Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II created the rules for modern musical theater.
Their five major successes: Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific and The Sound of Music are constantly presented worldwide, and Robert Wise’s film of The Sound of Music is one of the best-loved movie musicals ever made. Their adaptation of Cinderella has been filmed for television three times: in 1957 starring Julie Andrews; in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren and in 1997 starring Brandy Norwood. All three versions are available on DVD, and, with a new script by Douglas Carter Beane, a stage version recently ended a two-year Broadway engagement. Their film musical, State Fair, was also adapted for the stage and has been infrequently produced.
Still, there are three Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that weren’t great successes, but, because times have changed, demand further attention and possible production.
Produced in 1947, Allegro is, essentially, the first concept musical. Influenced by the simple theatricality of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the story explores the life of an everyman, Joseph Taylor, Jr., a small town doctor for whom big-city fame and fortune are a temptation, but home and family help him to avert a mid-life crisis.
Agnes de Mille, whose innovative choreography for both Oklahoma and Carousel as well as Lerner and Loewe’s 1947 musical Brigadoon, was hired to direct as well as choreograph (another first), attracted to the concept of a stage constantly alive with movement. Hammerstein’s libretto was based on his own childhood experiences. He spent a year working on the first act, but rushed through the second act, finishing only a week before rehearsals began. Without realizing the Frankenstein monster they were creating, the team tried to break some of the rules they’d invented, but de Mille’s production, with its singing Greek Chorus and dancing ensembles (numbering over 100 performers), was overwhelming and didn’t match the material.
Rodgers’ score is character-driven, rather than geared toward the hit parade, with song titles like “One Foot, Other Foot,” “Poor Joe,” “What a Lovely Day for a Wedding,” “A Darn Nice Campus" and the most famous song, “The Gentleman is a Dope.” (The remarkable Barbara Cook delivers a terrific rendition of this latter song on her album Oscar Winners, devoted entirely to the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II).
Allegro barely ran the season on Broadway, followed by a short-lived national tour. The score was preserved, although the original cast recording contains barely a half hour of music, and for 60 years Allegro was presented sporadically. Richard Rodgers did hope that the show might, someday, find a new life.
Fortunately, this new life is slowly emerging. In 2009, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization approved a 2-CD studio recording of the complete score with a cast that included Met opera star Nathan Gunn, multi-Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, Marnie Nixon (who voiced songs in movies for Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn), as well as Tony winners Norbert Leo Butz and Patrick Wilson. This exquisite CD is one example of what a fully realized production could be. In 2014, Allegro was presented off-Broadway, stripping the show to a bare minimum, using an ensemble of twelve and focusing on the innovative, original material that makes Allegro a stand out in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog.
Behind the scenes
While the team decided to work within their own boundaries, they still attempted original material that challenged audiences. Another show that was ahead of its time is Me and Juliet (1953).
Featuring the love story of a chorus girl and an Assistant Stage Manager, things are upset by the jealousy of an electrician, and this counterpoints a romance between the stage manager and a colleague who’s suddenly cast in the show onstage, titled Me and Juliet. Hammerstein’s script explores the ins and outs of professional theater as they observed it. Another concept show, Me and Juliet is one of the first backstage musicals, a theme that would inspire such later musicals as Gypsy, Cabaret, Follies and A Chorus Line, none of which may have been possible without Rodgers and Hammerstein leading the way.
At the time of its premiere, the show, while not overly successful, ran the season and played a national tour. A few years later, a similar musical titled Say, Darling would succeed, in part, because it was about the production of The Pajama Game. a musical that had been a huge hit. Like Allegro, it seemed that Me and Juliet would be forgotten, especially since the cast recording isn’t especially inspiring. Material from this show has been added to the stage scores for State Fair and Cinderella, but it’s beginning to have new life, with bare bones productions proving the material worthy of revival. Perhaps a studio recording that celebrates this score is due.
After listening to the recently released live recording of Pipe Dream, presented in 2012 by Encores! (New York’s equivalent of the Goodspeed Opera House, which gives attention to classic musicals), it’s not easy to understand how Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream could be considered a failure. The score is every bit as melodious and tuneful as Rodgers’ own favorite score, Carousel. Even the original 1955 recording is a listening pleasure!
The most likely reason is that the steamy script didn’t appeal to audiences of the period. Based on John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday, a sequel to Cannery Row, the show is set in upstate California. Doc is a marine biologist who believes that it takes all sorts of people to make up a world. When he meets Suzy, a nomadic prostitute arrested for thievery, love is in the air. Of course the idlers and vagrants who frequently populate Steinbeck’s writing offer flavor, conflict and resolution.
With Pipe Dream, Rodgers and Hammerstein were once again, pioneering something innovative (think of such later, dramatic musicals as West Side Story, Man of La Mancha or even Phantom), while staying within the guidelines they’d established. However, with competition from shows like Mary Martin as Peter Pan, Harold Rome’s Fanny, Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, the baseball-themed Damn Yankees and the smash hit The Pajama Game, a show with such gritty material as Pipe Dream, even with its celebrated composer and lyricist, wasn’t right for the time.
Let’s hope that times have changed enough for the opportunity to give these three musicals another chance!