'Allegro': Revisiting An Experimental Score Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews the first full recording of Allegro, the 1947 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
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'Allegro': Revisiting An Experimental Score

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'Allegro': Revisiting An Experimental Score


'Allegro': Revisiting An Experimental Score

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Rodgers and Hammerstein are the song writing team responsible for some of Broadway's most popular musicals - "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The Sound of Music," but not all their shows were blockbuster hits.

One of their least known shows, "Allegro," has been brought to life in a new double CD. It's the first complete recording of "Allegro's" songs and score.

In a few minutes, we'll meet the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin, who is one of the producers of the CD and is also the author of a book about the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's show, "Follies."

First, we have a review of the new recording of "Allegro" from our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz.

(Soundbite of song "You Are Never Away")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You are never away from your home in my heart. There is never a day when you don't play a part. In a word that I say or a sight that I see. You are never away and I'll never be free. You're a...

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: That was a love song that deserves to be better known. It's from an almost forgotten Rodgers and Hammerstein musical called "Allegro," which opened on Broadway in 1947. It was the most ambitious experiment they'd ever attempt - a kind of musical everyman with a touch of "Our Town," a life history of a country doctor named Joe Taylor.

A few critics liked it a lot, and it had several songs that have become standards, especially the touching "A Fellow Needs a Girl," which is actually sung by Joe's parents. And "The Gentleman is a Dope," a song for Joe's nurse who is hopelessly in love with him.

"Allegro" ran only one season and didn't break even, but both composers believed in it and hoped it would get another chance. Musically, it was pretty daring for Broadway. Besides the individual songs, thematic fragments keep reappearing like Vagnerian light motifs. And the chorus, like a Greek chorus, both comments on the action and sings the characters inner thoughts.

The original cast album released in 1947 is still in print but has only half an hour of music. Now Sony has released a two-CD set that's nearly three times as long and includes just about all the music written for the show, most of it never recorded before, like this number depicting cocktail party chatter.

(Soundbite of song "Yatata, Yatata, Yatata")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata Broccoli, Hogwash, Balderdash. Phoney, Baloney, Tripe and Trash. Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata, Busy!Busy! I'm busy as a bee! I start the day at half-past one. When I am finished phoning It's time to dress for tea. Nothing we have to do gets done! I keep thinking gentlemen and ladies who keep a metropolis alive drink cocktails and knock tails every afternoon at five...

SCHWARTZ: Hearing the whole score to "Allegro," I also get a clearer picture of why it wasn't a major hit. Audiences usually want gripping stories with strong individualized characters rather than allegorical stereotypes. And both its sentimental Americana and anti-urban satire ring a little false.

Rodgers wrote great satirical songs with his previous partner, Lorenz Hart, but Hammerstein's poetic earnestness lacked Hart's razor-sharp wit. "The Gentleman is a Dope," for example, is Rodgers and Hammerstein's post-war counterpart to Rodgers and Harts' "The Lady is a Tramp." There's no lyric in all of "Allegro" as memorable as Harts, "she goes to opera and stays wide awake, that's why the Lady is a tramp."

Still, it's a good torch song. It was introduced by the great Lisa Kirk. It's sung here by the more generic Liz Callaway.

(Soundbite of song "The Gentleman is a Dope")

Ms. LIZ CALLAWAY: (Singing) The gentleman is a dope a man of many faults. A clumsy Joe who wouldn't know a rhumba from a waltz. The gentleman is a dope and not my cup of tea Why do I get in a dither? He doesn't belong to me! The gentleman isn't bright...

SCHWARTZ: The more times I hear the score, the more of it I like. Stephen Sondheim, who was a 17-year-old, $25-a-week gopher for the original 1947 production and who actually has a short speaking part on the new recording, considers "Allegro" the first really good experimental musical. It clearly influenced his own compositional technique.

The excellent cast on the recording includes Audra McDonald and metropolitan opera baritone Nathan Gunn as Joe's parents, and Hollywood dubbing queen Marni Nixon as Joe's grandma. Patrick Wilson makes a good Joe. But what I liked best about the album is that conductor Larry Blank uses the original orchestrations and gets both the singers and the orchestra to recreate the airy style and brash pace of a 1940s Broadway show. This may not be a historic recording, but it has the feel of one.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He reviewed the new complete recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Allegro."

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