By Peter Filichia
Even a splendid production of Allegro, such as the one that Tom Wojtunik is delivering right now at The Astoria Performing Arts Center, reveals a show that really should be heard and not seen.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first failure has a terrific score. Many of us suspected as much in the latter half of the 20th century when we heard the 1947 original cast album. The dozen songs were delightful discoveries.
Then, in 2009, we became assured of Allegro’ worth when a hundred-minute studio cast two-CD set was released. From the addition of a four-line “Pudgy Legs” to a five-minute ballet, Allegro soared.
It has all the trademarks of a Rodgers score. There’s a march (“One Foot, Other Foot,” in which Joseph Taylor, Jr. learns to walk), a song in 2/4 (“You Are Never Away,” Joe’s proclamation of love to his girlfriend Jennie Brinker) and a waltz (“Money Isn’t Everything,” led by the now-married Jennie Brinker Taylor, who believes just the opposite). “Come Home” has to be one of Rodgers’ most beautiful melodies – ever. There are the two songs that were meant to be stand-out hits: “So Far,” a savvy song from Beulah, out on a first date with Joe, and “A Fellow Needs a Girl,” sung by Joe’s father to his mother.
That last one takes a lot of heat today, because it reinforces a world where a husband is king and wife a mere follower. Keep in mind, however, the time period – and I don’t mean 1947. Allegro starts in 1905, and this song takes place in 1922, when a fellow expected that a girl would fully want to sit by his side at the end of a weary day – and a wife did unabashedly feel that it was in her career description to do just that. Besides, a common complaint leveled against men is that they can’t or won’t open up to share their feelings; Joseph Taylor, Sr. must be commended for being able to do just that.
Would that Joseph Taylor, Jr. would. We barely get to know him. Even on the sumptuous studio cast album, five musical numbers must pass before Joe sings a word. Yes, Lola takes equally as long to make her presence known in Damn Yankees, but there she isn’t even mentioned until she shows up in Act One, Scene Six. In Allegro, Joe is cited by name in the tenth line of the opening number. And yet, it takes us a l-o-n-g time to find out what’s on his mind. At least the studio cast album has him sing “It’s a Darn Nice Campus.” (Maybe it wasn’t recorded on the original cast album because the lyric includes the word “hell” – a true profanity in those days.)
This is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s answer to Our Town. All of us can relate to what happens in the first act: birth, the toddler years, the death of a grandmother, the first love affair that turns troublesome but then rights itself.
Well, seemingly. Marjorie Taylor, Joe’s mother, isn’t crazy about Jennie – and vice versa. “War is declared,” says Jennie – but it doesn’t last long. You choose if Hammerstein had been wise or melodramatic to have Marjorie die before she could warn Joe that Jennie was manipulative. We just wish that Joe could have been smarter and seen what we’d seen.
Theatergoers must have been interested in Act One right up to the wedding, for the events replicated what they’d experienced in their own lives. But in Act Two, the show becomes about Joe’s career difficulties as a doctor. Should Joe stay in his lovely home town and treat all the upright citizens or go to the big city where his wife wants him to be so he can make the big bucks while she wears drop-dead dresses at swank parties? Joe, somewhere between henpecked and clueless, chooses the latter.
Ah, yes, the ol’ argument of country mouse / city rat. Hammerstein wrote for “Chattering People” a song called “Yatata,” replete with nonsense syllables, to indicate how shallow the talk is at big city parties. But is the conversation better in suburban and rural areas? I’ve heard plenty of very small talk in very small towns.
Hammerstein swore that that’s not what he meant, and that audiences misunderstood him. In the liner notes for the studio cast album, his famous protégé Stephen Sondheim explained, “He was writing about the conflict between responsibility to your community and responsibility to yourself. He found the more public appearances he made, the more speeches he gave, the more he traveled to support these causes, the less time he had for writing, the thing that he was born to do.”
Hey, Ockie, every career has occupational hazards. Why didn’t you just enjoy meeting the public, inspiring people with your speeches and helping causes succeed? What good is sitting alone in your room writing all the time? Hasn’t Sondheim done all of the above while writing shows just as good as yours?
Speaking of Sondheim, in the Astoria Performing Arts Center, the person sitting in the extreme left first-row seat bore an amazing resemblance to him. Every now and then I really thought it was he. And while the thought of Sondheim schlepping out to 30-44 Crescent Street – albeit only a short walk and five stops on the N Train from his smart East Side home – seemed unlikely.
But Sondheim has said on more than one occasion “I’ve been trying to fix Allegro all my life.” So maybe he did want to give it another look.
One attempt to fix it was Merrily We Roll Along, which looks at a life that becomes as untracked as Joseph Taylor, Jr.’s. Merrily, however, was based on a play that moved backwards in time, a device that George Furth wisely retained for the musical. Allegro becomes increasingly bitter; Merrily becomes steadily more enchanting because it goes from cynicism to innocence instead of the other way around.
In Company, Bobby has been said to be “a cipher,” but is he any more so than Joe? Yes, Bobby, like Joe, sees most of the action swirl around him as his friends have more to say, sing and endure than he does. And yet, 35-year-old Bobby is the centerpiece of the opening song while just-born Joe cannot be. Bobby has three solos and one duet, but Joe sings no more than forty-four lines in the first act and fifty-four in the second (and five of them are simply “Allegro!”).
As for that title song, while it certainly comes in last among the four that R&H wrote – the others are, of course “State Fair,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!” – it’s a nifty number on both albums.
But it’s wrong for the characters. Two doctors and a nurse living in 1940 Chicago wouldn’t use the Italian word “allegro” to describe how quickly people speed through life. Musicians most use the term to indicate that a piece should be played in a brisk, lively, merry and bright way. Joe, Emily and his pal Charlie (who, by the way, grows more than Joe does and at a faster speed) have never been shown to take any particular interest in music. Luckily for listeners, it’s a good song on its own terms.
Back to Sondheim. Follies wants us to believe that the Weismann reunion caused two warring couples to declare peaceful coexistence and that they may well be happier than before. Did Sondheim — with bookwriter James Goldman, of course – decide that this was a better scenario than the one Hammerstein mapped out for Joe, in which he leaves his unfaithful wife in favor of Emily, his truly-in-love-with-him nurse? Funny; Hammerstein has always been thought of as the romantic, while Sondheim has been perceived as the cynic, and yet in these two shows, their worldviews are just the opposite.
However, a Boston University production of Allegro in 1966 took the brash liberty of having Jennie apologize to Joe and return to him. Now in Astoria, Wojtunik adhered to a good change that Hammerstein made for a 1951 radio broadcast. Instead of having Beulah sing “So Far” and then disappear until the curtain calls, Emily now sings it, long before we’re reacquainted with her as the Act Two nurse.
Yes – but we should have seen a scene in which she applies for the job, she and Joe reminisce and he hires her. In fact, some audience members probably didn’t even realize that the “So Far” lass turned out to be the woman who sang the spirited “The Gentleman Is a Dope.”
That’s another good song in the score, which you’ll hear no matter which Allegro you get: the original cast album, which can really be considered “Highlights from Allegro,” or the soup-to-nuts 2009 recording – one of the finest studio cast albums ever made.