Brisk, Lively, Merry and Bright: Allegro
By Peter Filichia –
Allegro has now reached senior citizen status.
Sixty-five years ago this week, Rodgers and Hammerstein debuted their third stage collaboration. After their monumental success with Oklahoma! and the masterpiece status they saw conferred on Carousel (and the nice reception they got for the State Fair movie), their audience couldn’t wait to see what this innovative duo would do next.
What’s harder than living up to great expectations? Allegro, R&H’s first original musical, ran nine months: little more than a third of the run of Carousel and a little less than a seventh as long as Oklahoma!
Allegro seems, as Brooks Atkinson noted in the Times, “as if Our Town were written to music.” But he also said that the show “just missed the final splendor of a work of art.” Why did Atkinson have to look at the glass as a bit empty as opposed to almost full? If he’d emphasized Allegro’s achievements instead of mentioning what he apparently felt were only a few shortcomings, the show might have been propelled to more than 315 performances.
Richard Watts of the Post decreed that it was “beautiful, imaginative, original and honestly moving.” Those are four terrific adjectives, but Robert Coleman in the Mirror trumped them with seven impressive nouns: “a stirring blend of beauty, integrity, intelligence, inspiration, taste and skill.” His ultimate judgment? “Allegro is perfection.”
If I’d been marketing this show, that’s is the pull-quote I’d use. Or would I have used “bigger and better than anything the Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein have written,” as was the opinion of Robert Garland in the Journal American?
Allegro’s main character – one Joseph Taylor, Jr. – would have become a senior citizen in 1970, for Rodgers and Hammerstein had him born in 1905. The show took him to his 35th year, stopping off in 1940 – thus avoiding the Second World War, which R&H would tackle in their next show: South Pacific.
Original cast albums were in their infancy in 1947; RCA Victor had only done Brigadoon. In those days of 78 rpm records, a label couldn’t be expected to record every bit of music from a show; Allegro would have required fifteen or more records. These 78s were heavy, too – and lugging fiifteen-disc packages might well have caused buyers to drop them from exhaustion. They would have then been forced to pick up a lot of shards, for 78s were more fragile than the finances of Rebecca: The Musical.
So Allegro’s original cast album offers only a dozen songs. After a chorus welcomes “Joseph Taylor, Jr.” into small-town life, his grandmother reminds herself that he won’t be an infant for long (“I Know It Can Happen Again”).
But every story needs conflict, and Hammerstein included the first real adversary that all toddlers encounter: gravity. “One Foot, Other Foot” shows Joe’s triumph in learning to walk.
Next is “A Fellow Needs a Girl,” when Joe is seventeen. Are you assuming that Joe is singing to a high school sweetheart? Nope: his father is singing to his mother. Even when pre-med student Joe goes on a date with Beulah, she’s the one who does the singing in the lovely “So Far.”
Finally, we hear from Joe in Song Six, when he sings to Jennie, his beloved girl back home, “You Are Never Away.” It leads to a wedding: “To Have and To Hold” and “Wish Them Well” commemorate it.
Wish them well, indeed. Jennie may be one of the singers in “Money Isn’t Everything,” but she doesn’t much believe it. Once she gets Joe to move to Chicago to make the big bucks, the marriage isn’t working, which is why his nurse Emily opines that “The Gentleman Is a Dope.” Hammerstein is often accused of being overly romantic and optimistic, but here he dared to write about a situation seldom seen in musicals: two people who work together have more in common and understand each other’s frustration than two marrieds who only see each other at the end of the day. For that matter, before the wedding Emily and Joe’s mother came to blows – which would have escalated had the woman not suddenly died.
The title song mocks Joe’s hypochondriacal patients, who gave him one reason to leave Jennie; her adultery was another. At the final curtain, Joe finally sees that Emily was the woman for him. (That the wife was the bad guy must have rankled some female theatergoers.) Now he will “Come Home” – one of Rodgers’ most unheralded but wonderful melodies – as his mother, friends and relatives urge him.
