When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II became partners in 1943, both individuals were Broadway veterans. Their first musical, Oklahoma!, revolutionized Broadway in many ways, but one of the most remarkable is that Oklahoma! marked a thematic departure from Broadway’s previous triumphs, including the composers’ own. In this new collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein had a specific purpose in mind: to bring mainstream America to the forefront. Instead of another portrayal of an exotic ocean-liner soiree or society wedding typical of Broadway by then, Rodgers and Hammerstein focused on the parties the rest of the country attended: the box socials of the Midwest and the clambakes of New England. Rodgers and Hammerstein redefined the Broadway leading man away from a tuxedoed tapper or a cruising millionaire. Neither was he a downtrodden factory worker on the breadline. New York no longer represented the entire nation; instead, Rodgers and Hammerstein dramatized farmers, cowboys, fishermen, small-town crooks, provincial doctors, and wives. These portrayals weren’t hayseed revues or regional mockeries. Rodgers and Hammerstein determined a vision as staunch as any other Broadway writer; they consciously aspired to legitimize and celebrate the American small town, landscape and common man.
Each of the first four Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals - Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), State Fair (1945), and Allegro (1947) - is set in mainstream America, depicting the glory of her landscape and people. The blending and elevating of these themes became a magic recipe for success in their first three projects. Rodgers and Hammerstein seemed to formulate a new chemical compound: an alchemy of originality, nationalism, and humanism. Noteworthy, though, is that the alchemy they created and mastered did not work every time. Though Rodgers and Hammerstein might have considered Allegro to be a natural outgrowth from their first three musicals, it wasn’t received with the same enthusiasm. In fact, Allegro was a devastating flop. After Oklahoma!’s Broadway run of a revolutionary 2248 performances and Carousel’s of a lesser but still impressive 890, Allegro ran for a fractional 315 performances before closing. The show’s critics were divided; their reviews varied widely from “perfect and great” to “an out-and-out failure.” This dichotomy was new for Rodgers and Hammerstein, who had reveled in unanimously radiant notices for their first three efforts.
Today, most aficionados of musical theater, even devotees of Rodgers and Hammerstein, have never even heard of Allegro. It is curious how Rodgers and Hammerstein could create such an unsuccessful and forgettable piece between the revolutionary shows that preceded and followed it. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s two major themes - the glorification of the American landscape and the celebration of the common man - were revolutionary in their first three musicals. Allegro followed suit to extol the virtues of the small town in the same vein. Why, then, were audiences so dissatisfied by Allegro?
Using their favorite themes as a springboard, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Allegro as an experiment. This was their first show not to have source material. Drawing up the plot, characters and setting from their own imaginations, Rodgers and Hammerstein created a “concept musical” with a definite agenda in mind. Allegro became a significant departure from the first three in that it did not stay within the setting of the small town. For the first time, Rodgers and Hammerstein depicted the big city on stage, placing it under the microscope. This time, the idealism of the small town did not exist only in its own universe but drew a comparison. The big city became its moral opposite. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “concept” behind the “concept musical” was to deepen the social criticism they had begun in their first three shows.
Allegro is the study of one man’s life, beginning at his birth, tracing how he journeys through a misguided adulthood to find happiness. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s opening stage directions immediately establish the protagonist Joe Taylor, Jr. as a small-town boy, born specifically in the “Midwestern state” of Illinois. Joe is quite popular as the son of the country doctor, but when he enters university, he feels lost on the large campus. Despite the interesting girls at school, Joe’s heart is always at home. He marries Jenny, the girl-next-door whom he has loved since age eight. Undoubtedly, Joe imagines a small-town life with her, but Jenny has other plans. She schemes, “I’d see to it that he became a real doctor, a rich one. We’d go to some big city.” Equating city life with affluence, she tells Joe how “wonderful it would be to have a beautiful house in Chicago, and servants, and lovely dresses to wear.” Oblivious to her materialistic ambition and only wanting to please his wife, Joe agrees to move to Chicago to pursue a big hospital job. He accomplishes the glittering lifestyle his wife craves, but as a result, Joe’s doctoring becomes negligent. When apprenticing under his father at home, Joe did important work: diagnosing cases of tuberculosis and making free house calls. But in Chicago, he doctors to rich, bored hypochondriacs, doing nothing more than prescribing alcohol, pills, and expensive vacations: “Little lady, my advice to you is a good long rest. Lake Louise, Canada! The smell of the pines will put you to sleep.” Later, he carelessly misdiagnoses a stomach ulcer when rushing out of the office to a society dinner party. Joe’s life becomes frenetic, filled with the constant noise and pressures of big-city life. The “Greek Chorus” of the play, specified in the script as “All,” captures the pace of Joe’s existence in its lyrics:
The years of a life are quickly gone,
But the talk talk talk goes on and on,
The prattle and the tattle
The gab and the gush,
The chatter and the patter
And the twaddle and the tush
Go on and on and on and on and on!
