Remembering Allegro: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Great Experiment
Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the face of musical theatre with their groundbreaking Oklahoma! in 1943, and followed it up with their masterpiece Carousel in 1945. Both were big hits in their day, but more importantly, they secured the duo as the most influential composing team of the 1940s, with their structure and style carrying well into the 1960s and inspiring others to write musicals in a similar vein. With the security of ticket sales bolstering their future, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s next musical would be a bold step, an experiment that would stretch the form of Broadway musicals in a way that was decades ahead of its time. That was the 1947 musical Allegro.
For Oklahoma!, Hammerstein had adapted Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grow the Lilacs for the story, and for Carousel, he did the same with Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom. Both plays evoked a nostalgia for the past, the pioneer setting of the Great Plains and the salty seaside of New England, respectively. For Allegro, Hammerstein envisioned writing an original, contemporary musical. He also pictured a show that involved a Greek Chorus and scenes that flowed in and out of each other without bringing down the curtain. Rodgers, who was always the more traditional of the duo, was reticent to experiment, but he acquiesced and wrote some of his loveliest music for Allegro.
What does the show’s title mean? Allegro is a musical term indicating a brisk tempo, or “with steady movement”. This was an apt moniker for the story that Hammerstein wanted to tell. Allegro followed Joseph Taylor, Jr., from his birth to a rural, New England doctor and his wife, through his growing-up, his attending college for medicine, his meeting and marrying his social climbing wife, their moving to the big city where her caters to a clientle made up of rich hypochondriacs, and his eventual return to his hometown where he takes over his father’s practice. This was definitely a steady, sometimes relentless tale that captured its namesake.
For Allegro, Oklahoma! and Carousel choreographer Agnes de Mille was secured to reprise her role and also take on directing duties. De Mille staged a production that was as seamless as Hammerstein had imagined, the action unfolding on a series of platforms that glided in and out with few breaks in the action. A Greek chorus made up of the New Englanders and the characters of Joseph Taylor’s life, wandered in and out, offering commentary on the action, talking both to the characters and addressing the audience. In many ways, Allegro felt like the musical heir apparent to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, just as quaint and just as moralistic. It was a slice of life, the musical fable of the everyman.
Rodgers provided a masterful score for Allegro, though most of its lovely melodies never got the play that the scores for Okalahoma! and Carousel enjoyed. Still, with Hammerstein penning some of his most heartfelt and witty lyrics, there was much to enjoy. “You Are Never Away” and “So Far” found some popularity outside of the show, but just as poignantly powerful were “Come Home,” “A Fellow Needs a Girl,” and the title song. A particular standout from the show was the bitingly hilarious “The Gentleman in a Dope,” which has been Allegro’s most-enduring song.
Allegro opened on Broadway with an advance ticket sale of $750,000 (a lot of money in 1947) that ensured the musical wouldn’t be a financial flop, thanks particularly to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s bankability (everyone wanted a ticket to the new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical). After a disastrous out-of-town tryout, Allegro finally opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on October 10, 1947. It was neither a calamitous failure, nor was it anywhere near the success that the two prior Rodgers and Hammerstein shows had been. Allegro ran for a respectable, if unremarkable, 315 performances, but critics were mixed on the show, and audiences generally didn’t respond to it. Many have said in retrospect that it was “too far ahead of its time.” Though Rodgers and Hammerstein never played it safe with the topics of their musicals, they did move ahead from their experience with Allegro with a sense of caution and they never took quite such a creative leap with form and style again.