Magazine article The Sondheim Review

No Longer Neglected

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

No Longer Neglected

Article excerpt

Experimental Allegro affected a young Sondheim

The 1947 musical Allegro is probably known today as much for Stephen Sondheim's "gofer" production summer job while a 17-year-old Williams College student as an early Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II collaboration. So when Sondheim delivers a speech in the first complete Allegro recording (Sony Masterworks), it is no mere cameo role. In a larger and more satisfying sense, it's Sondheim coming full circle.

Allegro tells the story of Joseph Taylor Jr., who follows in the professional footsteps of his small-town doctor father only to be lured by the glamour of a big-city practice. Catering to the whims of his neurotic, wealthy patients, he becomes oblivious to his wife Jennie's infidelities and his ideals. At the end of the show, he turns down a promotion and leaves his wife to return to his hometown with his college buddy Charlie and loyal nurse Emily.

The importance of Allegro in musical theatre history was less in its plot than its presentation, which owed much to Our Town. An ensemble of performers function as a Greek chorus, singing Joseph's thoughts. His grandmother and mother appear onstage after their deaths to comment on the action. And director Agnes de Mille and set designer Jo Mielziner achieved an almost-cinematic staging with rear projections, moving platforms and a serpentine, S-shaped curtain. The era of brief "in-one" scenes in front of the curtain to set up elaborate production numbers was coming to an end.

Allegro's lack of widespread appeal also has much to do with a brief (33 minutes of material) 1947 original cast album on RCA Victor. This has been rectified with an outstanding new two-disc recording, offering 95 minutes of music, plus a fully illustrated book that includes a brief essay by Sondheim. "I think I might not be attracted to experimental musicals," he observes, "if I hadn't wet my feet with Allegro."

Indeed, many songs in the Allegro score reveal parallels with later Sondheim compositions. The "Yatata" cocktail sequence, comprised of harsh chords and abstract lyrics ("Broccoli, hogwash, balderdash/Phony baloney, tripe and trash") sung by insincere society folk, presages the similar "Blob" party scenes in Merrily We Roll Along. (Tellingly, Joseph's wealthy patients sing of their prescription shots, while Merrily's showbiz people medicate themselves with cocaine.) Allegro's brisk title song, with Joe, Charley and Emily commenting on the relentlessness of modern life ("Don't stop whatever you do!/Do something dizzy and new/Keep up the hullabaloo! …

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