(They resume their eternal chant)
Yatata yatata yatata yatata yatata yatata yatata yatata...
This message emerges again in the title song, “Allegro,” where the musical term meaning “lively” symbolizes the frantic tempo of city life:
“Allegro,” a musician
Would so describe the speed of it
The clash and competition
Of counterpoint –
The need of it?
We cannot prove the need of it!
We know no other way
Of living out a day...
Don’t stop whatever you do,
Do something dizzy and new,
Keep up the hullabaloo!
Allegro! Allegro! Allegro!
As the musical develops, the big city comes to symbolize power, excess, greed, and corruption, and the situation starts to get to Joe. He tries to convince himself, “There’s nothing wrong with people just because they have money or live in the city – nothing wrong with being a city doctor – but this crowd that we get!”; however, his self-deception can’t last long. The final straw occurs when Joe is offered the position of Physician-in-Chief at the main hospital, not because his work merits it but because Jenny is sleeping with a millionaire trustee. When he learns of his wife’s infidelity, he immediately connects her wickedness to the frenzied life of the city. He cries, “These benzedrine romances! They have no faint resemblance to love. There’s nothing real about any of it – nothing real about the whole damn place!” His frustration becomes emblematic of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s message that small-town living is ideal and preferable over the circus of big-city life.
Hammerstein’s agenda was to dramatize his anti-urban, anti-capitalist message. He once commented, "I was concerned when I wrote Allegro about men who are good at anything and are diverted from the field of their expertise by a kind of strange, informal conspiracy that goes on. People start asking him to join committees...and the first thing you know they are no longer writing or practicing medicine or law. They are committee members, they are speechmakers, they are dinner attenders."
According to John Bush Jones, Allegro’s libretto “expresses the dangers (to oneself) of social climbing, materialism, and the postwar years’ runaway consumer culture.” But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s critique goes even further. Allegro becomes a denunciation of big-city life and a warning about straying too far from small-town values. If Joe is the play’s Everyman, then Rodgers and Hammerstein create him to hold up a mirror to New York audiences. Viewers are asked to re-evaluate their own existences, wondering if they themselves have ignored the purer influences of the natural and national landscape.
Allegro ends happily when Joe returns to his small town with a renewed commitment to practicing medicine. When the ghost of his deceased mother sings to him about “home,” she does so with plain nature imagery reminiscent of the lyrics Hammerstein wrote for Oklahoma! – simple, quaint, almost entirely monosyllabic words - and her tempo is not “allegro”:
Come home, come home
Where the brown birds fly,
Through a pale blue sky
To a tall green tree.
There is no finer sight
For a man to see!
Come home, Joe, come home!
Ethan Mordden describes this song as “bluntly sentimental and so committed that it’s hard not to share [Hammerstein’s] vision of a loving, protective, person-scaled community.” The final stage direction of the show is "Joe walks away, out into the sunlight.” Hammerstein wrote, “It is a law of our civilization 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 contributor. Sometimes he awakens to his danger and does something about it. That is the story of Allegro.” Joe’s return to pastoralism leaves the audience with a clear understanding of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s distrust of big-city life and their frank endorsement of small-town values.
We recall this argument as central to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s very first musical. In composing Oklahoma!, they staunchly prioritized the glorification of nature and the American landscape. Oklahoma! is based on Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, set in the territory of Oklahoma in 1900. Riggs describes Oklahoma in Edenic terms where nature flourishes, and the land is alive. Finding enormous potential in Riggs’s work, Rodgers and Hammerstein were inspired by the play’s idyllic setting and implicit opportunity to revitalize American morale. With that intention, they met - as Hammerstein describes it - “under the big oak tree at Rodgers’s Fairfield, Connecticut, residence,” where they “began to transform” Riggs’s play.
