Likening either Richard Rodgers or Oscar Hammerstein II to the mythical Icarus is all but fightin’ words — you don’t compare the most honored musical-theater collaborators in history to a man who suffered from hubris and over-ambitiousness lightly. But it’s still a historical fact that in the giddy sky’s-the-limit delirium that followed R-and-H’s first two hits — 1943’s Oklahoma!, 1945’s Carousel — Hammerstein jonesed for a serious-minded follow up, a project of sufficient audacity and experimentation to match or maybe surpass the indisputable achievements of Oklahoma! and Carousel. The result, 1947’s Allegro, turned out to be R-and-H’s first flop, running nine months and 315 performances. (Only in the universe of the R-and-H hit factory would nine months and 315 performances considered a “flop.”)
Did R-and-H fly, like Icarus, too near the sun? The comparison is not entirely fair: as the various biographies of Hammerstein tell us, including Hugh Fordin’s very fine Getting to Know Him, hubris was not the man’s principal attribute. Still, there must have been some hint of hubris, or at least of being untouchable, in Hammerstein’s decision to overhaul as many elements of the musical form as he could — in one shot. The use of individual musical, dance and Greek choruses exploded the show’s structure, not to mention its cast size, and famously created a logistical nightmare for director-choreographer Agnes de Mille. The absence of sets — what today we might call deconstruction — alienated and disoriented an audience more accustomed to, and clearly expecting, spectacle. Rodgers molded his music to fit Hammerstein’s deconstructive mode, but the audience’s ears was also more accustomed to, and also clearly expecting, the kind of indelibly melodic songs that the composer had been regularly delivering to Broadway then for 25 years. Hammerstein’s original story — following the life of an ordinary man, the son of a doctor, from birth to age 35 as he reconciles the allures of city life with the rural modesty of the American character — was high-minded and moralistic.
Allegro was a noble failure. In retrospect, one imagines Rodgers and Hammerstein sensed it coming: mixed reviews and a rather dour audience reception merely confirmed what they knew. Putting it another way — well, it wasn’t a real nice clambake.
The consequence is that revivals of Allegro have been relatively rare: regional mountings in the ’60s; small professional revisits in the ’70s in New York; an Encores! presentation in 1994. The the first complete recording of the show was issued in 2009; and Virginia’s Signature Theatre revived it back in 2004.
But the Astoria Performing Arts Center, in Queens’ hottest neighborhood, is where numerous “noble failures” have lately sought redemption. Led since July 2008 by artistic director Tom Wojtunik, his tenure has rejuvenated work otherwise left for dead (notably the William Dumaresq-Galt MacDermot musical The Human Comedy, based on William Saroyan’s play); infused life into well-work plays and musicals (Ragtime, Blood Brothers, The Pillowman, The Secret Garden); and showcased such new plays as Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade and Sandi Rustin’s The Cottage. Outer-borough theatre may usually conjure up images of amateurism or insanity, but Wojtunik has fashioned himself an ambassador of fearless pluck, catapulting APAC to the front ranks of Off-Off-Broadway groups and doing his part to put Astoria on the map as a cultural hotspot.
And now, sadly, Wojtunik is leaving APAC — citing the professional opportunities borne of success. Before he departs, however, he has chosen to remake Allegro, running through May 17 (Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St., 888-596-1027).
And now, 5 questions Tom Wojtunik has never been asked:
What is the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
My associate on Allegro, Mark Falconer, has assisted me on the last three musicals I’ve directed at APAC. I really value his opinion and love having him around during rehearsals. Recently, when I announced I was leaving APAC, he astutely asked me why all the musicals I’ve directed there have had central themes revolving around the idea of “home” and “family.” He wasn’t wrong, and I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t have a ready answer. Clearly there’s something about those themes that resonate with me, particularly when music is being used to tell the story.
What is the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Someone once asked me why I chose to do nontraditional casting in a musical, because it didn’t make historical sense for the time period in which the story was set. It always baffles me when people have an issue with that, but readily accept people breaking out into song.
