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The Music Man Study Guide

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Written by Luisa Appolloni, Resident Teaching Artist, Education Department (Stratford Festival)


"You pile up enough tomorrows, and you'll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays." - Harold Hill, The Music Man

Live musical theatre offers something you can't generally get watching movies or television. The experience is visceral when seeing a live musical with stunning visuals (i.e., sets, costumes and lighting) and hearing a live orchestra. Students will be delightfully engaged in exploring life in 1912 small-town America. The Music Man offers them a unique opportunity to compare and contrast some of the culture and values of the early 20th century with those of the 21st century. In addition, students will discover, through language and media, the powers (and the art) of persuasion. This musical offers fun, entertaining songs with lovable, charming and eccentric characters guaranteed to generate lively discussions and insightful understanding.

Curriculum Connections

Suitable for all grades

  • All Grades: Language/English (listening to understand, speaking to communicate, reading for meaning)
  • All Grades: Drama, Music, Visual Art
  • Grades 1-12: Health and PE (interpersonal skills, critical and creative thinking, bullying, decision-making, leadership)
  • Grades1-6: Social Studies (heritage and identity, communities, interrelationships)
  • Grade 11: Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology (sociology: explaining social behaviours)
  • Grade11: American History (1877-1945)
  • Grade11: World History Since 1900: Global and Regional Interactions (social, economic and political context)
  • Grade 11: Dynamics of Human Relationships (healthy relationships)
  • Grade 12: World History Since the Fifteenth Century (the world since 1900)
  • Grade 12: Adventures in World History (society and community)
  • Grade 12: Challenge and Change in Society (social change: causes and effects of social change)

Key Themes and Motifs

  • The art of music
  • Deception
  • Transformation and redemption
  • Love
  • Societal expectations and constraints
  • Family
  • American Midwest culture and values in the early 20th century
  • Persuasion
  • Community
  • Commerce

    An Interview with Donna Feore, Director and Choreographer of The Music Man

    Why did you choose to direct this production? What excites you most about it?

    It's a classic. One of the greats in the musical canon. It has a fantastic score, smart lyrics and a witty and entertaining book. It also has wonderful production numbers with loads of dance!

    What excites me most is directing and choreographing such an amazing musical on the Festival Stage, with its intimate actor-to-audience relationship, and with this remarkable cast. It is a unique experience.


    What new perspectives do you find this well-known classic offers a contemporary audience?

    As always, I am led by the authors, and I'm inspired by the piece to serve their intention. Obviously, I do that filtered through my 2018 sensibility and that of the actors, which will inform my view of the characters and the situation in which they find themselves.

    I want to reveal to the audience why The Music Man is one of the great classics. It handles the essential stories of human relationships in a musical-theatre form that set the pattern for musicals to follow. It examines how a community, fragmented in its stubbornness, unites with the help of the central character, Professor Harold Hill. In the process, Harold finds himself falling in love with the local librarian, Marian Paroo.

    As well, the dance in The Music Man will be full of the energy of youth, which is infectious and takes over the whole community. It is a family show - a show for everyone. Even young kids will enjoy it, as it will be loaded with lots of dance, singing and action.

    The Music Man is funny, warm, touching, romantic. I hope it will reaffirm the audience's faith in the redemptive power of love.


Ask students:

  • Have you ever encountered a travelling salesperson coming to your door?
  • What are some of the best sales pitches you have ever seen or heard? What made them good?
  • What persuasive techniques do you personally employ when you want something?
  • Do you believe someone can accomplish something just by thinking positive thoughts?
  • Just by their titles, what do you think these songs are about: "(Ya Got) Trouble" and "Iowa Stubborn"?


This exercise is designed to help students understand language used in 1912. Through research they will discover the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases and explore ways of using them in interesting ways to illustrate their understanding.


  • Computers (for researching the origin of the word or phrase)
  • A space in which to move


1. Have the students work in groups of three to research the meaning of the following words or phrases:

  • Model T
  • Demijohn
  • Firkins
  • Noggins
  • SenSen
  • Cracker barrel
  • Hogshead
  • Fancy goods
  • Notions
2. Then have the students use the words or phrases in a sentence.
3. Next, have them pretend they are living in 1912 and are trying to sell one of the items to the townspeople.

4. Give them about 10 minutes to create and rehearse a little skit (should be only one or two minutes in length).

5. Present the skits to the rest of the class.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Have you ever watched someone trying to sell something to a customer? How effective were they, and what particular skills did they have if they were good salespeople?
  • What's the most common way of selling products today? How do they advertise?
  • What are the most common brands or products you see aimed at today's young generation? What kind of advertising do they use?



