Welcome to our final Musical Theatre Monday entry of 2016 and the end of this day as a weekly feature. We conclude with the fascinating…
VI. Allegro (10/10/47 – 07/10/48)
I’m glad that for the temporary finale of Musical Theatre Mondays (until we pick back up in January on the third Monday of every month), we’re looking at Allegro, a severely flawed piece that nevertheless both occupies an important place in Broadway history and offers genuine musical delights. The third stage score by the new wonder-duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who set the template for the Golden Age musical in Oklahoma! (1943) and then illustrated in Carousel (1945) how a problematic story could be overshadowed by expert musical/theatrical storytelling, Allegro merits distinction as being their first flop. Not only was this their first stage show not adapted from previously written material, but it was also knowingly revolutionary: a “concept musical” — so titled (in hindsight, of course) because the basis of the book has less to do with a narrative than the construct-bending exploration of a specific theme/idea. Although this term has been retroactively applied to Allegro (and 1948’s Love Life, which we discussed here way back in early 2014), that label is warranted; the show aimed to present the ordinary trajectory of a man’s life from birth to death. In execution, the idea was simplified from birth to 35, and followed a young boy, Joe Jr., son of a small-town doctor, who goes away to school, marries an ambitious social-climber, and practices medicine in the big city, only to realize that his heart belongs back home and with people of a more moral stock. The original production starred John Battles, Roberta Jonay, Lisa Kirk, John Conte, Gloria Wills, Muriel O’Malley, Annamary Dickey, and William Ching.
While many interpreted the point of the work to be about “big city: wicked; small town: good,” the duo insisted that this was merely an unfortunate extrapolation from their intended thrust: realism, which found itself as much actualized in the material (which we’ll get to in a bit) as the staging. Setting a trend for concept musicals, Allegro was a relatively sparse production visually. That is, there were costumes, but they were simple, and there were no sets, with locations being suggested in a more abstract, creative, minimalist manner. In essence, Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted Allegro to be stripped of artifice — there’d be none of the theatrical conventions that had come to dominate lavish Broadway productions; instead the unique staging would be integrated into the production itself, just as the book was to the score. The irony of this emphasis is two-fold. First, in defying conventions, the show would essentially be creating a new one — a style that’s still used today as a means of adding pretentious and often undeserved pensiveness to material that simply begs for honesty. They effectively made the staging — the theatrics — as much a part of the show as the story itself, thus highlighting the artifice instead of mitigating it. (Was this their intention? Perhaps they wanted audiences to think about theatricality, but not, I’m sure, to the point where it alienated theatergoers.)
The other irony is that if Rodgers and Hammerstein, the latter also being the book writer, wanted us to focus on the content, with the staging used as an effective stripped-down reinforcement of its themes, than the material simply had to be stronger than it was. Now, I’m not talking specifically about the score here. Although it would be difficult to argue that Allegro is as standard-packed as the pair’s prior two stage efforts, the songs, particularly for the individual characters, are melodic, charming, and American — classic Rodgers and Hammerstein (and these songs’ failure to catch on is a function of the show’s own comparable failure). Additionally, the production made time for some Agnes de Mille ballets (now a staple in the R&H genre), so there’s no inferiority with regard to the dancing either. The issues, rather, came from the body to which this material was paired: the book. (And let’s note that it was a mess during tryouts, with a hastily written second act that’s been ravaged by many a critic.) For a work intended to be a character study, Allegro suffers from the ill-defined depictions of its leads. One of the theatrical conventions I’ve neglected to mention thus far is the addition of a six-person Greek chorus that was situated on the sides of the stage (scripts in hand) to reveal the inner workings of the characters. But instead of adding depth to the primary figures, this chorus merely served as one big excuse to keep the players underdeveloped.
You see, the fatal flaw of Allegro is that this chorus gimmick robs all the actual characters — particularly our protagonist — of the human complexity we’ve come to anticipate from these integrated book musicals (a conceit Rodgers and Hammerstein mainstreamed). How are we to care about these people if everything we know about them is supplied by the show (the chorus) instead of the characters themselves? The simple answer is we can’t, and some scholars attribute the audience’s inevitable lack of emotional investment also on the way the score uses the players, offering many solos for small bit parts, but very few numbers for our leading man — none of which give great insight into his character. This sentiment, with which I tend to concur, illustrates that Allegro, no matter what the creators expressed later, was always more about the how than the what. As a result, the production was destined not to succeed in the same way as Oklahoma! or Carousel, which had narrative intentions first and foremost, using miraculous scores in support. Nevertheless, this show remained popular in amateur and stock circles over the next few decades because of its meager requirements. Within the past few years, it’s been seen in several small-scale revisals, all of which try to fix the show’s many problems. (Subscribers interested in viewing a performance of the recent 2014 Off-Broadway production should kindly comment below.) And in addition to highlights from the Original Broadway Cast, a 2009 studio recording offers the score in full! Both are exquisite documents — the first for its simple, honest performances, the latter for its pure, direct presentation of the material.
Now let’s sample the score! Some of the ensemble numbers are forgettable, and the comedic spots fall flat. However, the more earnestly rendered duets and solos generally boast charm. Elements of the duo’s prior works shine through in the Taylors’ easily folksy “A Fellow Needs A Girl” (above), a mild standard, and the emotionally effective, probably Joe Jr.’s finest moment, “You Are Never Away” (below). The former is from the studio recording. The latter comes from the Original Broadway cast.
Meanwhile, the rambunctious title tune, which leads to Joe Jr.’s decision to return home, reveals a vitality that one wishes existed throughout the work (although some argue that its ordinariness was intended — I, personally, dispute that the creators wanted its theatergoers disconnected by the mundaneness, but rather riveted, which would have their required more emotionally present material). The rendition below comes from a live recording of the 1994 Encores! production, which was the first major look at the score since its original run. (Subscribers interested in accessing this audio should, again, kindly comment below!)
Lisa Kirk, who played Joe Jr.’s genuine Chicago nurse, made a hit out of her big solo spot, “The Gentleman Is A Dope,” the most shaded number from the score and a unique entry in the R&H cannon. Here’s Kirk below.
And we’ll close with the delightful “So Far,” another mild standard for a potential love interest of Joe Jr.’s. This rendition comes from the studio recording. (And, subscribers, for access to the 1951 Theatre Guild on the Air production of Allegro, please comment below!)
*All of the shows in this series are Musical Theatre Monday Essentials. Here’s the updated list!
Thanks for making these past three-and-a-half years a pleasure! Please continue to join us here on the third Monday of every month for new Musical Theatre entries. We’ve got many more rarities coming up here — you won’t want to miss them!
Come back tomorrow for more of my thoughts on the best from Married… With Children!