By Samuel L. Leiter
In 1947, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were the newly anointed kings of Broadway musicals, having created two remarkable blockbusters, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), in quick succession. Brimming with confidence, they turned away from material based on other people’s plays and came up with something more personal, Allegro, a show loosely inspired by Hammerstein’s own experiences in which he sought to express the age-old conflict of someone tempted to compromise his ideals in favor of a life of comfort and prestige. The narrative, stressing the allegorical over the realistic, could fit any number of professions, but chooses medicine as its focus. (Hammerstein borrowed much from conversations his own doctor, and both Rodgers’s father and brother were physicians.)
Beginning in 1905 and covering 35 years in the life of its hero, it tells the story of Joseph Taylor, Jr. (Claybourne Elder), a dedicated small town doctor, son of a similarly devoted practitioner, Joseph Taylor, Sr. (Malcolm Gets). Joe, Jr., prompted by his striving wife, Jenny (Elizabeth A. Davis), and her businessman father, Ned Brinker (Ed Romanoff), moves to Chicago where he achieves a high-paying position caring for the rich at a large Chicago hospital; in the end, he discovers that he can best serve medicine by returning to his roots.
To tell their story, Rodgers and Hammerstein broke conventional boundaries by using a Greek chorus and a minimalist production in the style of Our Town (which, to their distress, quickly became bloated). Despite some sympathetic responses, the show lasted only 315 performances, not terrible, but still the team’s first (and worst) failure. Consequently, until John Doyle’s superb new production now at the Classic Stage Company, Allegro has been seen locally only in a brief Equity Library Theatre revival (1978) and, just this spring, at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. As he did several years ago with his Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, Doyle—who designed the set as well—once more reveals what theatrical minimalism can do when in a creative master’s hands.
Allegro has been pared down to 90 intermissionless minutes and set on a dark-stained wooden stage backed by a wall of neutral-colored horizontal planking onto which designer Jane Cox splashes deceptively simple lighting patterns and shadows. Only a few chairs and benches serve for furniture, with the actors often seated on the floor itself in Doyle’s smoothly inventive and highly polished staging. Dance, essential to the original production (directed by the great choreographer Agnes DeMille), has been abandoned in favor of staged movement.
The work is performed by a company of 12 playing 17 roles (41 in the original). In 1947 the principals were supplemented by 23 dancers and 38 singers (some with brief speaking parts), inflating the onstage company to 78, supplemented by an orchestra of 35, making costs skyrocket. As in the past, Doyle’s actors are also gifted musicians, their instruments including fiddles, basses, saxophones, guitars, banjos, and piano; most carry their instruments with them even during dramatic scenes, most of which are underscored by music. Of course, everyone can sing.
Unlike the big Rodgers and Hammerstein hits, Allegro is not known for an extensive songbook of standards, but many will recognize “A Fellow Needs a Girl” and “The Gentleman Is a Dope”; there is also the lovely ballad “So Far,” which Frank Sinatra once recorded. The songs are so seamlessly integrated into the narrative, especially as performed here, that none stands out as a “production number,” so the show streams steadily along without interruptions for applause. The score has considerable variety, much of it sounding rather contemporary, including a song satirizing the inane chatter of urban cocktail sophisticates that goes “Yatata Yatata Yatata”; it suggests the edgy cynicism of Stephen Sondheim, who was a 17-year-old gofer on the original production.
The title song, “Allegro,” conveys the sense of fast-paced city life, “the clash and competition / of counterpoint,” on which the disillusioned Joe turns his back when the ensemble sings the sweetly appealing ballad, “Come Home, Joe,” luring him to peace and happiness in his home town. Audiences visiting Allegro should find similar peace and happiness in the embrace of this sensitive but uplifting revival.
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th Street
Through December 14
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).