Saturday, February 21, 2009



  • Rodgers & Hammerstein's Allegro - First Complete Recording
  • Release Date: 2/3/09
  • Label: Sony Masterworks Broadway
  • Catalog: 741738
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Performers: Patrick Wilson, Audra McDonald, Marni Nixon, Laura Benanti, Norbert Leo Butz, Liz Callaway, Nathan Gunn, Judy Kuhn, Judith Blazer, Danny Burstein.
  • Orchestra: Istropolis Philharmonic Orchestra

Allegro is the one item in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon which today seems unimaginable: a failure. By the time this show was produced in 1947 R&H were practically deified as theatre icons. They had triumphed with Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), won an Academy Award in Hollywood with State Fair (1945), and established themselves as successful producers with I Remember Mama (1944), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and a national tour of Showboat (1947-49). Their work enjoyed such a density of popularity beyond the reach of any previous Broadway masters, that all America waited breathlessly to see what the magic team with the Midas touch would devise for their next unstoppable hit.

What they gave us was Allegro.

Hammerstein envisioned Allegro as an Everyman allegory: a piece in which he would move his protagonist, country doctor Joe Taylor, through a cradle-to-grave storyline designed to illuminate important themes, both universal and personal. The story was actually somewhat autobiographic for Hammerstein as he, like Joe Taylor, had lost his mother while young, left an adulterous wife, and found himself too often caught in an unwanted spotlight of fame which distracted him from his private life and writing pursuits. His goal, as related to director-choreographer Agnes de Mille, was to tell a story "about a man who can't fulfill his life's work because of personal and professional pressures."

The idea for the story is a sound one, although the limitations of theatrical storytelling would ultimately limit the tale to only birth through mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, such an ambitious story arc would necessarily encompass huge swaths of plot and time; clearly some new approach in script and style would be necessary to house such a panorama. And here is where R&H chose to up the stakes by once again reconceiving what a musical could be. While previous efforts by the team had woven together and unified a variety of dramatic elements which were already in use on Broadway in the 1940s, Allegro would incorporate ancient theatrical techniques including a vast, open playing area like the orchestra of ancient Greek theatre and an honest-to-goodness Greek chorus to urge on the action and explain subtext to the audience.

Unlike Greek theatre, however, Allegro tinkered with its empty stage space to produce a very fluid and cinematic kaleidoscope: moving runways, treadmills, and platforms were used to whisk set pieces and characters on and off; a serpentine traveller curtain allowed breathtaking cinematic wipes; and an enormous cyclorama acted as an imposing monolith onto which countless images were projected. The result was a kind of staging fluidity unknown to musical theatre of the 1940s. Gone were the "stage waits" between scenes and the little bits "in one" played downstage in front of a drop while the stagehands hauled in the next massive set.

The writing of Allegro was consistent with its staging concept. Not a line, not a song, not a scene was planned without the authors' having some idea how it was going to look and behave. It is at this point that R&H may have miscalculated. The writing of the entire show became subservient to its staging concepts with the Greek chorus assigned considerable duties in moving the plot along. Even the score was affected, for here one found no telling character songs, or expository love duets, much less the operatic grandeur of say Carousel. No, this score came out in little bits and pieces with only one complete musical scene, only an occasional full-out song, and four (count 'em four) ballets staged by Agnes de Mille. It's almost as if R&H were deconstructing musical writing to match the show's deconstruction of traditional theatre design.

Expectations were extremely high for Allegro and by the time of the NY opening October 10, 1947 the show had garnered the largest advance sale in Broadway history. But on opening night, the audience that mattered sat on its hands. As de Mille's husband, Walter Prude, put it, Allegro went over "like a wet firecracker."

The reviews were widely divided. Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror said, "Allegro is perfection." Wolcott Gibbs of The New Yorker called it "a shocking disappointment." In the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson thought R&H had "just missed the final splendor of a perfect work of art." Robert Garland, in the Journal-American, suggested that the authors "confused 'allegro' with, say 'lento,' which means 'slow,' 'unhurried,' and even downright 'serious'" Ward Morehouse of the Sun was probably the most accurate -- "distinguished and tumultuous," he called it. "It takes its place alongside of Oklahoma! and Carousel as a theatrical piece of taste, imagination, and showmanship...[It has] a simple story but it becomes frequently touching and occasionally exalted."

One can sense passionate disagreement from these reviews. "Nobody is neutral about Allegro," wrote Wayne Abrams in the Chicago Sun. "The Hammerstein-Rodgers-de Mille musical play is nigh unto perfect or a dismal flop. There's that much room for disagreement." This is exceedingly true. What musical before Allegro ever caused such passionate disagreement, such fervor? Controversy was the province of dramatists -- Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, William Saroyan -- not musical comedy. So what was this Allegro anyway?

Ultimately, the show was crippled by the poor reviews, but more importantly by bad word-of-mouth. The word on the street was that Allegro was a pretentious "success corrupts" morality play in which the wholesome virtues of America's heartland were set against graft and greed in the Big Bad City. "We, of course, intended no such conclusion to be drawn from our play," said Hammerstein, but to no avail. The staggering advance sale allowed the show to run for 10 months, just 315 showings, and then it vanished without paying back its enormous production costs. A national tour did lousy business and closed after visiting just 16 cities. "The fault was ours," conceded Rodgers in his autobiography, Musical Stages, "for not stating our point of view more clearly." Hammerstein added, "If the writer's aim is misread, it can only be because he hasn't written clearly enough."

So Allegro disappeared from the public consciousness, historically overwhelmed by the more successful and famous R&H titles. Even the original cast recording on RCA Victor, a meager affair which preserved only a small fraction of the score, was forgotten and only appeared episodically in print through the years. So the time seems ripe for a reappraisal of this adventurous work and we can thank Ted Chapin and the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization for this loving recreation of a long-overlooked work. Now we can finally judge for ourselves just what musical merits the show might possess.

The recording is fairly comprehensive and includes both the Overture and Entr'acte, all the songs (even in their tiniest fragments), most of the incidental music, and all 4 of the big de Mille ballets. It's a huge recording that is greater than 94 minutes in duration and covers two CDs. There is much to absorb and after listening to it for the better part of two weeks, I can certainly understand the mixed critical reception the show received.

To start with what's good, let me commend the orchestral playing. The producers procured the services of an Eastern European orchestra, for economic reasons I'm sure. The decision turned out well, however, for the 50-piece Istropolis Orchestra turns in a fine reading of this very symphonic score. At times, I do wish the playing were a touch more idiomatic, particularly in the college sequences set in the 1920s, and possessed more of a "Broadway sound," but this is mere carping. On the whole this is a rich, lush reading of the score which preserves the excellent Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations and Trude Rittmann dance arrangements -- and that alone is cause for minor celebration.

The singing on the recording is uniformly first-rate. Given that the producers recorded the orchestral tracks separately in 2006, they were free to engage individual singers as they became available to record the various roles. In this manner, they were able to assemble a dream cast which would be next to impossible to arrange in an actual staged production. The recording studio also allowed for singers to be cast exclusively for their vocal and acting abilities and not for reasons of physicality or age.

Top singing honors must be accorded to Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn as Joe's parents. Their duet, "A Fellow Needs a Girl" is one of the highlights of the score and Ms. McDonald's rendition of "Come Home" late in the second act is simply stunning. These are the tracks I return to over and over as I listen to this score. Just beautiful. Celebrity vocal double Marni Nixon provides an endearing and warm character voice for Grandma Taylor; sadly she has but one song, "I Know It Can Happen Again." She dies shortly thereafter, only to return as a ghost who pops up at intervals throughout the show, but with no new musical material.

Patrick Wilson is an engaging actor and his casting as protagonist Joe Taylor is inspired. One could easily imagine him performing this role in a staged theatrical production. His singing is warm and assured, but the authors give him precious little to do. Joe Taylor must be the first romantic lead in an American musical who has so very little to sing: just an unnamed ditty about being lonely at college, a beautiful love song "You Are Never Away" (with full Greek chorus singing backup), and a few lines of the title number. Strangely, the Greek chorus has more to do in Allegro than the protagonist. This leads us to one of the major writing flaws inherent in the piece: Joe Taylor is never really dramatized. The authors instead chose to have us learn about Joe from the testimony of others; it's an interesting approach, but ultimately a serious error of dramaturgy. In the end, Joe seems little more than an underwritten cypher whose actions appear motivated more by the needs of Hammerstein's plotting than by the intentions of the character's heart.

The lovely Laura Benanti plays Jenny, Joe's scheming, childhood sweetheart (who has no intention of being the wife of a small town doctor) and later his social-climbing, adulterous wife. Her singing chores are even skimpier than Joe's, so for the purposes of this recording, she is also something of a cypher. How I wish the producers had included a dialog scene between Jenny and Joe's mom, Marjorie, which occurs late in the first act, right before Jenny and Joe's wedding. Marjorie sees Jenny's true colors and knows she is not the right girl for her son. The two women have a devastating argument and open warfare is declared; but Marjorie succumbs to a heart-attack as a result of the argument and dies, leaving Jenny free to claim her man. During the moving wedding sequence the ghosts of both Marjorie and Grandma Taylor appear and Marjorie beseeches the faithless Jenny to respect her wedding vows and "love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him..." The curtain falls on a gala celebration with the chorus ringing out the stirring "Wish Them Well," complete with sopranos on high C, as Marjorie buries her face in her hands, weeping in open grief, at what she alone knows is to come. It is a striking moment, but I can only imagine how much better this ironic wedding scene would play on disc if we had the benefit of the chilling fight scene which precedes it in the play.

