Prod'n opens Jan. 11; 14 actors may play multiple roles

ARLINGTON, Va. — “Of all the musicals I ever worked on that didn’t quite succeed, ‘Allegro’ is the one I think most worthy of a second chance,” composer Richard Rodgers wrote. The 1947 Rodgers & Hammerstein show finally gets its mulligan here next month in a radically altered production by the Signature Theater.

Will it click with audiences the second time around? Gone is the Greek chorus that shadowed the players and revealed their thoughts. Several other characters have been eliminated, all part of a massive rollback of a behemoth production that required 40 stagehands, 18 principals, 21 supporters, 22 dancers, 38 singers and 35 musicians.

When “Allegro” opens Jan. 11 on Signature’s tiny stage, it will field only 14 actors, some playing multiple roles. It will include a new book by Joe Di Pietro and new orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick, and it will be staged by Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer, who is something of a Mr. Fixit for musical theater.

About the only aspect left unchanged is music and lyrics, although the tune “Yatah, Yatah” has been cut and the number “Come Home” is sung by a different character.

Di Pietro was handpicked by Oscar Hammerstein II’s son, James, to rewrite the book and help fulfill a dream of the two storied collaborators. After James Hammerstein’s death, his widow, Dena, continued to pursue the project and invited Schaeffer to rework the musical. She remains involved as a producer.

Although “Allegro” was controversial, it was no flop, drawing many positive notices and running a respectable 315 perfs on Broadway in 1947-48. Staged and choreographed by Agnes De Mille, it was considered an experimental and groundbreaking musical with its minimal scenery, Greek chorus and “Our Town” feel. It offers several classic R&H numbers, including “The Gentleman Is a Dope” and “So Far.” But the partners faulted their own writing when the musical failed to connect with auds.

Schaeffer thinks the show was ahead of its time, just like some musicals by Stephen Sondheim, who was a teenage gopher on the original production. “I don’t think R&H trusted the material enough to make it real and dark, instead of pretty like their other work,” Schaeffer says.

Among the many changes in the book, protagonist Joseph Taylor Jr. leaves his Midwest town for New York City instead of Chicago. The death of a principal character also has been added. Musically, the song, “Allegro” now opens the second act, rather than “Money Isn’t Everything.”

Schaeffer is aiming for a middle-America flavor with his selection of a cast composed entirely of Washington, D.C.-area actors, headed by Signature veteran Will Gartshore.

The production is supported by a $33,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Signature also has obtained a modest rights share in hopes that “Allegro’s” second life is a success.

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