What is the most weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I grew up wanting to be an actor all through middle and high school, and moved to New York City to pursue that career path. Early in college I realized I wasn’t very good at it, but was good at directing. I think it took my parents a while to understand what that meant. After one of my first productions my mother said she liked the show, but asked me what my contribution was.
What do you know, or feel you know, about Allegro that other directors did not know? What is your single biggest doubt or worry about taking on this show?
All I can do is trust how much this story moved me when I first read it, and that those feelings will come across in our production. We’ve tried to get a little more specific about the function of the Greek chorus than what is indicated in the original book. It’s also worth noting that there were almost 80 actors in the original production, including a singing chorus, dancing chorus and separate Greek chorus. In our production, the same 11 actors fulfill all of those needs. Needless to say, they are working very hard, and the effect is thrilling. The original production was directed and choreographed by Agnes de Mille, which was the first time on Broadway that one person did both jobs. Story has it that de Mille wasn’t actually able to handle both, especially as changes to the book came throughout the out-of-town tryouts, and Hammerstein took over directing the scenes. I’m extremely lucky to have Christine O’Grady on board as choreographer for the APAC production — there’s so much dance in this show, I can’t imagine how one person would try to do both. I’m really happy that we have maintained all the dance in our production though — I think it’s a supremely important part of this story, and it helps keep it “epic” in a wonderful way. My biggest worry with the show is whether the audience can get beyond the its history when they come to see it. The majority of our audience will probably have never heard of Allegro, and most of those that are familiar with it have likely never seen a production. I hope that people who do know something about the show’s history won’t come in with preconceived notions that it doesn’t “work” before it even starts.
The ghost of Oscar Hammerstein II is attending your final dress rehearsal. There’s not much time left, obviously, but he’ll entertain three questions regarding Allegro. What are your three questions? What do you hope his answers will be?
I love this question!
Tom: In my research for this show, including studying your personal history, I was struck by how much the events of this story correlate with events from your life…am I right to connect those dots?
Oscar: I prefer to let the story speak for itself and keep my private life private.
Tom: Right before rehearsals started, I spent a few days at the Highland Farm B-and-B in Pennsylvania, your former (beloved) country home, where you did most of your writing. I stayed in the room that was your study, and had such a productive and inspiring few days of staging prep. What are the chances you were there in spirit to influence me?
Oscar: I was there, Tom.
Tom: If you could go back to Allegro and revise it, what would you want to accomplish?
Oscar: I’d want to do exactly what you did with your production, Tom!
You’re leaving APAC! Congratulations! We wish you well. What are five plays or musicals you now want to direct more than anything in the world, in order of preference? Give us one sentence about how Tom Wojtunik’s productions of those shows will be different from all other versions that have come before.
1) In Trousers and Falsettos: I tried to get the rights to these musicals at APAC every year since I started. I’d love to direct them in rep with the same cast. I think it’d be so exciting and cathartic to see both back to back.
2) The Robber Bridegroom: I’m jonesing to stage an environmental version of this in a big barn, with a popcorn machine and the audience sitting on hay stacks. I love the theatricality of this musical and think it would work so well in a specific environment.
3) Billy Budd: I was obsessed with the Melville novella in high school, and I think the play adaptation from 1951 is actually really good. It’s epic and allegorical in all the ways I love. I have an image in my head of a huge set made of long planks of wood that start as the skeleton of the ship and re-purpose themselves throughout.
4) Merrily We Roll Along: There are so many similarities between Allegro and Merrily (Sondheim has frequently acknowledged how much Allegro influenced him) and my appetite to dive into this show has only been stoked by working on its predecessor.
5) His Dark Materials: The Royal National produced a two-part stage version of the Philip Pullman novels in 2003 that I love. I always wanted to do it at APAC, but it was just too big. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself as a director during my time at APAC, it’s that I don’t really enjoy juggling projects — I like to immerse myself in one world for a while, with lots of time to ruminate and dream and plan. Nothing would please me more than to direct these two plays, and spend a year or two in pre-production with a bunch of talented designers and creative staff.