Reviving 'Allegro': Even Rodgers And Hammerstein Had Flops

Nov 23, 2014
Originally published on November 24, 2014 2:42 pm

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 Carousel in 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."

Allegro was 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."

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 Allegro echoed themes that were also voiced in other works of the time, like Thornton Wilder's Our Town and 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.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So even legends fall short sometimes. Rodgers and Hammerstein may have been one of the most successful writing teams in Broadway history. Think "Oklahoma," "The Sound Of Music," just to name a couple of their hits. But they were not immune to failure. Now one of their flops is back on stage in New York. Jeff Lunden has the story of "Allegro."

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: In 1947, composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein were at the top of their game. Rodgers told a radio interviewer a decade later...

RICHARD RODGERS: If you're reasonably rational and have any objectivity, you know that after you've had "Oklahoma," "State Fair" and "Carousel" in 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.

LUNDEN: "Allegro" knocked them flat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLEGRO")

ORIGINAL CAST: (Singing) Brisk, lively, merry and bright, allegro. Same tempo, morning and night, allegro.

LUNDEN: The collaborators 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, as Oscar Hammerstein said in 1958.

OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN: Certainly 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. This boy had started as a country doctor, and had 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YATATA")

ORIGINAL CAST: (Singing) The deep thinking gentlemen and ladies who keep our metropolis alive - drink cocktails and knock tales every afternoon at five.

LUNDEN: This show 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 a 17-year-old production intern, Stephen Sondheim.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: What was interesting was I watched a lot of very knowledgeable people put on a flop. And by flop, it was a show that didn't work the way it was intended. It didn't work partly because it was a highly experimental show.

LUNDEN: And 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 character's head.

SONDHEIM: To utilize it in a epic style, to utilize the chorus as the internal parts of characters instead of just saying hello, hello, we're here tonight and anyone for tennis? So the sophistication and techniques are still fairly startling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE FOOT, OTHER FOOT")

ORIGINAL CAST: (Singing) Especially made for you - to walk in, to run in, to play in the sun in.

ORIGINAL CAST: (Singing) Especially before noon. For now you can walk. You taught yourself to walk. You puzzled it out yourself, and now you can walk.

ORIGINAL CAST: (Singing) One foot, other foot, one foot, other foot.

LUNDEN: But, says Sondheim...

SONDHEIM: The unsophistication of the writing unfortunately does it in.

LUNDEN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FELLOW NEEDS A GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) My kind of girl is you.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) They're funny when they're by themselves, not like a mother and a father - like a fellow and a girl, like Jenny and me. Almost.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) My fellow needs a girl to sit by his side at the end of a weary day.

LUNDEN: Doyle says "Allegro" echoed themes that were also voiced in other works of the time, like Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman."

JOHN DOYLE: It's a piece that's making a message I think about the implications of certain aspects of the American dream. 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?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (Singing) Money isn't everything. What can money buy?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #5: (Singing) An automobile won't do so you won't get wet, champagne so you won't get dry.

LUNDEN: 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.

CLAYBOURNE ELDER: 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. And it's like that. The fact that it resonates today with an audience as being edgy and a little bizarre is pretty incredible.

LUNDEN: 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." For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We are the friends that you left behind. You need us, Joe. And we need you. We can bring happiness and peace to your life. We want you, Joe. We want you to come, come home.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. B. J. Leiderman wrote our theme. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.