How Do You Solve a Problem Like Allegro?
Some thirty years after Allegro opened on Broadway, to the biggest advance in contemporary history, Richard Rodgers wrote in his autobiography that “of all the musicals I ever worked on that didn't quite succeed, Allegro is the one I think most worthy of a second chance”. Despite coming hot off the back of Oklahoma! and Carousel the show received a set of polarised reviews, suggesting the show was anything but a companion to their previous game changers. Whilst the show certainly had its supporters, Oscar Hammerstein was not content to “wallow in the box office statements” whilst dismissing the bad notices as being “frivolous and biased droolings of unlearned oafs”. Amongst the positive reviews, the pair recognised that many of the anti Allegro faction were the names of many whose opinions they respected, and whose approval “we would have cherised”, making the entire project somewhat of a personal disappointment.
Unlike their previous and future hits no London production or indeed later Broadway revival was ever mounted, and the show has sadly fallen by the wayside in the canon of the great American musical. It's a challenge that the inimitable combination of producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland have grasped with both hands in presenting the European première next month at the Southwark Playhouse, adding to a string of successes that have included Grand Hotel, Titanic and Grey Gardens. The enormity of the challenge however is not lost on Southerland, who has a reputation for reinventing forgotten works.
“It's still ahead of its time, maybe in 50 years time it will have become fashionable” Southerland explains. “I've never felt such a weight of responsibility – it's never been seen professionally in London, it's never been staged like this, in a space like this, I'm so grateful that I've been given the chance to do it and I hope audiences take it to heart.”
Unlike their previous and later works, Allegro attempts to tell the story of an 'Everyman', Doctor Joseph Taylor Jr, following him from birth throughout his life from rural America to urban Chicago in the 1930s. Richard Rodgers suggested that the idea came from Hammerstein's relationship with his own Doctor, and has admitted that it's the closest to an autobiography that any of Hammerstein's work ever came. Seen as a modern morality play, it exposes the problem of personal integrity against a fast moving, success orientated society, and asks questions of the audience about everyday life. “It's very easy to relate to and as an audience member to get behind” confirms Southerland. “The story is very modern. We're going to tell an average Joe's story but it's going to be so hard hitting and epic that you'll weep with joy and weep with sadness at the same time.”
Whilst the theme and story itself was perhaps seen as being unremarkable in 1947, it was the presentation and staging of the musical that caught audiences by surprise. Heavily inspired by Thornton Wilder's Our Town which had premièred nine years earlier and had helped change the face of commercial theatre, the fluid staging, projections and cinematic style of the original production challenged audiences once again. This style will certainly be echoed in Southerland's new production, with an expressive set design played in traverse, that will tap into an audience's ability to imagine. “There is nothing more powerful on stage than an audience's imagination, and that's what you have to feed” he explains. “As long as in the first five minutes I can capture you, and you know where we're supposed to be, Rodgers and Hammerstein have given you everything you need. I can't think of anywhere better to create that than the Southwark Playhouse.”
The role of the ensemble acting as a Greek chorus is both classical in its style yet revolutionary in the development of musical theatre. Whilst previous productions broke the ensemble into singers and dancers, creating rousing numbers out of box socials and clam-bakes, in Allegro, the ensemble is used to comment directly on the action. “It's very different because you have the ensemble suddenly out of nowhere they burst into eight part harmony as a comment on what is going on” explains Dean Austin, the production's musical director. “It's using the ensemble in a totally different way, even using them as part of the orchestration and the voices as instruments.”
Comparing the opening numbers of other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows confirms the uniqueness of Allegro and the role the ensemble plays both musically and with the text. Unlike other opening numbers that rely heavily on the first person pronoun to introduce the key themes, wants and desires of the characters, Allegro begins with commentary in the third person, as the ensemble sing “His hair is fuzzy, his eyes are blue” in relation to the baby Joseph Taylor. It's a far cry from the earlier expositional lyrics of “I got a beautiful feeling”, “If I loved you” and the latter “call me a cock-eyed optimist”, “my day in the hills” and “I whistle a happy tune” - the central character is voiceless, and the audience's first experience is through the intermediary voices.
