Rodgers and Hammerstein: Allegro

Audra McDonald, Nathan Gunn; Istropolis Phil/Larry Blank (Sony Masterworks Broadway 88697414382)

18 March 2010 5 stars

Allegro

During the 1940s and particularly the 1950s, the Broadway musical attained a cultural respectability it had never really enjoyed before and which it started to lose at the end of that period. Without question, the most important figures in this period were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose collaboration produced five of the most important shows of all time: Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959). There are other important aspects to their collaboration, too, especially the business aspect. By becoming producers, Rodgers and Hammerstein were able to take complete control of their shows: the production team and cast, the theatres, where the shows would tour to, which songs would be published, what recordings would be made, when the film versions would be made, and so on. It was something of a revolution, and it’s what allowed them to put on experimental works such as Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream and Allegro, none of which attained the same level of success as their other pieces, but all of which have considerable merits.

Rodgers’s ability as a composer was unusual. Some composers seem to follow a very vertical logic in their music, devising it in terms of harmony; I think of Sondheim, Arlen and Kander in this respect, and even Frank Loesser to an extent. Others, such as Kern, are great melodists. But Rodgers’s best work functions in both respects at once, so that one can often sense the matching harmony in the melody and vice versa. Although Allegro (1947) is often dismissed as a flop, there’s some great music in there, and in this magnificent new recording conducted by Larry Blank and starring Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn, the work’s full potential has been reached.

In fact, the show’s inherent nature makes it particularly appropriate for recording purposes. Hammerstein’s book depicts an Everyman story, with a doctor undergoing a journey from parochial surgeon to man of the city, and its main technical featureis the use of a Greek chorus to comment on the action. This gives the show the air of a cantata at times, which is probably one of the aspects which caused problems onstage, but it makes it perfect to listen to, especially when it’s as well rendered as it is here. Similarly, the use of a large ensemble of small characters must have been tricky in the original production, but here it allowed the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and Sony – who are jointly responsible for the recording – to employ a large, stellar cast. Even Hammerstein’s voice is heard, in fact: shortly before his death in 1960, he was preparing a new version of the show for a television production, and he read the script into a Dictaphone which has survived and been briefly excerpted here. The young Stephen Sondheim was the Production Assistant on the original show, and he also makes a cameo appearance speaking a few lines.

If you want to tell how well conducted the recording is, listen to the first few bars of the Overture: each phrase is immaculately shaped and coloured with an impeccable sense of style. In this, Larry Blank has done a splendid job. Remarkably, the orchestral tracks were recorded in Bratislava, and not only were the singers not present at the sessions, they hadn’t even been cast when the accompaniment was recorded. Yet there’s nothing metronomic about the performance: it’s clear that this was not a computerised backing track but a deeply considered and layered performance. Rodgers’s score has certain unifying features, especially the use of appoggiaturas (accented neighbour notes), slurs incorporating big melodic leaps, and a certain artiness regarding unexpected chromatic harmonies. It is perhaps this characteristic that turns some people off the piece, since it does have moments that might be considered pretentious, and as a score it’s not appealingly vibrant in the way that Oklahoma! is, for instance. But it does have a haunting quality to it, too, and the ambition of the writing comes through in this very special performance, masterminded by Blank and Bruce Pomahac of the R&H Organisation.

Amongst such a cast it’s difficult to have favourites, but mention must be made of Nathan Gunn’s Dr Joseph Taylor – how nice to have a genuine baritone in the role – and Audra McDonald’s Marjorie Taylor. Marni Nixon (the voice of Deborah Kerr in the film of The King and I and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) is inspired casting as Grandma Taylor, and Liz Callaway as Emily excels in ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’. Judith Blazer, Kathy Morath and Ashley Brown make brief appearances in the ensemble ‘Money isn’t Everything’, and Laura Benanti is heard as Jennie Brinker. Judy Kuhn’s Beaulah is featured in the gorgeous ‘So Far’, and overall there are no weak links in the cast.

This recording fills an important gap in the catalogue. Although the original cast was recorded back in 1947, less than half of the music was included, whereas the whole score plus some of the dialogue is included here on two CDs. In short, it’s an unmissable release for the Broadway connoisseur, and one hopes the R&H people will follow it up with other classics from the great team’s output.

By Dominic McHugh

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