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Note from Allegro Artistic Director Brian Kulick
Welcome to CSC’s second installment of our Musical Theatre Initiative, which is dedicated to exploring our great American musical theatre heritage with an eye towards those works that, for reasons that are often rather ineffable, were never fully recognized in their time and are deserving of a closer look.
One such musical that looms large in this respect is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO. Richard Rogers wrote “of all the musicals I ever worked on that didn’t quite succeed, ALLEGRO is one I think most worthy of a second chance!” For many, if they remember this musical at all, it is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first “flop.” For a more discerning lover of the American musical it is remembered as the first “modern” musical employing cinematic-like techniques to tell its fluid and ever changing story; and for an even smaller cadre of musical theatre aficionados, it was the actual future of the American musical; the first of what we now call “the concept musical” (that would lead to such works as Company, A Chorus Line, Chicago). That is certainly what it seemed like to a young intern on the show by the name of Stephen Sondheim who, for twenty five dollars a week, typed the scripts, got the coffee and “watched a remarkable show come to life.” Mr. Sondheim has since, on numerous occasions confessed, “I think I might not be so attracted to experimental musicals if I hadn’t wet my feet with ALLEGRO.”
But it is not just the experimentation with form that made us want to return to ALLEGRO. One also encounters a tremendous heart in this work that seems to beat louder with each passing decade. It was written at the moment when the world realized that the 20th century would be called “The American Century.” And perhaps because of this, a generation of diverse American playwrights ranging from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to Rodgers and Hammerstein felt tasked to ask what it meant, in the middle of a deeply troubling century, to be this entity called “an American.” What indeed was this strange creature, where did it come from and, most importantly, where was it headed.
In ALLEGRO, Rodgers and Hammerstein delineate two rival Americas. The first is built on family, community and the meaning that is defined in service to those two fundamental experiences. The other America is one of success (often made manifest through the material) and the rise of the individual whose meaning is often defined by the singularity of self and all that is accrued in the service of that selfhood. Both paths have been with us since the nation was first forged and Joe Jr., the main character of ALLEGRO, will traverse both.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s preferred path (home, family, community) struck many audience members of 1947 as somewhat simplistic, especially a generation that suffered the great depression and the second world war, a generation eager to put all that behind them and move on, forget its woes and reap the benefits of its hard won struggles. Who can blame them, and don’t we all do the same over and over again. That may be the very DNA of our species (irrespective of nationalities which are somewhat arbitrary designations to say the least). But the deep truth of ALLEGRO, that shines perhaps brighter in a new century born out of the hard choices of the last, is how, as we must move ever forward, we must not forget that point of origin that is our internal compass and ballast, what most of us simply call: “home.” A space which is not defined by four walls but with the love for one another that is hopefully generated within those walls; between parent and child and then miraculously amplified from family to family, forging that essential community that knows and cares for one another.
The concept of “Home” looms large in our popular culture, from Dorothy’s rosy, “There’s no place like home,” to Thomas Wolfe’s darker intimation that one can “never go home again.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “home” seems to live somewhere between the open-heartedness of Dorothy and the resigned and regretful Thomas Wolfe. Home, for them, is a place of origin and, more importantly, a space for regeneration; it is the internalized pole star that can guide us back to ourselves and to what is essential. It is a concept that we as a nation, always and forever in the pursuit of happiness, could benefit from reconsidering. And in this respect, we all might do well to listen to the clarion call of Marjorie, Joe Jr.’s mother, and contemplate what it might mean for us as a nation to “come home.”