Interview with Allegro Music Director Mary Mitchell Campbell

Scott Ebersold: Can you talk a little bit about the nature of the original score and how it was orchestrated, the original size of the orchestra?

Mary Mitchell Campbell: ALLEGRO originally had quite a big orchestra. I don’t actually recall how many pieces it was, but it was well into the high twenties. It was quite lush and had lots of strings and horns and reeds – things that I’m not using in our production.


Scott: In our production of ALLEGRO, how many do we have?

Mary Mitchell Campbell: In our production of ALLEGRO there are twelve members of the actor-orchestra company and they play a multitude of instruments within the twelve of them, but only twelve at a time.


Scott: The book and construction of the musical as a whole was thought of as innovative at the time, would you say the same is true of the score and its orchestrations?

Mary Mitchell Campbell: In the way that we’re doing it? In the way that it was done then?


S: In the way that it was written…the book was considered to be an experimental…

MMC: Yes, I would say ALLEGRO is quite experimental score and orchestration-wise, mostly because it was so fragmented musically. That sort of matched the story-telling devices that they were using, which were incredibly unconventional at the time. There are all these little musical fragments that are really short. They were incredibly unusual and were definitely breaking a lot of ground.


S: How would you characterize Rodger’s work as composer; what makes him unique in the pantheon of musical theatre composers?

MMC: Richard Rodgers is probably…I mean definitely one of the best composers that ever lived, and also one of my favorite composers. I’ve always been a huge Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein fan. I think the biggest telltale of a Rodgers piece of music is the amazing structure – the amazing form and harmonic structure – that he always used. Even when he was going in unusual directions, from a harmonic standpoint the structure was always really, really solid. When you analyze all of that work you can sort of see how much craft there was that was working through him. It’s pretty amazing.


S: Is there something Rodgers does that is distinctive his own in terms of the way a song unfolds or is scored?

MMC: I think he was a master at story telling through song. A lot of his music – it depends on which time period you’re looking at of his material, but a lot of his music, the structure and the way it unfolds the story and the way it works with the lyric is incredibly masterful. It’s some of the top writing we’ve ever had in the American musical theatre.


S: Does ALLEGRO depart from this?

MMC: I think ALLEGRO is different from his other works in some ways, mostly because of musical fragments that exist and the way those fragments are woven together, the way everything is sort of set up in the beginning as building blocks to tell the story of this one man’s journey from birth, into college, and the way those building blocks work together.

Then there are songs that are more traditional – like “A Fella Needs a Girl” is a little more traditional in its form and the way it unravels feels more like a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from other shows.


S: And you see how Sondheim was influenced by this music?

MMC: I can definitely see how Stephen Sondheim was influenced by ALLEGRO. Yes. There are so many things about…the fragments. I think the fragments are what definitely inspired him and also just his understanding of how book and lyrics and music work together to tell a story. It’s clear that he’s taken a lot from this particular story and used it in a lot of his work.


S: What were you looking for in terms of turning this orchestration into a chamber piece?

MMC: The idea behind our version of ALLEGRO – which has not been completed yet, so I don’t know yet exactly how successful this idea is going to be – but the idea behind it is to take it into a slightly more stripped down chamber orchestra feel with a bend towards Americana, with a nod towards Aaron Copeland, and Steven Foster, and Americana world. It’s not incredibly brassy and it’s a little more homespun in its approach. It’s not quite as piano-driven for such a small group and we’re trying to find different ways to tell the story. It’s also partially just pragmatic, like what do people play well and sound good while they’re playing. So, there’s an element of that that comes into the design.


S: Does the orchestration evolve over rehearsals?

MMC: Everything changes during rehearsal. Coming into the rehearsal and getting people on their feet and seeing how well they adjust and what range they might sound best in – I change octaves around all the time, I change parts around. There are times where I’ve given somebody something that’s medium-hard and they start to play and I think, this would be better for you if it were easier, or I think, this would be better for you if it were harder. Then as they get more comfortable, a lot of times you change it up so that they don’t get too comfortable. So, a lot of psychology going on.


S: What attracts you to this very specific way of building or re-thinking a musical?

MMC: I have always been intrigued by the actor-musician concept because first of all, for me as an orchestrator, it’s so different than orchestrating in a normal situation. It’s completely different, but you have to use some of the skills you would use as an orchestrator under normal circumstances, but in a completely different way. It’s like a 3-D puzzle because you’re building the story based around what the actors can play and what their characters are and their relationships to each other and their relationships to the songs. There’s this overarching puzzle that gets created out of all of that. It’s an incredibly different way of working, which I love the challenge of because it’s difficult. I also like the meaning that I find in the piece when people have to play for themselves; the ways that they support each other and the ways that their characters come through the orchestration.