Why Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Allegro' Still Matters

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

It’s hard to believe that, on the eve of its 70th anniversary, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1947 musical “Allegro” is only now making its professional European debut.  The production from London’s Southwark Playhouse, directed by the highly regarded Thom Southerland, has received, as is typical for this musical, rave to mixed and confusing reviews.  Few, it seems, have ever been able to reconcile the show’s seemingly lofty ambitions with its homey execution.  It has been referred to as “ahead of its time,” a label often applied to works that don’t catch on by creators who cannot be dismissed.

The exalted team of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote nine Broadway musicals, five of which are acknowledged classics and three of which were unsuccessful (while “Flower Drum Song” has not become a classic, it was a success).  They also wrote one movie musical, “State Fair,” and one for television, “Cinderella.”  Of their three shows that did not enjoy life after Broadway, Rodgers said, “Allegro” is the one most deserving of a second chance.”  Hammerstein was working on a television adaptation at the time of his death in 1960.  Stephen Sondheim, a production assistant on the original production during his summer vacation from college, has said that he’s spent his career trying to fix the second act of “Allegro.”  I feel his pain.

I produced and co-directed a production in 1984 with my frequent collaborator, Louis Mattioli.  It was one of only a handful of productions to have been staged in the 37 years since the original.  It’s exhilarating to mount a show for which there is no prototype.  (When you do “Fiddler…” or “…Dolly!” or “In the Heights” or “American Idiot,” you pretty much know where you’re headed.)  I did as much research as possible into this obscure musical.  There are photos of the original production featuring a cast of over 60.  Jo Mielziner’s scenic design employed a stage-spanning curtain on an “S” track that concealed one scene while revealing the next.  Hammerstein had envisioned a simple staging along the lines of “Our Town” and that the route we took, with a cast of 17 on a unit set.  The Original Cast Recording captured only a limited portion of the fragmented score but even that sluggish recording suggested Rodgers’ customary melodic brilliance, and Hammerstein’s unique gift for spinning homespun into gold.  There has since been produced an indispensable recording of the entire score, from Masterworks Broadway, produced by Ted Chapin, Bruce Pomahac and David Lai, starring Patrick Wilson, Audra McDonald, Nathan Gunn, Liz Calloway, Laura Benanti, and Marni Nixon.  This glorious recording supremely makes the case for “Allegro” deserving a second chance.

The musical was by no means a flop.  It ran a respectable season of 315 performances, carried somewhat by the largest advance sale in Broadway history  ̶  $750,000 at a time when the top ticket price was $6.  But unlike “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” before it, when it closed, and following a brief tour, “Allegro” essentially disappeared.

The first of only two R&H musicals not based on previous material (the other is “Me and Juliet,” 1953), “Allegro” follows Joseph Taylor, Jr. from his birth in a small, Midwestern town in 1905, through his mid-30s.  As Joe grows up, he’s determined to become a doctor, like his dad, and eventually take over his rural practice.  (Perhaps not incidentally, both Rodgers’ father and brother were doctors.)  But his childhood sweetheart, Jennie, has more ambitious plans.  Following the untimely death of his mother (Hammerstein’s mother died when he was twelve), Joe and Jennie marry.  When her father loses his dough in the crash of ’29, they move to “the big city,” never specified by Hammerstein.  While Jennie is busy climbing the social ladder, poor Joe is stuck administering unwarranted drugs to the rich and pampered.  But he, too, is moving up the ladder and is eventually offered the position of Chief Physician at the hospital.  When he learns of his wife’s affair with the Chairman of the Board, he turns down the position and returns home to help his dad, accompanied by the principled nurse who’s been crazy about him all along.  The major innovation of the musical was its use of a Greek chorus, commenting upon the action, sharing the inner-thoughts of the characters, and narrating portions of the story.  This was in addition to the customary singing and dancing ensembles, with Josephine Callan given credit as Director of Choral Speech.

