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The Archive: Reviving Allegro – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rare flop

Classic Stage Company’s production of Allegro in New York in 2014. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Stephen Sondheim says there were two shows that shaped his professional life – West Side Story, of which everyone has heard, and Allegro, of which nobody but a tiny minority of musical buffs has heard.

The reason Allegro (1947) faded into the mists of obscurity, despite being the third (stage) collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, was that it confounded both critical and public expectation after the colossal successes of Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). Allegro received mixed reviews on Broadway – the New Yorker called it “a shocking disappointment” – and it came off after 315 performances, compared to Oklahoma!’s original 2,248 performance run.

“It was expected that they would deliver another homey, uplifting, straightforward piece of storytelling,” explains Sondheim in his 2010 book, Finishing the Hat. “But Allegro was startlingly experimental in form and style. It had no scenery and no plot.”

The pictorial cover
The pictorial cover

There have been various attempts to rework it Stateside, including a pared-down version in 2014 by the English director John Doyle, which Ben Brantley of The New York Times said was “musically hypnotic enough to make you feel Allegro has been stuck all these years with a bum rap”.

Hammerstein’s book, set over a 40-year timespan beginning in 1905, tells the story of a small-town boy who becomes a big city doctor, all the while pining for the wholesome values of his upbringing and resisting the cynical values of big city life.

It was seen by many as a deeply personal cri de coeur by Hammerstein, who longed to write something original, rather than adapting other people’s work as musicals, which may have been incredibly lucrative, but was something he found artistically stifling. He was also a big fan of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, a major influence on Allegro.

“Oscar meant it as a metaphor for what had happened to him,” writes Sondheim who, as Hammerstein’s teenage protege, worked on the original show as a gofer. “He had become so successful with Oklahoma! and Carousel that he was suddenly in demand all over the place. What he was talking about was the trappings, not so much of success, but of losing sight of your goal. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he was trying to tell the story of his life.”

Because she had done such a brilliant job as choreographer on both Oklahoma! and Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein asked Agnes de Mille to direct Allegro. The cast was made up of 41 principals and more than 100 dancers. De Mille’s biographer called it “a leviathan of a show, exceeding the grasp of any one individual”.

Indeed, when it became clear that De Mille couldn’t cope with the dual roles of director and choreographer, Hammerstein stepped in to co-direct it.

The young Sondheim, quietly observing from the sidelines, was unimpressed by De Mille. “She treated the actors and singers like dirt, and the dancers like gods. She was an extremely insensitive woman and a terrible director, in terms of morale. That was my first experience of bad behaviour in the theatre.”

Rehearsals for Allegro at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Annabel Vere/Gerard Brown
Rehearsals for Allegro at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Annabel Vere/Gerard Brown

The first try-out in New Haven, Connecticut, as recalled by Sondheim, did not go well. A scenery wall started to collapse, forcing one of the lead actors to hold it up until the stagehands came to his rescue. Dancer Ray Harrison tore a ligament in his knee and was carried from the stage, screaming, while the female lead fell into the orchestra pit while singing The Gentleman Is a Dope, and was immediately catapulted back on to the stage, unhurt, receiving a round of applause from the audience.

Hammerstein was hurt by the hostile reaction of some critics who interpreted it as an attack on sophisticated metropolitan morality. In a preface to a published script, he wrote: “It is a law of our civilisation 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. Sometimes he awakens to his danger and does something about it.”

Young British director Thom Southerland, feted for his small-scale productions of Titanic (2013) and Grey Gardens (2016), has reworked Allegro for the Southwark Playhouse, with a cast of 16. “The Rodgers and Hammerstein estate gave me permission to rewrite sections of the book, so I’m re-evaluating it while hopefully remaining faithful to the original,” he says. “I believe the show was way ahead of its time, and I completely respect how radical Hammerstein was in what he tried to do.

“I remember seeing Stephen Sondheim talking about it at the Royal Festival Hall, saying that he believed Allegro was the greatest musical ever written, but that it had never been given the production it deserved. I sincerely hope Hammerstein would have been pleased with what I’ve tried to do. It’s like trying to put a broken puzzle back together again.”

Allegro is playing at the Southwark Playhouse, London, until September 10

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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