The Musicals of Main Street

This article originally appeared in Issue 17 (August 2012) of WDWNT: The Magazine.

Main StreetThe songs of Main Street USA at Walt Disney World make up a soundtrack that, for any Disney fan, can instantly transport us to the Parks. It represents the beginning of a vacation, the end of a vacation, and every entry into and exit from the Magic Kingdom in between. For so many of us, it is the soundtrack of our childhood. Like Main Street itself, the soundtrack is meant to evoke the feel of classic Americana. Songs from different decades and styles are weaved together so seamlessly that you may mistakenly think it was written at the same time exclusively for the Park.

To help with that classic Americana feel, many of the songs of Main Street come directly from the greatest pieces of musical theater of the golden age. For the first half of the 20th century, the nation’s popular soundtrack came directly from the Great White Way. The songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and so many others were the chart-topping hits of their day. The period of time following World War II and the late 1960s is considered the golden age of the Broadway musical. Three of these are prominently featured in the Main Street soundtrack.

Oklahoma! (1943)

Music by Richard Rodgers / Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

The first musical to come out of the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein is perhaps the most significant ever written. Oklahoma! almost instantly changed the art form into a more story-based experience. The show did not revolve around a line of chorus girls and gag routines. Everything in Oklahoma! was about the plot and the characters. When the show opened in 1943, it was a monster hit. At a time when most shows on Broadway played at most a few hundred performances, Oklahoma! ran for more than two thousand. Almost every musical to come afterwards has been influenced by the innovation of this show. It has enjoyed three Broadway revivals since then (the most recent in 2002) as well as a film adaptation released in 1955.

The story takes place in Oklahoma territory just prior to statehood. The plot centers around the romance between Curly McClain and Laurey Williams. To spite Curley for waiting so long to ask her to the box social dance, Laurey agrees to go instead with Jud Fry despite her (well-deserved) reservations about him. A parallel plotline follows Will Parker’s his desperate attempt to convince Ado Annie to marry him.

The Surrey With The Fringe On Top

Sung by Curly to Laurey in an attempt to get her to agree to attend the box social with him. Laurey believes that Curly is fooling around, not realizing that he really does intend to take her and has already rented the carriage he was singing about.

Kansas City

Sung by Will Parker after returning to Oklahoma from the Kansas City. He wows the crowd that has gathered for his return. His sings about the amazing modern conveniences he has discovered (such as seven story buildings, radiators, and telephones).

Many a New Day

Sung by Laurey to her friends explaining her lack of interest in Curly. This is not true, but she seems to be as much trying to convince herself as much as everyone else.

The Music Man (1957)

Music and Lyrics by Meredith Wilson

The first and most popular of Meredith Wilson’s musicals, The Music Man tells the story of Harold Hill, a traveling con man who arrives in a small Iowa town in an attempt to sell the townspeople on purchasing musical instruments and uniforms to form a band (to keep them out of trouble) and then skip town with the money. But while there, he begins to fall for one of the townspeople, a young woman named Marian, one of the only people in the town who recognizes his scam for what it is.

Much like Walt modeled Main Street USA on his childhood home of Marceline, Mo.Wilson modeled the fictional River City, Iowa after his hometown of Mason City, Iowa. The show was enormously successful, wining five Tony awards that year. It has been revived on Broadway twice, most recently in 2000, and is a very popular show among high school drama clubs. There are two film adaptations, one in 1962 and another that premiered on ABC in 2003.

Another interesting, if stretched, connection with Disney comes in the form of a 1993 episode of The Simpsons, Marge vs the Monorail. Beyond the obvious mode of transportation that is most closely associated with the Disney Parks, the monorail salesman is a clear parody of Harold Hill, and the episode even includes a parody of the song Ya Got Trouble from the musical (which Harold Hill uses to scare the parents to buy into the instruments).

Iowa Stubborn

Sung by the townspeople of River City to Harold Hill when he first arrives in town. They simultaneously tell him of both their welcoming and chip-on-the-shoulder attitudes. Hill sees this as an interesting challenge.

Wells Fargo Wagon

This song ends the first act. The Wells Fargo Wagon arrives in town with the instruments that they have ordered for the children. The song marks a turning point in Marian’s perception of Harold, who is thrilled by the joy and excitement of the children as they receive their instruments, in particular that of Winthrop, her younger brother, who speaks with a lisp and is shy.

Gary Indiana

Sung by Winthrop to Harold and Marian, demonstrating his newfound musical ability (in a song with few letter S’s). Gary is Harold Hill’s hometown. In the movie and recent revivals, the song is also sung earlier in the show by Harold himself.

Hello Dolly! (1964)

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman

Hello Dolly! tells the story of Dolly Levi, a professional “meddler,” in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Dolly travels to Yonkers, N.Y. to play matchmaker for the wealthy Horace Vandergelder. He leaves his clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby in charge of his shop while he heads into the city to find a wife, but they decide to also visit the city, which they have never visited. The story follows these characters through the city in an attempt to find love.

The musical was a blockbuster hit, playing nearly 3000 performances and winning 10 Tony Awards, a record that stood unbroken until The Producers in 2001. The role of Dolly was career defining for Carol Channing, who not only originated the part in 1964, but also starred in both the 1978 and 1994 Broadway revivals. Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the title song remains a popular jazz standard. A film version starring Barbra Streisand was released in 1969.

Put On Your Sunday Clothes

Led by Cornelius and joined by many of the other residents of Yonkers, this song is when they decide to head in to the big city. Even if you have never seen Hello Dolly!, you are probably familiar with this song. The film version of Hello Dolly! and this song in particular were heavily featured in the Pixar film WALL-E.

Before the Parade Passes By

Sung by Dolly and the company, this song ends the first act. Dolly finally decides to move on from her deceased husband and pursue Horace for herself.

These songs only represent a portion of the Main Street loop, but they are always the ones I notice when I enter the Magic Kingdom. Although the shows themselves were written decades later, all three take place in the early 20th century world of Main Street USA. Their inclusion in the soundtrack of the Parks evokes both the era as well as the quintessential American soundtrack. Take a listen the next time you are there, and look for a production of one of these shows near you. They remain some of the most performed work of American theater (behind Carousel of Progress, of course).

The Musicals of Main Street was last updated December 22nd, 2013 by Michael Truskowski