Banjo Boy

Book, Music and Lyrics by Randolph Hobler

Premiere - Stephen Sondheim Performing Arts Center, Fairfield, Iowa - 8th August , 2008 - 17th August, 2008


Banjo Boy is a bio-musical with a twist--from heaven an elderly Meredith Willson goes back to 1928 to change three notes of his personal life, including repairing his non-existent relationship with his father. His adventures upon running away from home include meeting a young Louis Armstrong, tracking down an elderly John Philip Sousa in San Francisco,  falling in love with Zi Ling, a Chinese mui tsai (indentured servant), forming a group--The Banjo Boys--and returning home to Mason City, Iowa to help win the Iowa High School Band contest with his own song and win back the love of his father. Banjo Boy is a glorious celebration of American Music, of American diversity, and of the life of Meredith Willson.


Dressed in white from tip to toe, Meredith Willson, in heaven, decides to change three notes of his life and improve his relationship with his father and who he marries, by being the angel on the shoulder of his 16-year-old self in 1928. The results of these interventions turn out good and bad. Young Meredith is composing a song, but he hasn’t—much to his parents’ chagrin--taken up a band instrument. With only three members, the Mason City High School Marching band has little chance of winning the Iowa High School Marching Band contest coming up in July.

Meredith’s relationship with his father is an ongoing battle. John Willson rants about the Great War Victory parade march in Paris in 1919, (where he marched cheek-to-jowl with John Philip Sousa), never letting Mere get a word in edgewise. While Rosalie is supportive, John’s fast-talking sales patter prevents him from being a good parent. The Elder Meredith helps his younger self become more spunky.

Mere takes up the banjo, but his father roundly rejects that. Then, Mere hears on the radio that his idol, John Philip Sousa, is in San Francisco. Not feeling he belongs in his father’s heart, and encouraged by his alter-ego, he skips town with only $6.65 in his pocket. Along the way he meets Louis Armstrong at the Omaha, Nebraska, train station. Louis pays his train fare, and advises him to find a rooming house in Chinatown and get work at the union hall.

The rooming house is above a Chinese laundry tended by Zi Ling, who Mere soon falls for. It turns out she’s a mui tsai, or indentured servant, who dreams of teaching English. He vows to rescue her. On New Year’s Eve, he goes to the union hall to get work, but when they kick out a young black man named Hoxie, Mere tries to stand up for him, but gets kicked out himself. Since he now he can’t pay rent, he’s out on the street. He continues to search in vain for John Philip Sousa while forming a band called the Banjo Boys with Hoxie and two runaways: a Mexican named Julio and a Shoshone Indian named Running Feather.

He finally finds Sousa, discovers that Sousa was not in the Victory Parade, and that Sousa never heard of his father. Sousa helps him compose his song and gives him a baton inscribed with his name on it, presented by President Benjamin Harrison, to prove to his father that he actually met Sousa.

Unable to find work in traditional venues, the Banjo Boys play on cable cars. With the Iowa Band Contest looming, the Banjo Boys and Zi Ling train it to Mason City. Along the way, Mere confronts his Dad about Sousa and learns his Dad was an ambulance driver in the war. The Banjo Boys, Meredith’s new song and Meredith’s own fast talking when all seems lost enable Mason City to win the July 4th battle of the bands, and more importantly, for Meredith to win a place in his father’s heart. At the end, Louis Armstrong, John Philip Sousa, and the entire cast---all dressed totally in white—join Meredith the Elder in heaven for a rousing reprise of the musical’s showstopper song, “Thanks Be to Music.”

Musical Numbers

  1. Outta Here
  2. My Dream Baby
  3. The Clip-Clop Life
  4. Sears, Dear Sears
  5. Why Can't A Girl?
  6. Some Space For Me
  7. The Only Time To Act Is Now
  8. Where Will Tomorrow Take Me
  9. Where Is The Christmas
  10. Thanks Be To Music
  11. Chinatown Ribbon Dance
  12. The Alphabetter Song
  13. Play it From Your Heart
  14. That's The Kind of Life For Me
  15. I'll Be Here
  16. Sousa Helps
  17. Listen To Their Dreams
  18. Different
  19. People Of The USA
  20. Thanks Be To Music (Reprise)