That’s it: thirty-three minutes and thirty-one seconds. Many assumed we’d get a complete recording in 1994, when Encores! did Allegro and gave New York the chance to hear most everything for the first time in almost 50 years. But alas, no.
Finally, in 2009, Masterworks Broadway did a studio cast album so glorious that even R&H haters had to be impressed. And really, don’t those who scorn R&H feel that way because they’ve been overexposed to their hits? With this recording, they had to be astounded.
It’s almost three times more generous than the original: a hundred heavenly minutes and fifteen lovely seconds spanning two discs. Maybe that dopey gentleman Joe didn’t know “a rhumba from a waltz,” but Richard Rodgers certainly did. And so what that he stole a little from his own “Johnny One Note” for the title song? That was probably accidental, but Rodgers did baldly recycle one of his old hits: “Mountain Greenery.”
“What?” purists are yelling, “Rodgers brought back a song he wrote with Hart for The Garrick Gaieties of 1926?” Yes, but this wasn’t just a lazy interpolation as we so often get these days. It was done as a genuine song to which Joe danced during his college days – just as it would have been for anyone born in 1905.
The song is only one of the pieces that illustrates the talents of illustrious dance music arranger Trude Rittman. There’s more than twenty minutes of her brilliant work here – making for more than a fifth of the running time. What’s more, there are terrific performances from five Tony nominees: Maureen Brennan, Danny Burstein, Liz Callaway, Judy Kuhn and Patrick Wilson as Joseph Taylor, Jr. Add to that four Tony winners: Laura Benanti as the craven Jennie, who sounds as if she has enough acid to fill the batteries in all of Jay Leno’s automobiles; Norbert Leo Butz as Joe’s best friend; Audra MacDonald as Joe’s mom; and Stephen Sondheim as an ensemble soloist in the finale.
Yes, that Stephen Sondheim. He was, after all, there at 17 with the original production where he, as he says in the liner notes, “typed scripts, got coffee, listened to (director-choreographer) Agnes de Mille maltreat singers, and watched this quite remarkable show come to life. I think I might not be so attracted to experimental musicals if I hadn’t wet my feet with Allegro.”
For that matter, Sondheim even wrote his own Allegro – Merrily We Roll Along. It was a less bitter pill to swallow, for by going backward from middle-age to young adulthood, its characters and their lives got progressively nicer – just the opposite of Allegro’s ever-devolving plot in which people become increasingly unhappier. (Hey – maybe you should first play Disc Two of Allegro and Disc One second.)
No, start at the very beginning. Disc One promises quite a show right from the overture. You’ll hear something you hadn’t heard on the original cast album: a bit of a song you’ll come to recognize as “A Darn Fine Campus.” It’s a hint of all the additional material. There’s more from the chorus on Joe’s birth and his time as an infant; a dance representing what Joe and his classmates did in nursery school; and a less joyous sequence after his beloved grandmother dies.
Collegiate Joe does seem to be happy to be in “A Darn Nice Campus” – until he comes to the conclusion that he’s homesick. “Poor Joe,” sings the chorus. When Joe marries Jennie, we hear more of the wedding, and his best friend Charlie’s feeling that he’d prefer to stay single.
Disc Two starts with an Entr’acte that reminds us of four pleasant songs that we’ve already heard. There’s also the mindless-chatter song “Yatata,” which at least one etymologist has insisted was the precursor of today’s “Yada, yada, yada.” The title song is augmented with much more music, as is the finale.
Sixty-six artists appear, and while some may sneer, “Hey, the original recording had nearly eighty,” how’s this: while the original orchestra had thirty-five pieces, here esteemed conductor Larry Blank heads no fewer than fifty – with nary a synthesizer among them.
Listening to the 1947 original cast album and then the 2009 studio cast album shows how recordings have come – to quote Allegro once more – so far.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.