With all the larks praying and bird-pairs bursting in song, it’s sometimes hard to hear the real voice of Oscar Hammerstein in his lyrics. But his “poetic,” not to say ornithological, flights, especially as set to Richard Rodgers’s gorgeous ballad tunes, do not represent him well. He was, first of all, an experimental playwright; indeed, his experiments in musical storytelling were so successful they quickly became the standard template for the form. If they now seem passé, think about how they must have seemed then: the attack of Oklahoma!, the surrealism of Carousel, the cross-cutting of South Pacific, the role of dance in The King and I. Think, too, about their deadly serious themes. (A major character dies in each.) Hammerstein was no lightweight; he had grown up in the theater and wanted the musical to share fully in the advances being made by the great American plays of the time. And so when he and Rodgers set out in 1947 to top Oklahoma! and Carousel, surely Our Town and The Glass Menagerie were on his mind. He proposed a contemporary story, told in an epic-theater style, with speaking choruses, minimal sets, and a love story that flatlines. Its theme: the perils of success. “It is a law of our civilization,” he later wrote, explaining himself, “that as soon as a man proves he can contribute to the well-being of the world, there be created an immediate conspiracy to destroy his usefulness, a conspiracy in which he is usually a willing collaborator.” Thus was born Allegro. It flopped.
Well, actually, it lasted 315 performances and may have made a little money, but its afterlife has been exceedingly quiet. No Broadway revivals, few major productions anywhere. With its heavy dancing (Agnes de Mille directed and choreographed), large orchestra, and cast of 67, Allegro as originally conceived would seem to be un-producible today, an impression furthered by a 17-year-old production assistant who grew up to be Stephen Sondheim. Writing about it over the years as a kind of cautionary tale, he has done as much as anyone to keep the cult of Allegro alive, noting its problems but implicitly fueling the hope that someone, someday, might find a way to solve them.
Someone has — perhaps not for the ages, but at least for now. The director John Doyle’s production at Classic Stage Company is beautifully frugal, mostly coherent, and intimately wrenching. Some will say it is therefore not Allegro, which has bigness in its blood. True, Doyle all but eliminates the dancing, reduces the cast to 12, and ditches the orchestra entirely, or rather merges it with the cast. (As in his versions of Sweeney Todd and Company, the actors all play instruments.) The running time is down to 90 minutes, and the settings, always minimal, are cut back even further. There’s a prairie painted on the back wall, an upright piano, a chair, and two benches. Nevertheless, the heart of Allegro has been (as befits the tale of a doctor) resuscitated. It thrums with life, and death.
Literally: Doyle begins the show with an amplified heartbeat, a sound that will return now and then, eventually speeding up to merge with the elevated pulse of the title song. That, in brief, is the story, too. In its first moment, Joseph Taylor Jr. is born to a modest Midwestern doctor and his sensible wife; soon he learns to walk, goes to college, and becomes a doctor himself. But his sweetheart, whom he marries, has bigger ambitions for him, and in what used to be act two (the intermission has also been eliminated) he moves to the big city, makes a lot of money tending to entitled hypochondriacs, and faces a crisis of purpose. That crisis is what some have found banal about the piece, though it was profound and personal for Hammerstein, who’d gone through it. In any case, it inspired some of his most pointed lyrics, including this astonishing description, clearly drawn from close knowledge, of the women suddenly available to suddenly successful men:
The girls who dig for gold,
And won’t give in for tin,
The lilies of the field,
So femininely thin,
They toil not, they toil not,
But oh, how they spin!
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Doyle’s slash-and-burn intervention in Allegro works better in the first half of the show, which depicts the mild but meaningful life of the provinces than in the second half, which depicts the empty frenzy of urbanity. As the plot tightens, the severe cutting causes a bit of narrative whiplash, and it’s doubtful that some characters (like Taylor’s college roommate, Charlie*) and some crises (like the problem with one patient’s X-rays) will make much sense to those who don’t already know the story. Worse, the central tension between Taylor’s ideals and his wife’s pragmatism gets sped up way past allegro in the plot’s hasty wrap-up. Another 15 minutes would not have been a bad idea. Still, on balance, Doyle made a good call. You get enough of the story to raise the questions Hammerstein wanted to raise, and without so much conceptual interference. Crucially, you also get enough music to support an appreciation for a score both he and Rodgers favored like a brilliant but unpopular baby.
That may have been the real problem with Allegro originally: The score was not designed to advertise itself. It has only a few stand-alone songs, good enough to have become almost-standards: “So Far,” “You Are Never Away,” “A Fellow Needs a Girl,” and especially “The Gentleman Is a Dope.” But most of the musical material is commentative and modular, composed of phrases and quatrains and rhymed Sprechstimme ditties that weave in and out of the story. The leads don’t even sing much. And Rodgers’s unerring theatricality means that his melodies have a detached quality whenever the book does, which is most of the time. The depiction of little Joe’s boyhood milestones as if they were earthshaking achievements produces music that is uncharacteristically satirical, with grandiose block chords and foursquare rhythms. The brilliant title song is almost annoying in its earworminess. This is not the Rodgers of “If I Loved You.” Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s string-heavy arrangements ameliorate the problem, and on their own merits are lovely and more than ample for the space. They also help Doyle turn his familiar technique to specific advantage, referencing the American tradition of music in the home and in the community. To the extent that these worlds are both distinct and codependent, Allegro asks whether what an individual owes himself is different from what he owes others.
The cast therefore serves double duty twice: as actors and instrumentalists but also as individual characters and members of the ensemble. They are all onstage throughout, and are uniformly fine. Doyle’s no-ham diet ensures that each stands out in bright relief, vibrating with contradiction. If this feels contemporary, it’s not applied; it’s in the material. Hammerstein really was far ahead of his audience with Allegro. And perhaps far ahead of his own abilities. In truth, part of what makes this heartbreaker of a musical seem so contemporary is that it’s so imperfect.
Allegro is at Classic Stage Company through December 14.
*The name of Taylor’s roommate has been corrected.