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Reviving 'Allegro': Even Rodgers And Hammerstein Had Flops

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II may have been one of the most successful writing teams in Broadway history — think of Oklahoma!and The Sound of Music, just to name a couple of their hits.

In 1947, they were at the top of their game. Rodgers told a radio reporter a decade later: "If you're reasonably rational and have any objectivity, you know that after you've had Oklahoma!, State Fair and Carouselin a row, this is a very good time to be cautious. This is when it's liable to sneak up from behind and hit you on the back of the head."

That's exactly what happened. The musical Allegro knocked them flat. But now, almost 70 years later, the celebrated duo's first flop is back on stage in New York.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had helped usher in the modern musical with Oklahoma! and Carousel, in which song, story and dance were tightly integrated. In Allegro, they wanted to take those innovations a step further.

"In its conception it was epic, conceived of a man from the date of his birth, following him through his youth and into his middle age," said Oscar Hammerstein in 1958. "This boy had started as a country doctor and ... then, through an overambitious wife, got mixed up in a kind of society doctor practice and was devoting more time to the social life that goes around medicine, than medicine itself."

Allegro was directed and choreographed by the acclaimed Agnes de Mille. It arrived on Broadway with a cast of close to 100 and the biggest advance ticket sales in Broadway history at the time. But reviews were mixed, and Allegro only lasted a season. Witnessing all this was 17-year-old production intern Stephen Sondheim.

The show stuck with him. "What was interesting was I watched a lot of very knowledgeable people put on a flop," says Sondheim. "And by flop, it was a show that didn't work the way it was intended, and it didn't work partly because it was a highly experimental show."

Allegrowas also highly influential for the fledgling songwriter, who went on to become the voice of his generation, with shows like Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George. In particular, Sondheim was struck by how Rodgers and Hammerstein used song in a different way — often in fragments, sung and spoken by a Greek chorus, to get inside the characters' heads.

"To utilize the chorus as the internal parts of characters ... is still fairly startling," says Sondheim. "The unsophistication of the writing, unfortunately, does it in."

A commentary on the American dream,<em> Allegro</em> tells the story of Joe Taylor Jr., a small-town doctor who moves to Chicago.
/ Rodgers & Hammerstein
Rodgers & Hammerstein
A commentary on the American dream, Allegro tells the story of Joe Taylor Jr., a small-town doctor who moves to Chicago.

As a result, the show is seldom revived. Nonetheless, British director John Doyle is giving it a try at the Classic Stage Company off-Broadway. The cast of 100 has been pared down to 12 actors, all of whom play musical instruments as they perform.

Doyle says Allegroechoed themes that were also voiced in other works of the time, like Thornton Wilder's Our Townand Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

"It's a piece that's making a message about ... the implications of certain aspects of the American Dream," says Doyle. "And if you want to follow your dreams, does that have to mean making a lot of money? In a world that values ambition, what does ambition really mean?"

Claybourne Elder plays the protagonist, torn between the trappings of success and making a contribution to society. Elder says the bare-bones staging of the current revival serves Hammerstein's words and Rodgers' music quite well.

"We are doing it in a very modern way, maybe, but we are doing the text that they wrote in the way they wrote it," Elder says. " ... The fact that it resonates today with an audience as being edgy and a little bizarre is pretty incredible."

And Rodgers and Hammerstein? While they were disappointed with the reaction to Allegro and vowed to rewrite it, they moved on. Their next two shows were South Pacific and The King and I.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.