Each semester for the past two school years, I've used the students in my musical-theater history class as academic guinea pigs, as it were, and put on a staged reading of a historically important but relatively obscure musical. Past shows in this series have been George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones, Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, and Very Good Eddie, one of the seminal "Princess" musicals.
This semester, I wanted to put on a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and I knew that show had to be Allegro (1947). The gentlemen certainly had their share of hits, but they did produce a few not-so-hits along the way, including Pipe Dream and Me & Juliet. These shows are not without their charms, but they can hardly be considered revolutionary. Allegro was.
For the uninitiated, Allegro was R&H's third stage show, after Oklahoma and Carousel, and came out shortly after their only musical written directly for the movies, "State Fair," which won them an Oscar for best song ("It Might as Well Be Spring"). And Allegro is one of the most important musicals that most people have never even heard of.
Allegro is nothing if not ambitious. The show represented a serious attempt on Oscar Hammerstein's part to craft an original story, rather than an adaptation, and reflected numerous innovations in the musical-theater form. Allegro was the first of what we now consider the "concept" musicals, shows that explore a particular idea rather than tell a specific A-to-Z story. (Other concept musicals include Love Life, Cabaret, Chicago, Company, and The Scottsboro Boys.) The concept for Allegro was originally a cradle-to-grave story of a certain earnest everyman, and how modern life presents challenges to his integrity. The birth-to-death idea proved untenable, so Allegro wound up being the cradle-to-midlife-crisis story of one Joseph Taylor, Jr.
Because the story had a rather ambitious temporal arc, Hammerstein made significant use of an omniscient Greek chorus, which comments on the action to both the actors and the audience. The show's physical production concept - an open playing area with a cyclorama for projections, and small set pieces that moved in and out of the playing area - represented a break from the literal realism of musicals at the time. Allegro also heralded the rise of the director/choreographer, in this case, Agnes de Mille. When we think of director/choreographers, we typically think of the men: Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins, etc. But Agnes de Mille took on this dual role before any of those guys did.
So, Allegro is unquestionably a significant show. But is it any good?
Despite the biggest advance sale of any musical up to that time, Allegro sharply divided audience members and critics when it premiered in 1947. While some thought it sublime and appreciated the sheer ambition and scope of the show, others found it pretentious, preachy, and boring. Until my experience of actually directing the show, I fell into the latter camp. In his libretto, Hammerstein expresses the dangers of social climbing and rampant materialism, and on the printed page, and on its two extant recordings, the show comes off as cold, humorless, and didactic. But the show really comes alive on stage, thanks in no small part to Oscar Hammerstein's warm and three-dimensional characterizations and Richard Rodgers' thrilling and tuneful score.
Another potential problem with the show is that the central love story seems at first to be cynical and empty. That was by design, but it can make for an unsatisfying experience. Joe grows up to wed his childhood sweetheart, Jenny. Act 1 ends with their wedding, in which everyone onstage seems to question whether this is really a good idea. It's the sort of thing Stephen Sondheim could have pulled off with alacrity, but Hammerstein seems have had a hard time making it compelling. (Sondheim actually served as a production assistant during Allegro's tryout period, and points to Allegro as providing inspiration for much of his later work.) One of the things I've tried to do with this production is make Jenny a believable and sympathetic person, someone who simply has her own ideas about what she wants from life, and not a heartless, calculating monster.
One of most important influences that the shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein had on musical-theater history was the integration of dance into the dramatic fabric of the shows they produced. This began with Oklahoma, which contains numerous examples of dramatically purposeful dance, including "Kansas City," "Many a New Day," "The Farmer and the Cowman," and of course the famous dream ballet, AKA "Laurey Makes up Her Mind." Following this, we had Carousel, which includes a stunning opening pantomime set to some of Rodgers' most compelling and evocative music, the "Carousel Waltz," as well as an alternately raucous and heartfelt ballet that shows the central character, Billy Bigelow, the full extent of the damage he's done to the life of his daughter. And perhaps most thrilling of all is the glorious "Small House of Uncle Thomas" in The King & I, one of the best examples of dance that serves a central and thematic narrative purpose.
Perhaps not surprisingly, since Agnes de Mille was at the helm, Allegro originally had quite a bit of dance, including four separate ballets. Because I only have 5 rehearsals for these staged readings, it's really not possible for me to choreograph any complicated numbers, so I had to cut most, if not all, of the dance. But I think it's really interesting to note that the show's story still works without the dance, which probably means that, with all due respect to Agnes de Mille and her collaborators, the dance for Allegro isn't really all that central to the message of the show. Additive, yes, but not requisite.
Allegro has performances this Monday, April 11th and Tuesday, April 12th, both at 8 PM at The Boston Conservatory's Zack Box Theater. Admission is free, and seating is unreserved, general admission. If you're in the Boston area and would like to attend, shoot me a message. Remember that these are bare-bones productions, produced on less than a shoestring, and designed to showcase the work itself. Come experience some terrific young performers, and the glory of some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best but least-known work.