It is difficult to name another Broadway score in which the lyrics are so directly tied to the land. Literally, every time the characters speak and sing, they rely on nature imagery to express themselves and to define their lives. The most memorable example is the opening number, “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’,” the first song Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote together. Beyond creating the setting and tone of the show, Hammerstein’s lyrics impress onto the audience how essential the landscape is to the characters and to the play:
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.
The corn is as high as a elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin’
Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way.
Curly’s simple descriptions and regional dialect open the show to inform and include the audience. As Andrea Most asserts, the result is a “paean to the land, to youth, and to the limitless opportunity of the frontier.” Audiences become immediately enamored by the setting and the characters who live there.
Oklahoma!’s melodies and lyrics are designed to prioritize nature. In “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” Curly begins by describing how the (man-made) surrey will affect the surrounding natural world: “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry / When I take you out in the surrey.” He constructs his entire daydream around nature imagery: “I can see the stars gittin’ blurry,” “The sun is swimmin’ on the rim of a hill,” and “jist as I’m thinkin’ all the earth is still, a lark’ll wake up in the medder.” Curly has not rehearsed or manipulated these lines for Laurey’s benefit. Neither a poet nor a rhetorician, he is a simple cowboy, intimately acquainted with the nature he sees every day; he can’t help but incorporate it into his vernacular.
Curly’s relating so directly to the land is a common trait of his whole community. Nature imagery drives the lyric of the show’s closing song: “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain / And the wavin’ wheat / Can sure smell sweet / When the wind comes right behind the rain.” The territory people celebrate Curly and Laurey’s marriage by embedding the couple’s happiness into the larger landscape. Rodgers and Hammerstein establish that the landscape is the community’s collective experience - “We know we belong to the land/ And the land we belong to is grand!” – so everyone has something to celebrate.
Audiences welcomed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s celebration of nature and the common man. For the first time, characters on Broadway represented a true cross-section of America; the farmers, cowmen, travelling salesman, young and old, good and bad guys were all there, embedded into America’s heartland. New York audiences could become acquainted with their American neighbors not as exaggerated caricatures on stage but as real people with real stories who live in a real place. As Cecil Smith has argued, “Oklahoma! turned out to be a people’s opera, unpretentious and perfectly modern, but of interest equally to audiences in New York and in Des Moines.”
Oklahoma!’s pastoral paradise became democratic in that it legitimized the Midwestern experience in the eyes of larger America. Andrea Most observes, “In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s worldview, becoming a member of the union is a process of subordinating individual needs to communal interest.” This democratic nature reaches beyond the plot of the play. Meta-theatrically, it wasn’t just the characters who felt this bond of community, but American audiences as well: “The joyous applause that inevitably follows," Most argues, "joins audience members and performers in the communal utopian vision of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s America.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s message was perfectly clear: audiences felt enormous pride in the Arcadian portrayal of the American landscape placed on the Broadway stage. Amid a colorful evening of song and dance, audiences reveled in learning that seemingly simple lesson.
Though Oklahoma! praises the figure of the Everyman, Rodgers and Hammerstein deepen their depiction of the common man in their second musical, Carousel. Looking forward to Allegro, the figure of the common man becomes complicated and dark. Carousel is a musical of high drama, and, as in its predecessors Show Boat and Porgy and Bess, the small town becomes a viable setting for tragedy. Carousel explores some of humanity’s largest and most profound questions – life and death, good and evil, crime and punishment – and these questions are placed in a small, New England mill town.
The figure of the common man becomes immediately apparent. The opening stage directions dictate that “fishermen, sailors, their wives, children, girls from the local mill, and other types of a coastal town” move about on stage. The two female protagonists of the show are introduced as “two mill girls on an afternoon off." Already audiences understand that this musical is about the lives of ordinary people. Their working-class perspective surfaces straightaway. In the opening song, as Carrie tries to pinpoint Julie’s odd personality, she falls naturally into using terms of labor:
When we work in the mill, weavin’ at the loom,
Y’gaze absent-minded at the roof,
And half the time yer shuttle gets twisted in the threads
Till y’can’t tell the warp from the woof!