Students will examine "Rock Island," one of the songs from The Music Man, before seeing the musical or hearing the number. They will create their own spoken choral piece, determine those elements of the lyrics that set the tone and discover techniques used by the composer-lyricist to set the mood.


  • Dictionary
  • Pencils
  • Space in which to move
  • "Rock Island" handout


1. This activity may be done with the entire class, or break your class into three or four groups.

2. Hand out copies of the excerpted lyrics. Get the students to circle unfamiliar words and look up the meaning in the dictionary or computer.

3. Go through the excerpted lyrics with the students line by line, checking to see that they understand everything that is being said.

4. In groups, have students decide who will say which lines. Ask them to find opportunities for individual speech, choral speaking and groups. NOTE: The lyric lines have already been broken up with assigned numbers. Ask them which lines they think they should say all together; ask if anyone has a line or phrase that they'd really like to say etc. REMEMBER: This is just a preliminary assignment; you and the students may decide on changes as you play with the lyrics. Make notes of all the decisions on your text.

5. Rehearse the spoken lyrics with the students saying their lines. Review the results with them, soliciting ideas for improvements. Don't be afraid to try new ideas.

6. Students may add (a) staging, (b) gestures and (c) sound effects.

7. During the rehearsal, feel free to have students volunteer to stand in the middle, with their eyes closed, to hear the choral piece.

8. Rehearse and perform the piece.

Debriefing Questions:

  • What is being communicated through the lyrics?
  • What is the tone of the piece (e.g., happy, sad, funny, etc.)?
  • What techniques does Willson use to evoke some sort of emotion from the listener?
  • During the rehearsal, if some students went into the centre and heard the choral piece, what were their reactions?
  • Listen to a recording or watch a YouTube clip of "Rock Island." How does your interpretation compare and contrast with Willson's musical theatre piece?


Ask Students:

  • Harold Hill starts off as a liar and con man, but what were his endearing qualities that drew you in to support his efforts in the end?
  • What choreographic musical numbers really captured your imagination? Why?
  • What aspects of the set(s), costumes and lighting did you like the most and why?
  • At the Stratford Festival, The Music Man is performed on a thrust stage, which means the audience sits on three sides. If you were the director and/or choreographer, what challenges would you face in staging this musical? What techniques did Donna Feore, this production's director and choreographer, employ to ensure the audience's view was never obstructed, allowing the audience to see everything?


Students will develop critical thinking skills, aesthetic judgement and skills in viewing as they put together a magazine based on The Music Man.


  • Paper, pens, pencils
  • Computers
  • For Stratford Festival media images, go to, scroll down to "Photography and Videos," and click "I agree," which will then allow you to view the 2018 production photos. (Be sure to add the credits and photographer's name to any that you use.)


1. After seeing The Music Man at the Stratford Festival, have the class brainstorm possible headlines for a magazine they will be putting together about the show, based upon the plot and subplots (e.g., "Dancing frenzy at River City's library").

2. Have the class select their favourite top five headlines.

3. For younger grades: Working in groups of four, have the students choose photos to go with the headline captions. They may use the Stratford Festival's media link to access production photos (see above) and write two to three sentences that describe the scene or particular plotline.

4. For older grades: Each student will choose one of the headlines and write a one-page article about that scene or plotline. They will also add a production photo to go with their article. (See above for details.)

5. For all grades: Create an outline first and jot down facts and information pertinent to some or all of the following questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Students must relate their magazine article to the headline.

6. Have the students put together their articles and photos in a magazine format.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Did you learn anything new about the character or characters in The Music Man after participating in this activity?
  • Did your headline accurately portray the scene or plotline, or did it reveal any biases?
  • Explain the choices you made in creating this magazine. What techniques did you use to entice your reader?
  • Watch a promo video of the Stratford Festival's production of The Music Man on YouTube What information is given in the video? What message is implied? Then go back to your magazine. What information is given? What message is implied?




Oates, Bill: Meredith Willson - America's Music Man. Author House, 2005.

Skipper, John C: Meredith Willson: The Unsinkable Music Man. Savas Publishing Co., 2015.


The Music Man:

Willson, Meredith: And There I Stood With My Piccolo. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Willson, Meredith: But He Doesn't Know the Territory: The Making of Meredith Willson's The Music Man. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.




IMDB, Meredith Willson - Biography:


The Guide to Musical Theatre:



1962 (USA) The Music Man. Directed by Morton DaCosta; starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones and Buddy Hackett.

2003 (USA) The Music Man. Directed by Jeff Bleckner; starring Matthew Broderick, Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber and Molly Shannon.


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