The Dramaturg’s Point of View
"Adventurous theater in Astoria"

-- The New York Times

The Dramaturg’s Point of View

Ben Coleman signed on as our Dramaturg on Allegro early in the process. We asked him to talk about the show and why he was so excited to be a part of it. The final result was a post full of the historical significance of this elusive show.

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In March of 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened their first musical collaboration, Oklahoma!, on Broadway. Two years after this watershed musical swept New York City, the pair repeated their success in 1945 with Carousel. With two major triumphs under their collective belt, the theatre community anxiously awaited the duo’s next piece, and in 1947, Allegro appeared – the first (and one of few) R&H musicals not destined to become a household name. Rodgers and Hammerstein maintained their musical-every-two-years trend, and in ‘49 came South Pacific, followed by The King and I in ‘51, then Me and Juliet and Pipe Dreams in 1953 and ‘55 respectively, before culminating with their immensely popular The Sound of Music in 1959. The walloping catalogue of musicals is virtually unparalleled, and Allegro has always been the anomaly; the blotch on a nearly unstained reputation; and for many musical theatre fans and aficionados – the source of much curiosity and speculation.

When Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik mentioned to me that Allegro would be APAC’s spring musical, I lit up with excitement. Finally someone was willing to take on this seldom produced work, and give audiences the opportunity to experience a hidden gem of the R&H collection, and make this diamond in the rough sparkle again. I do not know if it was my blatant giddiness about this news that led Tom to ask me to be his Dramaturg on this production, but I don’t think he finished asking the question before I jumped in with a “yes” and a handshake.

A Dramaturg aids the director in fleshing out the world of the play through historical research about the time/place when the play is set, in addition to researching the original production, it’s critical reception, and dissecting the script to figure out what works and what could be tweaked so the show can have the utmost relevance to an audience in 2014. What has always fascinated me about Rodgers & Hammerstein is their reputation for “family-friendly” and “wholesome” musicals, when in fact they led the charge in creating some incredibly daring, cutting-edge, and even experimental works. The form and musical integration of Oklahoma!, the dark and misogynistic themes of Carousel, and the racial tensions explored in both South Pacific and The King & I are often forgotten beneath lavish choruses singing “June is bustin’ out all over” or multitudes of children “whistling a happy tune.”

Rodgers & Hammerstein with Director Agnes De Mille

Rodgers & Hammerstein with Director Agnes De Mille

What distinguishes Allegro in the R&H canon is the conceptual nature of the musical. Hammerstein (who also wrote the book) takes a fairly simple story of Joe Taylor Jr. who is born the son of a doctor in a simple rural town in Illinois, and tracks his life to the big city, and his return home. However, Hammerstein abandons a traditional narrative form. At times he places the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, at other he imposes a greek chorus to voice Joe’s subconscious; scenery was scant (perhaps an homage to the Our Town-feel of the show), the staging was incredibly fluid (thanks to a curtain on a track that would wipe one scene into another), and Hammerstein points the proverbial finger at urbanites and socialites (who would have been in attendance at the time) for their excessive lifestyles. These reasons attributed to the show’s mixed critical response, which in turn contributed to Allegro’s legacy in obscurity.

The tropes and devices employed by the creators of Allegro have enjoyed a comfortable existence in many successful concept-musicals in the decades following. Shows such as: Company, West Side Story, Cabaret, Pippin, Caroline, Or Change, Chicago, A Chorus Line, Merrily We Roll Along, Godspell, Hair, Spring Awakening, etc. are made possible because Rodgers & Hammerstein invented something new, and challenged themselves and their audience. Even the musical demi-god and protege of Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, acknowledges that Allegro played a major part in influencing his artistic voice. It is fascinating to see how a ripple becomes a wave; to look back over nearly 70 years of musical theatre history and observe how one musical served as a turning point and then faded into the cultural memory. “Fascinating” does not begin to describe this process. In addition to the rewards of working with an historically significant title, it has also been eye-opening to discover the beauty and care that went into this gorgeous musical. Spending a few minutes with a song or scene from this show constantly leads to new discoveries. The richness of this show’s history is only outmatched by the richness of the story, the score, the characters, and the concepts inherent in the piece. Allegro was ahead of its time, and we hope our contemporary audience enjoys re-discovering this musical, as much as we’ve enjoyed breathing life back into it.

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