The only way she can find to define her friend’s distracted personality is through the language of work. When describing her own fiancé, Carrie relies on work terminology to depict him as well. Hammerstein is strategic in his lyrics; as Carrie gushes about Mr. Snow, Hammerstein glorifies the figure of the common, working man:
An almost perfect beau, as refined as a girl could wish,
But he spends so much time in his round-bottomed boat,
That he can’t seem to lose the smell of fish!
The fust time he kissed me, the whiff of his clo’es
Knocked me flat on the floor of the room;
But now that I love him, my heart’s in my nose,
And fish is my fav’rit perfume!
Only a few pages into the score, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s prevalent themes emerge. The audience becomes acquainted with another slice of the American landscape, but this time, there’s a twist. Like Curly, carnival barker Billy Bigelow uses nature imagery to reveal his inner thoughts to Julie. However, Billy’s understanding of nature is darker and more pessimistic:
You can’t hear a sound – not the turn of a leaf,
Nor the fall of a wave, hittin’ the sand.
The tide’s creepin’ up on the beach like a thief,
Afraid to be caught stealin’ the land.
On a night like this I start to wonder what life is all about...
There’s a helluva lot o’ stars in the sky,
And the sky’s so big the sea looks small,
And two little people – you and I – we don’t count at all.
These lines illustrate a deepening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s representation of nature. Not just an homage to the American landscape, these lyrics are more philosophical. The audience is reminded of the fatalism of nature, which cycles independently around itself, not around the people who experience it. These lyrics are reminiscent of those Hammerstein wrote decades earlier for Jerome Kern, when composing Showboat. In “Ol’ Man River,” the Mississippi is utterly unconcerned with the racism and miscegenation of the American South: “He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.” Again in Carousel, Hammerstein’s words reveal a darker understanding of nature. To end this strangely troubled love scene, Julie looks up at the trees and comments, “You’re right about there bein’ no wind. The blossoms are jest comin’ down by theirselves. Just their time to, I reckon.” This is not the nature imagery of Oklahoma! It is prevalent, and it is beautiful, but it is not a backdrop for the characters’ joy. Carousel presages the blending of nature and tragedy in Allegro. Rodgers and Hammerstein illustrate that nature is intrinsically woven into human experience. Allegro’s Joe will repeat some of Billy’s mistakes. That they both extricate themselves from nature becomes emblematic of their downfalls.
Rodgers and Hammerstein also deepen their purpose of exploring and glorifying the common man. Billy and Mr. Snow elevate this theme to new prominence. Billy’s sung soliloquy becomes a prime example. When he learns of Julie’s pregnancy, his thoughts turn immediately to his future son, most specifically, what his son will do for work:
I don’t give a damn what he does
As long as he does what he likes.
He can sit on his tail
Or work on a rail
With a hammer, a-hammerin’ spikes...
He might be a champ of the heavyweights
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or President of the United States –
That’d be all right, too.
Billy does not actually have a job when he sings these lines, but his soliloquy reveals his positive impression of labor. Up to this point, the mill-town people speak lines that emphasize their constant concern about work. In one scene, Carrie tells Julie, “Mr. Snow says a man that can’t find work these days is jest bone lazy” (118) and uses this rhetoric to convince her friend to leave Billy: “Don’t support you! Beats you!...He’s a bad’n.” Even Julie remarks, “Y’see he’s unhappy ‘cause he ain’t workin’. That’s really why he hit me on Monday.”
These characters only know blue-collar, common work, but it isn’t portrayed negatively. Even when they envision greater success, their aspirations exist in the plebeian realm. Mr. Snow’s daydreams still lie in his small world of fishing:
When I make enough money outa one little boat,
I’ll put all my money in another little boat.
I’ll make twic’t as much outa two little boats,
And the fust thing you know I’ll hev four little boats!