“A lot of people forget that Rodgers and Hammerstein were so revolutionary and were trying to fundamentally change what people perceived as a musical and by doing that created what we consider the modern American musical today”, explains Southerland. “We forget that Oklahoma! and Carousel were very different to anything that Broadway had previously seen and they continue to do that with Allegro. I think their dream was having a Greek style chorus to move the narrative forwards, to have no big sets, to have projections, to portray a show very non-naturalistically – to openly tell a story that is devoid of any conventional drama but lay the drama in the moments where the main characters make choices in their life.”
As well as the remarkable content seen onstage, Allegro was ground-breaking in being the first Broadway musical to champion the director-choreographer as Agnes de Mille, whose work on their previous two shows was seen as game-changing, took on double duties. “When a show works perfectly, it's because all the individual parts complement each other and fit together”, comments Richard Rodgers looking back at the creation of the show. It's a sentiment that's echoed by Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud, who have found themselves working in “tandem” to create and craft a narrative that blends dance and drama in a brand new way. “They're starting to learn that they can tell stories not just by singing or speaking” explains Southerland. “There are many sections in Allegro where we have spoken word, just music and ensemble speaking the narrative and it just goes into dance. Five different modes of creating a narrative all sitting together as one piece. I've been given permission to change some sections of the book, and the way that the story develops I very much rely on Lee. Whenever I can I turn to Lee and say I don't want to write this scene, but can you give me a dance that shows this.”
Observing an energetic dance rehearsal, it's clear that Proud is taking this responsibility to heart. Drilling one of the many balletic routines in the show, his commitment to making the cast feel the weight behind every movement is palpable, and even from witnessing just this short section, it's clear that dance is a vital component of this storytelling. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Rodgers and Hammerstein were committed to the primacy of plot and characters in shaping their stories. In Allegro, like all of their musicals, the dialogue plot and songs grow out of the purpose of telling the story, a style that would become the paradigm of musical theatre throughout the 'golden age' of the next three decades.
Despite having a number of breakaway hits, including “So Far”, “The Gentleman is a Dope” and the eleven o'clock number “Come Home”, the infectious melodies don't sit alongside other Rodgers and Hammerstein greats. “Many consider it to be one of their greatest scores” comments Dean, “and having fallen in love with it over the past two months I really agree. There are so many wonderful songs – they use music not only in dance but also underscoring whole scenes, it all overlaps.” Considering the title, music is the absolute heart of the piece, with the lead song suggesting the frenzied pace of trying to do too much in too little time, representing the main conflict of the drama. As Joe finds himself caught up in the superficial world of high society, the title song suggests closing your eyes to the hypocrisy and keeping up the pace of modern life so that you do not notice the scale of your own deceptions, set against one of Hammerstein's most cynical lyrics ever written.
Not content with being a European première, the production will also include a world première of a new song that was cut from the original production. “That was an exciting day when we learned about the material that was lost by the wayside, and now this new song “Two Short Years” has a place in the second act” explains Dean. “When we got the music for that song we found half a dozen places in the score where it existed. That was really exciting. We have a world première because it never made it past previews!”
[Watch Katie Bernstein sing "The Gentleman is a Dope"]
Allegro may have historically had its detractors, but the creative team are confident that the time is now right for the show to be appreciated. To a post-Sondheim audience the show can be seen as one of the first 'concept' musicals, and seems as daring now as it did back in 1947. “It's the musical that Sondheim said he adored so much and thinks it's one of the greatest musicals ever written, and it's the reason he wrote Merrily We Roll Along. Merrily is basically the same story, whereas Hammerstein saves his hero, Sondheim sells his hero to the devil. I think it's absolutely stunning” confirms Southerland. “I want people to think that it's as good as Carousel. I'm sure Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that – I just want people to put it in the canon of their work. It has to live and exist so it's not just respected by those who adore the score, but also those who go to the theatre and want to be entertained, because it's incredibly entertaining, it just happens to be artistic at the same time.”
Allegro runs at the Southwark Playhouse from 5 August to 10 September 2016.
(photos by Annabel Vere)