Based on the play with songs by Meredith Wilson, in the early 20th century a con artist sells people in a small Iowa town musical instruments and band uniforms for their children while romancing the piano teacher.
Charlie Cowell (Harry Hickox) rushes to get on a train as it pulls out. The sheriff and five men have been chasing him. The sheriff says they made it plain that they do not want any more traveling salesmen in their town.
On the train Harold Hill (Robert Preston) collects his money from a poker game and says he is going wherever the people are as green as the money. The salesmen chant to the rhythm of the train about sales and getting cash. A man asks about Professor Harold Hill, and they discuss him. One says he is a fake and that he does not know the territory. The man says he sells boys bands, and he lives like a king. The train slows down, and he says when he dances, the piper pays him. They have crossed into Iowa and have stopped at River City. Cowell tells them he was run out of town because of Hill. He says they were waiting to tar and feather him and ride him out of town on a rail. He organizes kids into a band with himself as a leader, but he does not know one note from another. Cowell says the territory is tough enough. He says he will not try his tricks on the people of Iowa. Hill says he will accept the challenge, and gets off as the train pulls out.
Hill tries to get a conversation started, but people do not say much. He sees a wagon transporting a pool table. He asks for a good hotel and is told to try the Palmer House in Chicago. He asks another what they do for excitement, and the man says they mind their own business. A man tells him he is in Iowa. Some people follow him and sing “Iowa Stubborn.” They urge him to give Iowa a try. Hill runs down the street to the livery stable and asks to hire a rig for Sunday. He recognizes the voice of his friend Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett) who calls him Gregory. Hill tells him the name he is using now. Washburn says he lives there, and he likes it too. Hill asks if he is hiding out. Washburn remembers shilling for him, but he has a girlfriend and is settling down. Washburn asks what he is selling now after the steam automobiles he sold before. Hill says someone actually invented one. Hill is selling boys bands again. Washburn warns him that Iowans don’t buy anything they don’t need. Hill asks if they have music. Washburn says they have a gramophone at the barbershop, and a stuck-up lady who works at the library gives piano lessons. Hill says maiden librarians are his specialty, and he asks Washburn to signal him with piano-playing hands when they see her. Washburn points out Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn (Hermione Gingold), and Hill says he may not like it; but Washburn says that is the mayor’s wife.
Eulalie goes into the library and is greeted by the librarian Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones). Eulalie puts the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam on the desk and asks why she gave her daughter that book to read; she is appalled. Marian says it is beautiful Persian poetry, but Eulalie calls it dirty about people eating outside and getting drunk with innocent girls. Marian says it is a classic, but Eulalie says it is smut. She tells the librarian to keep her dirty books away from her daughter.
That evening Hill and Washburn are sitting on a bench. Hill asks what is new in town. Washburn says they talk about the weather. Hill says their town is in trouble, or he will create some so that they will need a boys band. Hill asks why people are going into the billiard parlor, and Washburn says they just got a new pool table. Hill goes across the street and tells the grocer that they have trouble in River City because of the new pool table as he sings “Ya Got Trouble.” Hill moves to the center of town and stands under a statue as people gather and listen to him. He warns that the young men will be frittering away their time playing a game that has corrupted billiards. He talks to the parents about what their kids are doing smoking cigarettes and dancing to ragtime. He says they need to find a way to keep the youth moral after school. He asks if they re-buckle their knickerbockers below the knee. New words are creeping into the conversation like “swell” and “your old man.” He tells them to remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the golden rule. Washburn signals to Hill that the piano teacher is walking by.
Hill follows Marian down the street and takes off his hat to her, but she avoids him. He asks if she dropped—but she says no. He says he will only be in town for a short time. She says, “Good” and goes in and closes the door.
Inside Marian says hello to her mother Mrs. Paroo (Pert Kelton) who keeps correcting young Amaryllis (Monique Vermont) as she practices piano. Marian sits down and tells her that a man with a suitcase followed her home. Mrs. Paroo asks if he said anything. Marian says she did not talk to him. Marian tells Amaryllis to do an exercise on the piano. Mrs. Paroo says she could have found out what the gentleman wanted, and Marian says she knows what he wanted and that it can be found in Balzac. Her mother says she never read it, and Marian complains that no one else in this town has. In the song “If You Don’t Mind My Saying So” they argue about the advice she gives because her mother says they have husbands but she does not. Marian says she has standards for men, and Mrs. Paroo says Marian is stubborn.
Amaryllis goes outside and invites shy little Winthrop Paroo (Ron Howard) to come to her party, and Mrs. Paroo tells him to answer her. He says no but does not say her name because he has a lisp. When he says her name, she laughs at him. He runs away, and Amaryllis says he is crying. Marian explains to her that Winthrop does not talk very much, and they have to be patient with him. Amaryllis says she says goodnight to him every night on the evening star. Marian says she will have lots of time for sweethearts. Amaryllis is afraid she will end up an old man like Marian. Then she apologizes. Amaryllis asks who she can say goodnight to, and Marian says she can say goodnight to her someone. Amaryllis plays piano as Marian sings “Goodnight, My Someone” while she looks out the window at the planet Venus. Amaryllis joins her at the window, and they sing together wishing sweet dreams.
People are going into the River City High School auditorium where students and Eulalie are singing “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” Mayor George Shin (Paul Ford) thanks his wife for leading the singing. He welcomes them to the July 4 celebrations and starts to recite the “Gettysburg Address,” but he is given a note that the members of the school board will not present a patriotic tableau. Shin announces that the Wa Tan Ye girls will present a spectacle with his wife. Ladies come in dressed as Indians. Eulalie leads the counting to twenty in an Indian language. Tommy Djilas (Timmy Everett) sets off a firecracker, and the sheriff makes him stay. Shin announces that his wife will recover. He announces that the fireworks will take place at tonight if it does not rain. A member of the school board says the Gazette predicted clear weather, and he argues with the other three board members. Shin tells them to stop bickering in public. Hill says they heard there is a pool table in town. Washburn helps him stir them up while Hill puts on his band uniform coat. He runs to the stage and asks for their attention, puts on his hat, and sings “76 Trombones” about when several famous marching bands came to town on the same day. Children come forward and dance with him. Then others join in the singing as well. Older girls and boys dance as they pretend to play musical instruments. Tommy dances on the stage. Then Hill leads them out of the auditorium, down the steps, and into the street. Everyone follows with Marian and the Paroo family going last. Hill leads them down the street, and others join. He tosses his cane to Tommy who tries to avoid the sheriff. The four men on the school board are glad to hear the music. Shin says he will stake his band against any other town. Marian asks what band and says they are fools. Shin says she is right and that the man is a spell-binder. The mayor tells the school board to get his credentials. The sheriff catches Tommy, and Shin gives him a lecture and tells him not to go out with his daughter. Tommy says they were just walking together and says “Great honk!” Shin tells him to watch his phraseology. He tells Hill he will talk to him about the band at 10 on Monday morning. Hill tells the sheriff that he will take care of Tommy. Hill urges Tommy to invent a way for a piccolo player to read his music. Hill talks to Zaneeta Shinn (Susan Luckey) and tells Tommy to escort her home by way of the candy counter and the library. They go off happily. The sheriff tells Hill he made two mistakes because the mayor owns the billiard parlor and that Zaneeta is his daughter.
At Madison Park that night people are gathering for the fireworks. Hill says good evening to some ladies. The four school board members arrive and tell Hill they need his credentials. He hears their voices and has them sing “ice cream” at different pitches. Hill tells Mrs. Shin that she will see those men together now, but she says they have hated each other for fifteen years. The quartet (Buffalo Bills) sings “Sincere” while Hill tries to talk with Marian. She tries to avoid Hill, and he says he is Professor Hill from a conservatory in Gary, Indiana. She says she is not impressed by his bad manners.
The next day Hill tries to teach two little boys to sing. They sing off-key, but he says they have “perfect pitch” and gets their mother to sign up them up for the band.
Hill is visiting Washburn and puts together a poster for the band. He says it takes four weeks now because he also sells them uniforms. Washburn says he does not know music and suspects they will find him out. Hill says he has it timed and leaves just in time.
That evening Hill says good evening to some ladies. Eulalie says her husband wishes to investigate and that she is reticent. Hill says he wants a committee on the dance, and he notices her moving her foot and says she has grace and rhythm. He asks her to be the chairman of the ladies for the classical dance. She accepts, and he kisses her hand. He asks them about the lady who teaches the piano, and they tell him how brazen she is. The ladies sing “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.” Eulalie tells him how Marian advocates dirty books like Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac. Eulalie says she also made brazen love to Madison who had no friends in town until she came. They call him “miser Madison.” He notes how many things are named after him. They say he left the library building to the town but all the books to her. The school board asks for his credentials, and he starts them singing “Good Night, Ladies.”
Amaryllis peaks in the stables and asks Washburn if she can visit the horses. He lets her in and invites Hill to come over to the boarding house. Washburn offers to fix him up with his girlfriend’s sister, but Hill sings “Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me.” Washburn dances and imitates a woman. Hill says he wants a more adult romance but does not want a wide-eyed and innocent female. He likes the girl with a touch of sin like Hester from The Scarlet Letter.
In the library Marian stamps the books, and Hill presents his hand. He tells her he knows about her and Madison, but it makes no difference to him. He says he likes the sadder but wiser girl. She asks him to make his selection and leave. He says he has made his selection; he wants to take out the librarian. He shows her marbles and threatens to drop them, and she says no. He sings “Marian the Librarian.” While singing he follows her around, and he closes her book. She pushes him down on a bench and hands him a book. He starts tap dancing, and three young men join him. They stand up and dance around, following Marian up the stairs and sliding down the bannister. The men are joined by four women dancing. Then more young women come in. Marian calls to Tommy. Now everyone in the library is dancing. Marian backs into Hill’s lap, and then the men dance with her. Marian dances on a table and around it. She goes back to her desk, and Hill finishes the song while chasing her up the stairs and kisses her before descending in the dumbwaiter and running out the door.
Tommy shows Hill his piccolo music holder, but it does not work. Tommy declines to go into Shin’s house. Hill rings the bell, and Shin is coming home and asks if he is soliciting without a license. He asks why he has not been to city hall with his references. Hill says the mayor has a finger that is good for his son playing the flugelhorn. Shin says he does not have a son as Hill departs. His wife comes to the door, and they agree they have no son. Mrs. Shin tells Zaneeta to call the doctor for her father.
While Mrs. Paroo is taking down dry clothes from a clothes-line, Hill tells her that her boy will be good at playing a cornet. She swears by Saint Bridget, and he says the greatest cornet players were Irish. He asks her to sign up, and she does. He says he will need measurements for his uniform, and Winthrop falls out of a tree. Hill tells him not to miss the pleasures of today. Winthrop asks if it will have a stripe, and Hill says it will. Winthrop runs off. Mrs. Paroo says he does not talk much and hopes Hill can get him to play in the band. She asks Hill where he is from, and he sings “Gary, Indiana” to her. He dances, and then she dances too and joins in the song. Marian sees them and comes outside. Hill says he has been trying to see her. Hill hears of Mrs. Paroo’s husband and says he would like to meet him. Marian says that he is dead and that Winthrop has been brooding about it for two years. She accuses Hill of selling musical tricks and she goes into the house and slams the door. Hill tells Mrs. Paroo that at heart Marian must be as lovely as she is. He leaves, and she sighs.
Mrs. Paroo comes in the house, and Marian asks if he has gone. Marian says her future does not depend on a traveling salesman. Mrs. Paroo says he is fine man from Gary, Indiana. She asks Marian what she is waiting for. Marian tells about men who have been trying to get close to her and says she does not want them. Mrs. Paroo asks if she ever thinks of being in love, and Marian sings “Being in Love” while her mother washes and dries the dishes. Marian wants an honest and quiet man who is interested in her and them together. She hopes he will ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great. She wants someone being in love with her.
At the library Tommy asks Zaneeta to meet him after supper at the footbridge, and she agrees. Marian notices the Indiana State Education Journal 1890-1910 and opens it.