Broadway’s previous images of cosmopolitan luxuries are totally absent here. In fact, the characters disparage the notion that big-city capitalism equals affluence or success. In Billy’s soliloquy, when imagining his son’s romantic life, he asserts: “No fat-bottomed, flabby-faced, pot-bellied, baggy-eyed bastard’ll boss him around!” Billy also rejects the corruption of nepotism, which will later emerge in Allegro: “And I’m damned if he’ll marry his boss’s daughter / A skinny-lipped virgin with blood like water.” This is more than just a moment of character development. It’s an implicit condemnation of capitalism and classism. Hammerstein’s grandson writes, “Billy boasts of his own talents and again declaims his – and his son’s – right to be stubborn to bridle at authority.” Billy becomes a new emblem of the common man. He isn’t like Joe in Show Boat, the downtrodden but philosophical seer. He is unrefined, often mean and unethical, but he is also raw, proud, and relatable.
Stephen Sondheim once remarked, “Oklahoma! is about a picnic; Carousel is about life and death.” In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s use of this setting for their tragic plot, Carousel lends legitimacy and weight to the small town. Not just places for corn and clambakes, Rodgers and Hammerstein depict America’s small towns to incorporate all aspects of the human experience. Carousel provides a darker and more textured view of rural life on stage.
The success that Rodgers and Hammerstein found in Carousel propelled them forward. In their next project, a departure from the Broadway stage, they again rely on the themes of nature and the common man to tell another story of small-town America. In musicalizing the remake of the film State Fair, Rodgers and Hammerstein return to the American Midwest, not far from Oklahoma, to the farmland of Iowa. Though the opening song lacks the sophistication of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the simple refrain does reveal the townspeople’s pride in their state: “Our State Fair is a great state fair / Don’t miss it; don’t even be late / It’s dollars to doughnuts that our state fair / Is the best State Fair in our state!” As he does in Oklahoma!, Hammerstein embeds colloquial language into his opening lyrics; the vernacular phrase “dollars to doughnuts” works naturally to introduce the language of the small-town characters.
Part of how Rodgers and Hammerstein create their provincial charm is by portraying the opposite in counterpoint. Harry is Margy’s beau, almost fiancé, but the audience learns quickly that she is bored and unimpressed by him. Harry is not a bad guy; he is smitten with and ready to marry Margy. But Harry is the antithesis of small-town life. He is obsessed with everything modern, to the point of being ridiculous. He dreams of a farm with “scientific irrigation,” “electric milking...all tractor power.” When Margy inquires about the farmhouse they will share, envisioning something “pretty” and “cozy,” he dismisses her vision for his own: "[N]o clapboard, shingle business...There’s a new kind of plastic, pre-fabricated job...I’ve got the catalog home...They tell you how to furnish it, too ...no rugs or carpets, they’re just dust collectors. Linoleum!...It’s slick, it’s smooth and easy to keep clean! Well, it’s like every room in the house was a bathroom!" He preaches to her, “It’s the only way to live...everything sanitary!” Harry is so wrapped up in his utopian fantasy that he is oblivious to the sarcasm in Margy’s response: “In our air conditioned, patent-leather farmhouse / On our ultra-modern, scientific farm / We’ll live in a streamlined heaven / And we’ll waste no time on charm.” Harry is not a villain, but his fixation on modernity makes him the laughing stock of the film. In small-town Iowa, Harry’s disapproval of traditional country living is more than a quirk; it’s enough to make him utterly repugnant to Margy and an object of ridicule for the audience.
State Fair introduces two other anti-heroes later in the film. Emily’s singing partner, an arrogant crooner from big-city Chicago, enjoys flirting with the secretly-married Emily. When Emily and local boy Wayne Frake begin to fall in love, the crooner becomes threatened and jealous. He insults Wayne specifically about being a local boy, taunting, “How about singing one of those rousing corn-fed ditties you guys sing around these little towns?” His feeling of superiority over Wayne’s provincial life becomes the rhetoric he uses to insult him. More than just a plot point, Rodgers and Hammerstein take this opportunity to reiterate their positive portrayal of rural America. They personify the big city as the bully, not the ideal, and the character who degrades the small town becomes the villain who must be overcome. The plot immediately champions Wayne; with one punch to the jaw, the crooner hits the floor, and Emily is free to spend the rest of the evening with her small-town boy. This is the first victory of the Small Town over the big city. The next is in the film’s resolution when Wayne reunites with his farmland girlfriend after learning that his cosmopolitan crush is married. Emily becomes the second “villain” to return to the big city in shame. That her corruption is defeated by small-town values creates the happy ending in State Fair. It also presages the most important theme to emerge in the upcoming Allegro.