It was the first show to be directed by Agnes de Mille, the legendary choreographer with whom R&H had collaborated on both “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”  It became clear during early rehearsals that she was in over her head.  Her solution for just about everything was to add more dance music.  She didn’t know how to work with actors and could provide no help in shaping the problematic script.  (Sondheim called her “a horror.”)  Eventually the producers and R&H decided to replace her with Joshua Logan, who had directed the R&H-produced smash, “Annie Get Your Gun,” the previous season.  They took de Mille to lunch to spring the bad news but before they could begin, she took both Rodgers and Hammerstein by the hand and said, “You’ve made me the happiest girl in the world!”  No, they couldn’t go through with it.  Logan went on to direct their next musical, “South Pacific.”  He is the one who told me this anecdote and I have no reason to doubt it.  

Much of the criticism leveled against “Allegro” was a perception that Hammerstein’s theme was that small town is good, big city is bad.  As Hammerstein makes clear in his preface to the published script, that was not his intent.

“We were chided for ascribing only virtues to small town folk and only wickedness and vice to the people of the great cities.  We, of course, intended no such conclusion be drawn from our play.”  He goes on to quote a bit of Joe’s dialogue from the musical to bolster his claim.

“There’s nothing wrong with people just because they have money and live in the city – nothing wrong with being a city doctor…  But this crowd we get in here!...”

Sondheim has posited that Hammerstein was exploring the trappings, not so much of success, but of losing sight of what your goal is.  While Joe is meant to be an Everyman in this allegory, he is a very particular person in a series of very specific situations.  And while some of the city slickers he encounters certainly have their issues, the “small town folk” are not especially virtuous either.  Hammerstein describes Jennie as “a crass and vicious little baggage,” her pompous father as “a smug Babbit,” and the wedding guests in the country church as “catty a crowd of gossips as can be found.”

There are milestones in the progression of musical theater, beginning in 1927 with Hammerstein and Kern’s “Show Boat.”  Never before had such serious themes as miscegenation, racism, alcoholism and single motherhood been treated on the stage, let alone by a racially integrated cast.  Following the mindless musical comedies of the late 20s and 30s (28 of which came courtesy of R&Lorenz Hart), R&-the-second-H’s “Oklahoma!” opened in 1943.  It was revolutionary in its integration of score and dance in service to the plot, giving traction to the sub-genre of the “musical play.”  After years of shows featuring acres of high-kicking chorines, the story itself finally took center stage.  

Most would agree that the next milestone was Sondheim’s “Company” in 1970, introducing what became known as “the concept musical.”  But let’s back up.  There is a direct line between “Allegro” and “Company,” the former arguably being the first concept musical.  Sondheim and others have acknowledged as much.  (We’ll leave Kurt Weill’s musicals, “Love Life” and “Lady in the Dark,” for another time.)  

Like Sondheim, I tried to fix the second act of “Allegro.”  Throughout my career I’ve been drawn to pieces that have so much to recommend them that you fall in love, but that just don’t quite work.  “I’m the one who can finally fix “Allegro,” or “Merrily We Roll Along” or “Working” or “110 in the Shade” or “The Grass Harp!”  It’s not so much arrogance as the enveloping challenge of problem solving.  I mean, with all due respect, anyone can put up a production of “Gypsy” that works, as have I, joyfully, more than once.  

Anyway, I took more liberties with our production of “Allegro” than would have been allowed under a strict reading of the License Agreement to present it.  And in NYC, no less.  So I was understandably sweating blood at the matinee attended by the widow Rodgers, Dorothy; her daughter, the composer and author, Mary Rodgers; Hammerstein’s sons and daughter, Bill, Jamie and Alice; and Ted Chapin, President of the R&H organization.  They could not have been more gracious, encouraging and candid.  Ted did wag a finger at me for my changes, but he did so with a good-natured wink.  Mary liked the way I’d juxtaposed a couple numbers in act two and thought it helped.  Bill disagreed, gently chastising me for eliminating a song.  Jamie, ever affable, seemed to have enjoyed the whole thing.  The elegant Mrs. Rodgers said, “You know it was Dick’s favorite score after ‘Carousel.’  It was lovely to hear again.”  

Without the inventions of “Allegro,” we may never have had, not only “Company,” but Michael Bennet’s “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls,” Tommy Tune’s “Nine,” many Harold Prince productions, from “Cabaret” to “Evita,” and including Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”  I intend to get back to “Allegro” someday.  I won’t be able to “fix” it, but the journey becomes the thrill when you can’t quite see the destination.  Kind of like a concept musical.