The Wells Fargo Wagon is arriving, and people sing about things they have gotten. Shin tells his wife that he wants the spellbinder’s credentials. He says his wife is off dancing, and his daughter is with some boy. Marian shows him the book and starts to tell him what page to look at, but he wants to go see what is coming on the Wells Fargo Wagon. People sing “Wells Fargo Wagon.” Winthrop sings with his lisp, making Marian happy. The Wells Fargo Wagon stops, and Hill gets out and gives a cornet to Winthrop who is so happy that he hugs Marian. Hill tells the boys with their new instruments to think the music of Beethoven’s “Minuet in G.” Shin tells Hill he won round one and says he wants to hear music from them. Shin is interrupted by his wife while Marian rips out a page from the book. Then she hands it to him. Hill tells Marian that the ladies dance committee which meets at the high school is depending on her.
As boys go into the high school, they are humming the minuet. Women arrive in their dance costumes. Eulalie tells them to hurry along and starts them with posture exercises. They walk around a stage with a book on their heads while a piano is played. Eulalie leads them, and other women sewing admire what they do.
In the gymnasium Hill tells the boys to think the “Minuet in G.” A boy says he does not know how to play the French horn and asks him to show him how to play it. Hill tells him not to let anyone else touch his instrument until he feels he is ready. Hill has Tommy lead the practicing on the minuet.
Marian goes into the ice cream parlor, sits at the counter, and asks for a strawberry phosphate. Hill is treating Tommy and Zaneeta at a table to ice cream sundaes. Hill asks Marian if he can join her. Shin comes in with Eulalie and says he caught Tommy red-handed with his daughter. Tommy stands up and says they are going steady behind his back and would rather be doing it in front of his back. He says that Zaneeta is scared of her father, and he does not think that is good. Shin threatens to horse-whip him if he touches his daughter. Eulalie tries to say something, and Shin tells her he does not want to hear one “poop” out of her, and she tells Zaneeta she thinks he means “peep.” Everyone laughs, and Shin tells Tommy to get out of there. Tommy says he has a right to be there, but he leaves. Shin tells his daughter to watch her phraseology and go home. Shin tells Marian he could not find anything in that book. Hill tells Shin that he is vouching for Tommy.
Shin goes outside and tells the school board to get his credentials, and he runs off with Zaneeta.
While drinking the phosphates Marian asks Hill why Winthrop is not playing the instrument. She says he is using a “think system,” and Hill says his new method may seem ludicrous to her. However, she defends the idea of innovation because true originators are often laughed at. She says one must remember that one can do anything if one puts one’s mind to it. He would like to talk to her again and asks he if one may call upon her again. She says any night this week and goes out.
At night Hill is going in the hotel when the four board members ask him for the credentials. One says he will have to go in with him. Hill looks for his key and finds his overdue hotel bill. He says it is a testimonial from a bassoon player with the name of Lida Rose. He blows in a harmonica and gets them singing “Lida Rose.” While they are harmonizing, he slips away. They sit down on the steps as they sing.
On the front steps of her house Marian sings the same song while her mother sits in a rocking chair. Then the quartet sings while Marian sings the different words. Mrs. Paroo asks if she is ever going to tell him how she feels. Winthrop comes home and shows his mother his pocket knife, which can do many things, that Professor Hill gave him. Marian asks what he talks about with Hill, and Winthrop says he talks about where he is from. He sings “Gary, Indiana” while lisping. His mother and older sister join in the song. Marian embraces him, and Mrs. Paroo says he has to change for the social.