State Fair’s ending reflects Oklahoma! in that the individual characters’ victories and joys become communal and democratic. In celebration, the townsfolk sing a “corn-fed ditty,” not ironically or apologetically, to become the biggest number in the film. It begins as an amateurish caricature of farmers, the lead singer backed up by boys in stereotypical costumes, but develops quickly into an honest homage to the state. The fun of Hammerstein’s lyric is his pun on the state’s abbreviation “IO” and the words “I owe:”
Oh, I know, all I owe, I owe Ioway
I owe Ioway all I owe, and I know why.
I am Ioway born and bred
And on Ioway corn I’m fed,
Not to mention her barley, wheat and rye...
I owe Ioway for her ham, and her beef, and her land
And her strawberry jam, and her pie...
The lyrics are not particularly clever, and one critic, Ethan Mordden, complains that “All I Owe Ioway” “must be the worst song R & H ever wrote.” Nevertheless, its importance lies in its similarity to the wedding number in Oklahoma! In a strategic pattern, both songs celebrate the marriages as happy endings of their plots. In both, Hammerstein employs a deceptively basic but resonant technique: he literally “spells out” the reasons why Americans should take pride in their landscape and homeland by spelling out the letters and abbreviations of each state. One song crows, “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O.K.! O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A / Oklahoma, O.K.!”, and the other cheers, “I-O-W, I-O-W, I-O-W-A / Hooray! Ioway!” These songs become significant in their celebration of rural, American life. The lyrics erase any distinction between the characters’ individual stories and their larger landscape and identity.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s themes of nature and the elevation of the common man worked infallibly in these first three shows. Audiences became intrigued by lively, small-town America. With New York City no longer the locale of choice and a once-glamorized Europe decimated by war, the eyes of America turned toward the heartland. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s magic touch had made them household names throughout the nation. They were primed to embed their prized themes into a totally original musical. No one anticipated that their alchemy would not succeed again in Allegro.
One initial explanation for Allegro’s failure may be that Rodgers and Hammerstein attempted to create a wholly original show without any source material. This was a risky endeavor. Since the beginning of their collaboration, the writers had adapted existing materials, narratives, and characters that were already successful in other genres. Part of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s magic was how masterfully they transformed these sources into the genre of the musical play. At Allegro’s debut, critics pointed out the decision of not using a source as a detriment. They yearned for the strong foundation of an extant source, complaining that Rodgers and Hammerstein did not exhibit the same talent in creating an original show. Louis Kronenberger wrote, “Presumably [Allegro] set out to tell, with the help of music and chorus and dancing, a very simple American story. But on a good many occasions, Allegro didn’t know the difference between simple and over-weighted; and on a good many more, it didn’t know the difference between the simple and the obvious.” John Chapman claimed that Rodgers and Hammerstein “have gone philosophical; sententious, even” and that “in the show itself they seem to disapprove of levity and in the plot they defend their attitude against such profoundly regretful opinions as this one.”
These reviews stand in clear opposition to the overwhelmingly positive notices Rodgers and Hammerstein received for their first three shows. In each case, the earlier reviewers specifically credited the original source material as crucial to the musical’s success. Oklahoma!’s critics constantly cited the source play, Green Grow the Lilacs. Wolcott Gibbs of The New Yorker wrote, “After rereading Mr. Riggs’s drama (a very fine and original one, by the way), I can’t see that the version at the St. James has omitted anything of consequence...On the whole, it seems to me that Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and their associates have heightened rather than diminished their material...To the Theatre Guild, which made all these joys available, my gratitude is practically boundless.” Lewis Nichols highlighted the successful transition from source to musical: “‘Oklahoma!’ is based on Lynn Riggs’ saga . . . ‘Green Grow the Lilacs,’ and, like its predecessor, it is simple and warm.” Howard Barnes wrote, “[T]he narrative line in ‘Oklahoma!’ is arresting and even dramatic. It is based on the Lynn Riggs play...‘Green Grow the Lilacs.’ That work, as I remember it, was lean on substantial subject matter for a straight play, but it has been transmuted into a brilliant frame for songs and dances.”
