Between 1943 and 1951,
Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote five Broadway musicals, four of which -- Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I -- became huge hits with long runs, million-selling cast albums, movie adaptations (with million-selling soundtrack albums), and frequent revivals. The fifth show, which curiously came right in the middle, was Allegro (1947), a flop that was nearly forgotten, preserved only on a 33-minute cast album. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which administers the songwriters' properties, has an obvious interest in promoting their works, and it is behind this years-in-the-making all-star two-CD studio cast album of Allegro, billed as the "first complete recording." Ted Chapin, president and executive director of the organization, served as a co-producer and annotator on a project that had no deadline, but apparently did have certain budget constraints. The producers first went to Eastern Europe (where it's cheaper to hire musicians) to have the Istropolis Philharmonic Orchestra record the instrumental score, then, over a period of two years, waited out the schedules of a dream cast of Tony Award-winning actors and actresses to overdub their parts one by one. That's a far cry from the single day usually mandated by Actors Equity for the cast of Broadway musical to get together in a recording studio and make a cast album.
Allegro, remembered as Rodgers & Hammerstein's most experimental work, has a plot so simple and familiar as to be mundane. Running from 1905 to 1940, it follows the life of a country doctor, Joseph Taylor, Jr. (Patrick Wilson), from birth to middle age, as he marries, leaves his small town for a big city and, after becoming disillusioned, leaves his ambitious, unfaithful wife and returns home. Oscar Hammerstein II, whose original libretto was not based on any earlier source, had told similar kinds of stories in such musicals as Show Boat and Music in the Air. His intention, imperfectly expressed, was not simply to illustrate the old adage that power corrupts, but to point out that the trappings of success can distract a person from the work that produced the success in the first place. It's a subtle and hardly universal problem, and it's easy to see how Hammerstein's point might have been missed, especially because the form of Allegro was so unusual. The innovative staging aspects are not apparent on any recording, but the score is also out of the ordinary, relying heavily on choral parts to tell the story, with the main character given relatively little to do (the major singing parts go to the doctor's mother, played by Audra McDonald, his grandmother, played by Marni Nixon, and his wife, played by Laura Benanti) and some of the major songs given to minor characters (notably the one song that successfully emerged from the score, "The Gentleman Is a Dope," sung by Liz Callaway, and "So Far," later interpolated into the 1995 stage version of the 1945 movie musical State Fair, sung by Judy Kuhn).
In his liner notes, Chapin says that he wanted "to see if we could experience Allegro in a form that would show what it was, so we could judge for ourselves...whether it deserves attention." That intention is satisfied by the recording, which may give the score its best possible reading. Certainly, McDonald, in such songs as "A Fellow Needs a Girl" and "Come Home," and Wilson, singing "You Are Never Away," provoke a reconsideration of a score that has obvious echoes of its immediate predecessors, Carousel and State Fair. (It also recalls some of Rodgers' work with his previous collaborator, Lorenz Hart, not only because of the interpolation of their song "Mountain Greenery" in a 1920s dance sequence, but also because of the similarity of the title song to "Johnny One-Note.") But 's music often sounds like retreads of those predecessors, and the heavy use of the chorus makes the story self-consciously literary; its failure as a theatrical work doesn't seem surprising, given that it often comes off less as a musical theater work than as a 100-minute cantata. So, this studio cast recording doesn't seem likely to breed a rash of regional productions or a Broadway revival. But it does bring back, for fans of musicals, some worthy music by one of Broadway's greatest songwriting teams, most of it barely heard in the 60 years since the original production closed. (To voice the many brief spoken parts, the producers have done some surprising stunt casting, including the theater critics John Simon and Allegro Howard Kissel; Hammerstein's protégé Stephen Sondheim, who, as a teenager, was an assistant on the 1947 production; and even Hammerstein himself, by way of a Dictaphone recording.)
All Music Guide - William Ruhlmann