Charlie Cowell with a suitcase walks by and sees the sign for piano lessons. He asks Marian if she is the piano teacher; he says he has the goods on Professor Hill. He says the train only stops for fifteen minutes. When he looks her over, he says he wishes it was twenty. She asks who he is, and he says he sells anvils. He says he has to protect the reputation of salesmen from the swindler Hill. He spoiled Illinois for him, and he does not want him to spoil Iowa. He asks what kind of music teacher she is that she did not see through him. She says she knows he is not a professor because band leaders are often called that as an academic courtesy. She starts to say he is a fine director; but he stops her and asks if she has heard one note from any band. She says no, and he says he never formed a band in his life. She asks him to listen to her. He would like to, but he says he has to leave his paper with someone, and he realizes he should not leave it with her. Mrs. Paroo has seen them and puts on music inside the house. Marian tries to seduce him by dancing with him in order to delay him. He says it takes a real salesman to sell anvils. He says if he misses the train, he will lose his job. She tells him to leave word with him and kisses him. Mrs. Paroo stops the gramophone. Marian tells him the train is leaving and advises him to run for it. He asks who she thinks she is protecting. He says he has a gal in all 102 counties in Illinois. He cozies up to piano teachers to keep them quiet. The school board walks by singing “Lida Rose” as Cowell walks past them.
Hill arrives as Mrs. Paroo comes out. She tells them to sit while she puts on some jelly on the stove. She goes in the house, and he asks Marian to sit and talk. She is reluctant, and he reminds her that she asked him to call. She says she did not mean anything. He says he will explain the think system to her. She says some ladies have been there to see her. He says he is glad because he does not want anyone beating his time. She does not answer, and he says he will see her later at the social. She asks about the think system. He says it is like whistling. No one ever had to be taught how to whistle except to think the tune and whistle. She asks if all the music teachers are as fascinated as she is by the think system. She tells him not to let her keep him. He suggests they sit down. She says she must be dull company for a traveled man like he is. He says he heard rumors about a librarian too. She says that Madison was her father’s best friend. He asks why they start rumors like that. She says jealousy mostly, and he says jealousy also starts rumors about traveling salesmen. He asks what she heard. She rationalizes how other salesmen could misconstrue his attention to customers. He says they could be lies. She says you should discuss things. He suggests they discuss things sitting down. She suggests sitting on the steps, and he invites her to go to the footbridge. She says she has never been to the footbridge in her life, and she has to dress. He tells her to meet him there in fifteen minutes. She is afraid and begs to put it off until tomorrow. He warns her about putting things off and tells her to be at the footbridge in fifteen minutes, and she seems to be mesmerized. He leaves, and she tells her mother that she promised the professor she would meet him at the footbridge. Mrs. Paroo says she was using the think system on her and that it works.
At the social Charlie asks the school board if any of them are Mayor Shin, and they ignore him. On a large stage Washburn says that Mrs. Shin wants to start the entertainment. Tommy says they have been practicing, and Washburn has him start it out. Washburn sings “Shipoopi” while the young men and women dance. The song is about the girl who is hard to get. Washburn dances with his girlfriend Ethel Toffelmier (Peggy Mondo), and Tommy dances with Zaneeta. Tommy asks the professor to show them new steps, and Hill dances with Marian.
Hill leads Marian off the stage, and Marian promises that she will meet him in fifteen minutes. Mayor Shin announces the River City Ladies Eurhythmic Dance Group led by his wife will dance their impression of a Grecian urn. Eulalie leads four other ladies on to the stage.
Hill goes to the footbridge and sees young couples cavorting. He taps a stick on the rail and looks into the water and sees the boys band playing as he conducts with the stick. Then he breaks the stick and throws it in the water. Marian arrives, and he says she is late. She is about 26 years late because it took her that long to get to the footbridge with a fellow. She says she almost turned back halfway there. She says girls do not think too clearly when they are under the spell of his salesmanship. He asks if she thinks he has been trying to sell her anything. She says no and that he has given her things. He asks what, and she says he has given her something beautiful. She tells him not to be afraid that she expects too much more. She does not expect a traveling salesman to stay put. She is grateful for what he has left behind with her. She sings “Till There Was You.” They embrace on the bridge and kiss, and she sings about the love all around that she “never heard singing till there was you.” They kiss again. He says there is much that she does not know about him. He hears a rock land and says he is expecting a telegram from Rudy Friml. He goes off the bridge, and in the bushes Washburn tells him that the uniforms have arrived and that the boys are in them. He says Tommy has collected most of the money, and they are gathering at the lumberyard. Washburn says the train leaves at 9:40. Hill says it only 8:30, but Washburn warns him he’d better move. Hill says he is not resigning without his commission from this battle. He goes back to the bridge and embraces Marian. She says he was going to tell her what she does not know about him, but he says they do not have to go into that now. She says they never have to go into that because she did some research when he first arrived. He asks about what, and she says there was no Gary Conservatory in 1905 because the town was not built until 1906. He says she knew all the time. She says she tore this page out of the Indiana Journal, and she meant to use it against him; but now she gives it to him with all her heart. He realizes she knew, and she kisses him. They walk away together.
