It doesn’t matter if “Goodnight, My Someone” doesn’t fit anywhere in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. When you’ve got a knockout of a love song like this, you make it fit.
Most of the tunes in Willson’s musical either forward the plot (“Rock Island,” “Trouble,” etc.) or deal in character-driven nostalgic quaintness (“Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Shipoopi,” anything by the barbershop quartet). But “Goodnight, My Someone” isn’t really needed anywhere; we don’t need to be told in song that Marion the Librarian hasn’t yet met the love of her life. But Willson must’ve known he had something truly special, and so he takes a rather labored approach in squeezing it into the story.
Young Amaryllis goes out of her way to talk to Marion about saying goodnight to the love of your life on the evening star, and whaddyado when you don’t have a love of your life? Simple, replies Marion. You just make that wish generic. But then the song takes over, and Willson’s lyrics turn such a clumsy idea into something magical: “True love can be whispered from heart to heart / When lovers are parted they say / But I must depend on a wish and a star / As long as my heart doesn’t know who you are.”
There’s a longing not only of distance in this song, but of time, as Marion yearns for the day when her someone will arrive: “Sweet dreams be yours, dear / If dreams there be / Sweet dreams to carry you close to me.” In a sense, Willson gets a three-decade head start in one-upping the equally moving “Somewhere Out There,” with both tunes capturing the desperate heartache of separation, but with Willson adding an extra layer of uncertainty.
My favorite performance of “Goodnight, My Someone” comes in the 1962 film, with Shirley Jones giving the lyrics her all with vocals that manage both sorrow and hope. (Monique Vermont, as Amaryllis, joins in along the way, offering harmony; on the soundtrack album, Jones is heard solo throughout; both takes are lovely.) But what makes this version perfect is the piano introduction. As with “Piano Lesson” earlier in the scene, “Goodnight, My Someone” is formed around the basic repetition of, well, a piano lesson, which accounts for the jerky starts and stops of the introduction. Removed from that context, however, those starts and stops become something more, a sense of hesitation and uncertainty that adds even more emotional depth to the piece. It’s the sound of a hand nervously reaching out, of a heart skipping a beat.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other great love song from The Music Man or gave these four lads from Liverpool a chance to perform it for you: