ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hammerstein's Nearly-Forgotten Allegro

News   ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hammerstein's Nearly-Forgotten Allegro This week's column discusses the first complete recording of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1947 musical Allegro.
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ALLEGRO [Masterworks Broadway 88697-41738]
If you write the score of Oklahoma! in the first year and Carousel in the third year, and then South Pacific in the seventh year and The King and I in the ninth, what matter what you did in the fifth year? It mattered to Richard Rodgers, though, and especially to Oscar Hammerstein II. Allegro, the musical that came in between the other four, was quickly forgotten by the multitudes but not by the authors. The show's failure —not ignominious, certainly, but a major disappointment considering that they came in with the biggest advance sale in the history of forever — remained in their minds and memories.

This was clearly an attempt at something different for the musical theatre, with one foot (Hammerstein's) in the world of Wilder and Saroyan and the other (director/choreographer Agnes de Mille's) in modern ballet. Which, perhaps, is one of the main problems of the piece. But we'll get back to that.

Allegro opened in the year of Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon, two unconventional and similarly fanciful dance-heavy musicals which had a whole lot more to say to audiences than Allegro. What's more, it came the night after the lowbrow musical comedy laugh riot High Button Shoes — which not only had clowns and tunes but what might have been the most remarkable ballet yet seen in a Broadway theatre. De Mille had revolutionized dance on Broadway in four musicals since 1943, but Jerry Robbins' "Bathing Beauty Ballet" (as well as Michael Kidd's Tony Award-winning work for Finian) made Aggie's pseudo-psychological work on Allegro look, well, positively yesterday. The new R&H musical was respectfully received in a "worthily admirable" manner, but ticketbuyers — those who had not already plunked down their $4.50 in advance — were not swayed. Allegro made it through nine months, after which it packed up its aspirations and headed for an equally unsuccessful road tour.

(As an aside, what did Allegro, Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, and the aforementioned 1947 musicals Finian's Rainbow and High Button Shoes have in common? Similarly-designed artwork by Don Freeman, that's what.) Oscar and Dick carried the failure of Allegro with them for the rest of their days. Hammerstein was talking about revising the piece when he died in 1960, and Rodgers continued to mention it from time to time. No work was ever done, though, and the piece has languished as being pretty much nonstageable. A concert version presented in 1994 as part of the initial season at City Center Encores! reinforced the notion that the show was still worthily admirable but unworkable.

All of which has left those interested in musical theatre of the Golden Age with a pair of unanswered Allegro questions. What does the show sound like? (The original cast album was truncated, abbreviated, and sounds like it was recorded in the Holland Tunnel.) And, is the score any good? Given that the R & H blockbusters continue to blockbust (i.e. rake in royalties, year after year), and given that the heirs have demonstrated a willingness to spend some of those dollars on the preservation and enhancement of the legacy, the families have celebrated Allegro's 60th anniversary by underwriting a deluxe restoration of Dick and Oscar's long-overlooked score. Under the supervision of the R&H Organization's executive director Ted Chapin and director of music Bruce Pomahac, we suddenly — after an ambitious three-year labor of love — have a full and complete two-disc recording of Allegro. Contemplate Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn singing "A Fellow Needs a Girl"; that alone should be enough to send you to the CD mart.

This first modern recording of Allegro sounds simply wonderful. Russell Bennett's orchestrations for this music-intensive score are rich and whimsical. (He did most of the show himself, with four minor charts by Menotti Salta and one by Ted Royal.) Conductor Larry Blank gets full value from the score, pulling out numerous nuances and touches that were inaudible on the original recording. Choral direction comes from Ben Whiteley, and the work is impeccable. Allegro has what might be the most complex choral work of any Broadway musical, with arrangements from Crane Calder. Here, we have a 24-person singing chorus, plus six children. It all — musical instruments and vocal work — has turned out remarkably well, under the overall musical direction of Mr. Pomahac.

Due to the lengthy production time and the lack of pressing deadlines, Chapin and associates were able to assemble an impressive cast. Allegro is a musical without starring parts, which might have been one of the things that worked against it. (The nominal lead, Joseph Taylor, Jr., is a somewhat hollow role; by my count, he has one major solo, a one-third share of the title song, and two minor song fragments.) Patrick Wilson sings the role here, and well, too; but there simply isn't that much of it. Norbert Leo Butz plays his sidekick, Charlie, and brings plenty of character to his songs, while Liz Callaway — as the girl in love with the married, golden boy hero — has the best of it as the third part of this central triangle. She also has the show's one knockout showstopper, "The Gentleman Is a Dope," which she delivers most effectively. (If this tangled web seems to forecast aspects of the 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, there are reasons which need not be revisited here.) Laura Benanti, as the hero's unappreciative wife, only gets one full song; a passing-by ingenue, meanwhile, gets one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's brightest contributions, "So Far," and Judy Kuhn takes full advantage.

Wilson, Butz, Callaway and Benanti are all very much in evidence on the two-CD album, playing book scenes as well as singing their songs. (The album includes dialogue over music, of which there is plenty, but not the entire libretto.) Poor Joe's father and mother are performed by the aforementioned Mr. Gunn and Ms. McDonald, who share vocal honors for the enterprise with Ms. Callaway. The only weak link is Marni Nixon as Grandma; I keep listening for someone like Celeste Holm, who performed the role at Encores!, but hear something closer to Irene Ryan of Pippin. Judith Blazer, Maureen Brennan, Ashley Brown and Kathy Morath join Ms. Benanti for the "Money Isn't Everything" quintet, while Danny Burstein plays the mostly-speaking role of Benanti's father. Effective cameo appearances come from the likes of Bernie Gersten, Schuyler Chapin, Howard Kissel, John Simon and Oscar Hammerstein (pulled from an old dictaphone belt). Stephen Sondheim, who was a teenaged gofer on the original production, here gets to deliver Oscar's climactic speech ("a man's brain is sometimes cleared by the sudden light of one word...").

Allegro tells the age old tale of the bright idealistic country boy who takes his talents and dreams to the big city, finding great success at the cost of his integrity. At least so it appears; the author himself stated that "it is the law of our civilization that as soon as a man proves he can contribute to the well-being of the world, there be created an immediate conspiracy to destroy his usefulness, a conspiracy in which he is usually a willing collaborator." Rather than place his hero in a family of theatrical impresarios, he chose to use the medical profession (borrowed, perhaps, from the Rodgers clan). Hammerstein did not hide the fact that various aspects of the tale were autobiographical. Tellingly, the climax occurs when poor Joe discovers that his wife Jennie is having an affair with one of his colleagues. This, indeed, happened to poor Oscar following the first success of Show Boat.

This betrayal is not insignificant in terms of Allegro; one of the major problems in the plot is the handling of Jennie. Oscar chivalrously doesn't say a mean word about her, over two acts; but we never do see her attributes. Why is Joe so dedicated to her? Why is he so in love with her (or what passes for love)? Why does Oscar give Joe a bright and shining anthem to Jennie's attributes, "You Are Never Away," a song that rings clear and true, without a hint of deceit? "You're a star in the lace of a wild willow tree," he sings, but the librettist certainly doesn't write Jennie that way. He doesn't criticize, no doubt out of feelings of guilt over his own weaknesses as a husband; but just what does Jennie mean to Joe? He is infatuated with her, certainly, but the audience isn't.

On a happier note, let us shoehorn into this review an anecdote related by de Mille, which will probably make sense only to readers who are familiar with the song "Joseph Taylor, Jr.": Walking away from a frustrating production meeting with Theatre Guild producers Lawrence Langner and the blue-haired Theresa Helburn, Oscar and Dick made up this parody lyric about them: "Her brain is fuzzy / Her hair is blue / She'll change her mind / She often do / She's all of that and looney too / But Lawrence Langner's — loonier." All said, this new recording of Allegro is everything that we might desire, and everything that Dick and Oscar might desire too. Does this finally rehabilitate Allegro and elevate it to the level of Carousel and South Pacific? Well, no; now that we can hear Allegro in all its glory, I expect that it retains its place in the sixth or seventh slot on the list of the nine stage musicals of R&H. The problem, it seems to me, is not in the writing but in the conception. Allegro is loaded with music, but too much of it is music for ballet; Ms. de Mille seems to have insisted in illustrating the action, every step of the way, in dance. There are only nine full-scale songs, by my count; very good-to-excellent songs, mind you. But only nine, while something like South Pacific has ten in the first act alone. (Resultingly, much of the music comes not from Rodgers but from expert dance arranger Trude Rittman.) Midway in the first act of Allegro, when things slow down to a deathly pace, Ms. de Mille and Ms. Rittman give us the "College Dance," consisting of eight minutes-worth of variations on the old Rodgers & Hart standard "Mountain Greenery." And that's one of the problems with Allegro.

But not a problem in terms of the new CD. Here we get Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro, all right, in full and glorious form. Listen to Audra McDonald sing "Come Home" — put it on repeat play, why don't you — and be content.

(Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (Oxford) as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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