The titles of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals tend to be self-explanatory but Allegro is bit of a puzzle. A musical instruction for quick, lively, cheerful doesn’t quite befit this rather more thoughtful, frequently earnest birth-to-midlife-crisis tale of an average American Joe. Nevertheless, it’s the fluidity, brisk pace and seamless ensemble work of Thom Southerland’s production that makes a convincing case for this famous flop (nine months on Broadway in 1947; this is the London premiere) as bit of a lost gem finally ready to be unearthed after some polishing. Perhaps the title is supposed to be some kind of allusion to the way in which life can pass you by quick as a flash.
Following the exhilarating Oklahoma! and exquisite Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s unsurpassed talents capturing the poetry of ordinary yet extraordinary people singing from the heart is very much in evidence, with a few differences: much of the music is performed as an ensemble which also plays the role of a Greek chorus, sometimes witty and sometimes confrontational. A Rodgers and Hammerstein leading man also tends to have an alpha male fascination about him, be he a penniless carnival barker or the King of Siam, but rural doctor Joseph Taylor Jr. isn’t such a creature. Perceptively played by Gary Tushaw with likable gawkiness, he’s a serious, studious kind of fellow, one who doesn’t seek to be the leading man in life and just wants to do the best he can for his family and patients.
Goodness knows Carousel isn’t without controversy regarding its depiction of women (though I’ll always argue that it subverts expectations of what a musical theatre heroine should be) but it’s difficult not feel a bit queasy by Allegro’s depiction an ideal marriage as one in which a wife should sit by her husband’s side ‘and listen to him talk and agree with the things he’ll say’. A woman like Joe’s wife Jennie (a well-measured performance by Emily Bull), only content to be a doctor’s wife if he’s the fancy society kind, is certainly selfish and adept at emotional blackmail, but society’s expectations of what a woman should be are so confused that she can’t win. As Joe’s saintly mother, Julia J. Nagle sings like a lark and bears a remarkable resemblance Caroline Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie, and also brings a welcome touch of steel that prevents this angel in the house from being too saccharine. Emily (Katie Bernstein), the nurse nursing a tendresse for her boss, is the happy medium, matching Joe in principles, but too vivacious to be a doormat.
Although it doesn’t transport us into the celestial realm in the same way that Carousel does, the way in which the dead remain amongst the living lends a haunting quality that narrowly avoids feeling contrived thanks to the highly theatrical yet sensitive staging. The minimalist props apart from two ladders and a scaffold hint at notions of small-town hierarchy, and Lee Proud’s choreography skilfully captures the sense of community that pervades Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work.
Allegro’s most lasting legacy might be the fact that it inspired production assistant Stephen Sondheim to push even further in his experiments with the musical form, yet what’s arguably most interesting about it, and explains why audiences failed to warm to it, is the way in which it unabashedly criticises a medical system driven by profit pandering to the whims of the neurotic rich. A year after Allegro opened on Broadway, Britain’s NHS was founded, yet ‘socialised medicine’ is a concept that remains terrifically contentious amongst Americans. Joe Taylor’s belief that medical care shouldn’t be the preserve of the wealthy shows him to be not so much an everyman but really a very brave one.