The 70th anniversary of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO on Broadway

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 11 had seen their first two shows, Oklahoma! and Carousel become immediate Musical Theatre classics.  No wonder their third show was joyously anticipated and was to arrive with a record breaking advance.  Sadly, at the time, it was to prove a disappointment.

Allegro opened seventy years ago on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre to mixed reviews on 10 October 1947 after trying tryouts in New Haven and Boston.  However, because of its advance the show ran for nine months.  There was a short American tour but there was no British production at the time.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had been daring in their first two shows and in Allegro they continued to explore the various ways of presenting a musical.  Their story-line was simple: a son follows in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor.  But, instead of being satisfied in the simple life his newly wed wife encourages him towards riches in the big city.  He found fame but not happiness and the show ends with his returning to his roots with a new and more sympathetic wife.  There was indeed a moral to the story.

The original idea had been to follow man’s life showing the ups and downs and the decisions that had to be taken to make the life a happy one.  There was a great deal of pain in it and there are parallels in the first act of Hammerstein own early life as he had lost his mother at the age of twelve.  Interestingly Rodger’s father had been a doctor, as was a brother.  There the similarity appears to end for Rodgers and Hammerstein were being true to themselves in writing the piece, but they had themselves both found fame, fortune and, hopefully, happiness and satisfaction.    

The production was indeed inventive using platforms and projections instead of sets but there were a great number of props and a clever use of curtains.  Another initiative was to have what was the equivalent of a Greek chorus which passed comments on the proceedings to the audience and made comments to the actors.  It is interesting to note that Stephen Sondheim, through his friendship with Oscar Hammerstein, worked as a gofer on the tryout and in New York (the word gofer is derived from the expression ‘go for’ … usually a coffee!).  He would continue in exploring ways of presenting a musical.

Agnes de Mille, who had choreographed both the previous shows, directed as well as choreographed Allegro.  It is now quite common for a choreographer to also direct, but in 1947 this was novel.  She was not used to dealing with actors and from the start there were problems.  She was used to dancers who are trained to follow their choreographer in every move.  Actors were not so pliable having already learned the words they were to speak.  It was reported that Hammerstein himself ended up by directing the actors while De Mille concentrated on the complexity of the dance movement of, what was a very large cast.

Allegro has had few professional revivals, but has been seen in cut down versions and as concerts versions both in the States (Encores) and London (Lost Musicals).  Renewed interest came with an excellent complete recording of the show in 2009 – before this there had only been the original cast album.  The new CD set showed the wonders and the complexity of the score and it renewed interest.  A full American production was seen in 2014 at the Astoria Performing Arts Centre in New York and an edited version was directed by John Doyle in 2014 by New York’s Classic Stage Company.

Allegro had its first European staged version at the Southwick Playhouse in South London in 2016.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                       Illustrations from the Overtures Archive