Robert Meredith Willson (18 May 1902 – 15 June 1984) was an American composer and playwright, best known as the writer of The Music Man.
Born Robert Meredith Reiniger in Mason City, Iowa, Willson attended Frank Damrosch's Institute of Musical Art (later The Juilliard School) in New York City. A flute and piccolo player, Willson was a member of John Philip Sousa's band (1921 - 1923) and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini (1924 - 1929). Willson then moved to San Francisco, California as the concert director for KFRC, and then as a musical director for the NBC radio network in Hollywood.
His work for films included the music for Charlie Chaplin's 1940 film The Great Dictator, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. During World War II, he worked for the United States' Armed Forces Radio Service. His work with the AFRS teamed him with George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bill Goodwin. (He would work with all three as the bandleader, and a regular character, on the Burns and Allen radio program.) Returning to network radio after WWII, he created the Talking People, a choral group which spoke in unison while delivering radio commercials.
Willson's most famous work, The Music Man, premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was adapted twice for film (in 1962 and 2003). He referred to the play as "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state." It took Willson some eight years and thirty revisions to complete the musical, for which he wrote more than forty songs. The cast recording of The Music Man won the very first Grammy award ever issued.
His second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, ran on Broadway for 532 performances from 1960 to 1962 and was made into a 1964 motion picture starring Debbie Reynolds.
His third musical was an adaptation of the film Miracle On 34th Street, called Here's Love! (1963). His fourth, last, and least successful musical was 1491, which told the story of Columbus's attempts to finance his famous voyage.
His Symphony No. 1 In F Minor, A Symphony Of San Francisco, and Symphony No. 2 In E Minor, Missions Of California, were recorded in 1999 by William T. Stromberg conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.
Willson penned a number of very well-known songs, such as "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Gary Indiana," "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas," and even "Till There Was You," which was a hit for the Beatles in 1963. He also wrote the University of Iowa's fight song.
In general, it was recognized that Willson wrote surprisingly well-crafted, complex, and subtle music that classical music fans could appreciate, with intricate and sometimes startling counterpoint, well-crafted melody, and subtle orchestration, all while still appealing to mass audiences.
Willson and his wife lived for years in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood, California. In the 1960s, Willson was fondly remembered by friends and neighbors as a warm and gregarious host who loved nothing more than to play the piano and sing at numerous parties. Willson often gave out autographed copies of his record album, Meredith Willson Sings Songs from The Music Man. His alma mater, Juilliard, recently dedicated its first and only residence hall to Willson.