Carousel’s reviewers also specifically referred to the source material, Liliom by Ferenc Molnar. Louis Kronenberger stated, “That Carousel asserts its independence and achieves a kind of integration seems to me to count as much as that it so often has charm.” Ward Morehouse asserted, “Molnar’s story...has charm and compassion in musical play form. The Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein...have created a mood and have sustained it. And 'Carousel' becomes something memorable in the theater.”
While reviewing State Fair, newspaper critics highlighted the foundation of the original source. The Naugatuck Daily News wrote, “As the millions who have read Philip Stong’s beloved novel must know, ‘State Fair’ tells of the richly human, radiantly joyous adventures of a mid-west family during one hectic and enchanted week at the fair...How they each realized their goal makes for a grand, heart-warming story packed with robust humor and thrilling romance throughout.” The Syracuse Herald Journal beamed, “‘State Fair’ as a musical is lively entertainment...It is a far cry from the Phil Stong novel which furnished the meat for the show, but if they wanted to make it into a musical, this was the way to do it.”
That Allegro was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first attempt to forego any source material likely contributed to the show’s failure. The collaborators had not practiced or mastered formulating their themes into an original script. They remembered to include their favorite themes of nature and the common man, but these ideas got lost in an unguided plotline. For many audiences and reviewers, the show simply didn’t persuade.
A larger cause of Allegro’s failure was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s attempt to create a “concept musical.” In doing so, they inadvertently shifted the musical-play away from the alchemy they had perfected. The source material wasn’t their only elimination; the creators also stripped down the entire stage tableau. Allegro played on a bare stage, Hammerstein exxplained, utilizing “no scenery, slide projection onto screens, loudspeakers, actors and props being brought in and out on treadmills, and a Greek chorus of sorts.” They made this decision consciously, with Hammerstein saying, “There’s just one thing I hate, and that’s rules. The theatre should have no rules.” However, these revolutionary changes did not have the result the collaborators sought. For audiences who returned with expectations set by the first three musicals, Allegro was too dramatic a discrepancy.
Unlike Oklahoma, Carousel, and State Fair, Allegro did too little, too soon. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first shows included comedic songs, colorful characters, beautiful love songs and lavish dance numbers. Whether whooping along or welling up, audiences flowed with immediate, genuine emotions. However, Allegro’s audiences left the theater feeling empty. After all, Mordden wrote, “There is no ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,’ no ‘Soliloquy.’” Simply, audiences were disappointed by Allegro’s production values.
Beyond the minimalist staging, Allegro’s score was spare. In truth, for a musical, Allegro doesn’t actually have very much music, Mordeen explained, “Joe Taylor is possibly the first romantic lead in an American musical who has very little to sing...But then, no one in Allegro has much to sing, for R & H made a certain decision in the writing of their score - something like the opposite of Carousel, with its operatic grandeur.” After three musicals that were so celebrated for their scores, this was a risky - and unprofitable - decision. The writers kept their themes and message intact, but if the audience feels preached to without being entertained, the lesson gets mired in boredom or dismay. Ultimately, the pared-down score also contributed to the show’s failure.
An even greater disadvantage was the backlash caused by audiences and critics taking offense to the show’s condemnation of big-city life. Some accused Rodgers and Hammerstein of hypocrisy, considering it was New York itself that had fostered their success. Even in one generally positive review, the New York Post reviewer Richard Watts Jr. declared, “I confess I am always made uncomfortable by scenes in which metropolitan authors pretend that they find all the virtues in small towns and only vice and decadence in cities. I have never believed this myself and I doubt if they do.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein became aware of and acknowledged this criticism. In his autobiography, Rodgers retorted: "We never condemned big-city life; what we were against was the corrupting effect of big institutions. At the end of the story, the hero does leave the big city for the small town in which he grew up, but this was only so that he could work in a clinic and devote himself exclusively to healing the sick. It could have been a clinic in Harlem or in Des Moines; the locale had nothing to do with the point we were trying to make."