On stage the quartet is singing behind the four ladies when Charlie arrives and tells them that the music man has given them the double shuffle. He says he is a burglar in the bedroom. He says Harold Hill is a thief and no music professor. He says there is no band and never will be a band. Washburn hears this and runs off to warn him. Charlie says he has his credentials. Mayor Shin orders them to find him and bring him back roped and hog-tied. They all run off, and some carry torches. Mrs. Paroo is looking for Winthrop who ran off.
Washburn gets in an automobile with Hill’s suitcase and asks a man if he has seen Hill. He drives off.
Marian asks Hill to wait outside as she says she will be only a minute and goes into the house. He starts singing “76 Trombones” while she sings “Goodnight, My Someone;” but then he sings “Goodnight, My Someone.”
People search, and a fire truck comes out.
Washburn finds Hill waiting for Marian, and he says the anvil salesman is ruining everything. Mrs. Paroo arrives and tells Hill he had better go. She goes in the house, and Marian comes out and tells him to go without a word. Washburn leads people away from the house. Winthrop arrives, and Hill stops him. Winthrop tells him to let him go and says he would not tell him the truth. Hill says he would. Winthrop asks questions, and Hill admits that he is a liar, that he can’t lead a band, and that he is a dirty, rotten crook. Hill refuses to let him go and says he has to tell him two things. First, he is a terrific kid, and that is why he wanted him in the band so that he would stop moping around. Hill says he always thinks there is a band. Winthrop asks what the other thing is, and Hill looks at Marian and says it is none of his business, come to think of it. Winthrop says he wishes he had never come to River City; but Marian says he does not. Winthrop turns to her and asks if she believes him. She kneels down and says she believes everything he says. Winthrop says he promised them, and she says it happened just as he promised. She could see it in the way that every kid walked around this summer, especially him, and the parents too. She is glad he came to River City, and she tells Harold to go now. Winthrop tells him to go and hurry up. Harold says he can’t go because for the first time in his life he got his foot caught in the door. He sings “There was love all around, but I never heard it singing till there was you.” He embraces Marian. Washburn arrives with the suitcase and tells him to hurry. Hill lets himself be caught, and the sheriff leads him away. Winthrop hugs Marian.
In a large classroom Mayor Shin tries to recite the “Gettysburg Address” again. They debate, and the sheriff brings in Hill. Marian goes to the podium and asks them to remember what the town was like before he came and how it changed after he came. She says people did things they were proud of. She hopes they will be grateful for what he brought to them. Shin asks anyone who does not want him tarred and feathered to stand up. Mrs. Paroo stands up first, followed by Zaneeta, the school board, the dancing women, and Eulalie. Shin tells his wife to sit down, and he she does but then stands up again. Shin talks to the people as if they were sheep and asks them to remember what they paid for the uniforms and the band instruments with the understanding that they would learn how to play them. He asks where the band is. Tommy comes in, followed by Winthrop and others in the band uniforms. Marian leads Hill to a box in front of them and breaks a stick for him to use. He says he can’t, but she encourages him to try. He tells them to think and starts conducting. They play the “Minuet in G” quite badly, but parents say their children are playing.
People come out of the high school, and Tommy leads the band as their uniforms change into ones that are better and brighter. As they march down the street behind Professor Hill they play “76 Trombones” very well.
On a sunny day Hill is leading a large band down the main street. Marian joins Harold Hill in front of the band.
This musical lifts the spirits and entertains with great music and humor. A depressed boy comes out of his shell; a well educated woman finds a man who can stimulate her mind as well as her heart; and their mother is happy because her children are happy. The four men on the school board who quarreled are brought together by making beautiful music. The con game is humorous, but people are happy that they are being introduced to music.