Judy Kuhn plays Beulah, a girl Joe dates briefly in college, and she is rewarded with a lovely song, "So Far," which reflects on the characters' lack of a shared history. One can only wonder why one of the best songs in the entire score is given to a secondary character who disappears immediately after singing it, never to be heard from again; but this glorification of secondary characters seems to be a recurring problem in Allegro. This tendency to musicalize minor characters while leaving the leads empty handed bothers me a great deal and must have been confusing to audiences when the show was new. "Whatever happened to that nice girl, Beulah?" the matinee ladies must have asked. "She may not have been dramatized, but at least she wasn't sleeping around." "So Far" appears to be one of the few episodes on the recording where laying down the orchestral tracks in advance seems to have been a misfire. Ms. Kuhn is a superb vocalist who seems uncharacteristically inhibited by the strict, metrical playing of the orchestra during this number. One wonders just how much more she could have done with this little gem if she were allowed to stretch her wings just a bit.

The choral singing is glorious throughout, although one does become a little tired of the endless spoken commentary from that logorrheic Greek chorus. Do we really need to be told Joe's birth weight five times in the opening scene of the show? I also question the wisdom of the extended choral sequence celebrating toddler Joe learning to walk, "One Foot, Other Foot." I realize that learning to walk is a metaphor which will return at the end of Act II when Joe abandons city life and returns to his rural roots (as the chorus reprises "One Foot, Other Foot"), but the sequence is lengthy and the metaphor is labored. I would so much rather have Joe's thoughts and feelings dramatized than explained by observers.

The chorus has their grandest moment in the extended wedding sequence which closes the first act. Music pumps continuously through this scene which encompasses no fewer than four different titles: "What A Lovely Day For A Wedding!," "It Might Be A Good Idea," "To Have And To Hold," and "Wish Them Well." The sequence is superbly crafted and extremely moving and only makes me wish the rest of the writing were of this high caliber.

There are some delightful cameo appearances on these discs. During a scene at Joe's college, his various professors are voiced by New York theatre critics Howard Kissel and John Simon; even Executive Producer of Lincoln Center Theatre, Bernard Gersten gets into the act. The voice of author Oscar Hammerstein II can also be briefly heard as a guest lecturer in, alas, a single sentence, but his voice is unmistakable and adds weight and sentiment to the proceedings.
The best surprise for me, however, was a magical appearance by Hammerstein protege Stephen Sondheim right at the climax of the piece as he assumes a solo speaking role with (yes, you guessed it) that tiresome Greek chorus that has by now worn out its welcome. His brief speech about the word "ornament" leaves one feeling that God-Almighty has just paid a visit to Act II of Allegro, and didn't you suspect a deux ex machina was going to appear anyway? Sondheim's small acting contribution plus his compelling remarks about Hammerstein's true intentions with Allegro (reproduced in the CD booklet) are a real treat and alone worth the price of the entire recording.

On the whole, I find this recording a welcome addition to my library and I'm grateful to the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization and Sony for taking the trouble to produce it. I feel confident this recording will create renewed interest in Allegro, however, my ultimate opinion of this piece is that it is one of those "important titles" which broke new ground and helped pave the way for future writers (the first concept musical really), but is not all that good when judged exclusively on its own merits. That's OK actually, there are plenty of important titles in the history of the musical which broke new and important ground, ever nudging the art form forward, but are not as entertaining as their vaulted histories might suggest. Kern and Hammerstein's Music in the Air (1932) and Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey (1940) are two titles that immediately come to mind. Music in the Air really stretched the boundaries of the musical scene as it existed in 1932 and Pal Joey, of course, introduced the anti-hero to the musical. Important history yes, but not really shows that I would be in a hurry to see revived.


fikink said...

Oh my, Geoff, such a thorough and thoughtful explication. Your insights and the many connections you make really puts Allegro into context.
Do you have anything to say about "Allegro" vis a vis "Our Town"?

Greene said...

@fikink: My thoughts about the relationship between Our Town and Allegro got expunged from an earlier draft of this review for reasons of length. Clearly R&H were influenced by Our Town which had appeared on Broadway 9 years before Allegro and the authors openly admitted as much. Some of the staging concepts are similiar and both stories are set in and celebrate small town America, but I think the comparison reasonably ends there.

Bill from NJ said...

I, too, thought of Our Town but dismissed the idea because the similarities were so superficial and seemed to lack integration, for wont of a better term.

My lack of familiarity with Broadway history won't allow me to delve too deeply but this "explcation", as fikink so succinctly put it, certainly helps.

Greene said...

@Bill from NJ: I got a bit carried away with this piece (and you should have seen how much other material got cut). There's a lot to be said for brevity.

Elena said...

Which are your fonts please? Thank you! :-) elena