Hammerstein’s biographer Hugh Fordin later wrote: “[M]any theatergoers and critics thought Oscar was saying that small-town people were honest and good and that big-city people were neurotic, materialistic and venal. He could and did point out that the worst character in the play was a small-town girl, but he knew it was his fault that his message was not clear.” Perhaps their message “was not clear” because it was steeped in ennui. Critic Robert Garland complained, “They...seem to have confused ‘allegro’ with say, ‘lento,’ which means, ‘slow,’ ‘unhurried,’ and even downright serious.” William Hawkins wrote, “The progress of the show sees the original conception blotted out by unimaginative tricks.” Louis Kronenberger argued, “a hundred clichés of American thinking and emotion marched by in procession, on a very vast, very unhomey...stage. Had the cliches merely sauntered by...you might have forgotten their age and focused on their truthfulness. As it was, they left you quite unmoved; they left you downright bored.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein took another risk in Allegro which presumably became its most injurious fault. This was the first time that Rodgers and Hammerstein actually depicted the big city on stage. In the first three shows, the characters don’t leave their rural towns, and only their small-town settings are explored. Oklahoma! has one exception; when Will returns from a trip to Kansas City, he regales everyone back on the territory with comedic accounts of how modern the city is: “They’ve gone about as fur as they c’n go! / They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high – / About as high as a buildin’ orta grow.” Though his song gently hints at the themes of technology running amok and of urban people being too free, it’s a humorous, good-natured song. The audience laughs, and the criticism ends there. Beyond that, in Oklahoma!, Carousel, and State Fair, the city is merely an idea, looming far away, and the characters have only a vague understanding of what the city means.
Allegro explicitly dramatizes the big city and its people, and its depictions are stark. The first three musicals bathe small towns in a positive light, but Allegro explicitly depicts the big city as negative. City dwellers are portrayed as shallow, rude, careless at best and corrupt at worst. When this disapproving depiction of urban life was staged in front of real, New York audiences, it most certainly would have caused offense. It hit a little too close to home, resulting in audiences emotionally distancing themselves from the message of the show. Possibly, if Rodgers and Hammerstein had repeated their pattern of depicting only the small town, with an implicit not explicit moral, Allegro might not have elicited such a visceral response. But the largest reason for Allegro’s failure is that some audiences felt judged and perhaps a bit exposed. Ticket-buyers took their business elsewhere, and Allegro became Rodgers and Hammerstein’s least attended performance of their nearly twenty-year collaboration.
Interestingly, this distaste for Allegro was not unanimous. For every reviewer who disliked the show, another praised its creativity and insight. Morehouse wrote, “‘Allegro” is a distinguished and tumultuous musical play. The new Rodgers & Hammerstein product...is excitingly unconventional in form and it takes its place alongside of ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Carousel’ as a theatrical piece of taste, imagination and showmanship.” Atkinson at the New York Times wrote, “‘Allegro’ just made history on Broadway...it is full of a kind of unexploited glory,” and Coleman at the Daily Mirror reported, “Perfection and great are not words to be lightly used. They have become commonplace through misuse. But ‘Allegro’ is perfection, great. It is a stunning blending of beauty, integrity, intelligence, imagination, taste and skill.” These reviewers do not bemoan any missing source and actually applaud Rodgers and Hammerstein for their boldly stark message. Despite its short run among ticket-buyers, reviews like these reveal that for some, the alchemy of Rodgers and Hammerstein had intensified and was more intact than ever.
Allegro failed almost certainly due to a lack of readiness on both sides. The writers, perhaps prematurely, created an avant-garde piece which the audience wasn’t ready to receive. Looking back, we see more clearly the relevance Allegro holds in theater history. Jones notes the play is about “any individual’s fight to maintain integrity and values in the face of the distracting clutter lurking in contemporary American culture.” Allegro was a new kind of morality play for a mid-twentieth-century Everyman. The show was revolutionary in its staging, becoming an early example of minimalism in musical theater. Its most often-heard song, “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” was recorded through the decades by some of America’s most famous performers: Barbara Cook, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bernadette Peters. The relevance of Allegro today is as a lesson learned by its great writers. Allegro became the bridge between Rodgers and Hammerstein’s early victories and the major triumphs – South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music – that were soon to arrive.
From guest contributor Jill Gold Wright, Mt. San Antonio College