of admission.)
Spirit is a family musical, with broad appeal. One key target is the tens of millions of enthusiastic Music Man fans. Over 50 years after its opening, itis still performed 500 times a year. For tourists, the appeal is a celebration of genuine Americana. The 15-to-30-year old crowd will identify with 16-year-old Meredith, his 14-year-old sister Dixie, and his teenage friends. Those who love The Music Man will love The Spirit of River City, a musicale à clef which is peppered with foreshadowings of people, places and events that ended up in The Music Man. And for everyone, they vicariously experience the universal fantasy of going back in time to try to warn your younger self of life’s dangers and to alert that self of opportunities—especially those involving people you love.
The Spirit of River City has a cast of 21 and can be performed on a unit set. It had two New York readings and a full 10-day production at the Stephen Sondheim Performing Arts Center in Fairfield, Iowa to rave reviews. It’s original, not derived from a movie, book or play. (5 of the last 8 musical Tony winners were originals. The show won 2nd prize in 2011 from the Academy for New Musical Theater’s annual Search for New Musicals.