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Choruses, Ancient and Modern$

Joshua Billings, Felix Budelmann, and Fiona Macintosh

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199670574

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199670574.001.0001

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‘How do you solve a problem like the chorus?’: Hammerstein’s Allegro and the Reception of the Greek Chorus on Broadway

‘How do you solve a problem like the chorus?’: Hammerstein’s Allegro and the Reception of the Greek Chorus on Broadway

(p.243) 14 ‘How do you solve a problem like the chorus?’: Hammerstein’s Allegro and the Reception of the Greek Chorus on Broadway
Choruses, Ancient and Modern

Zachary Dunbar

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In ‘“How do you solve a problem like the chorus?” Hammerstein’s Allegro and the Reception of the Greek Chorus on Broadway’, Zachary Dunbar situates Hammerstein’s failed experiments with choruses in 1947 within the wider tradition of the reception of the ancient chorus in the United States and more particularly within the immediate post-war theatrical context. Why this experimental turn immediately after the box office successes with Oklahoma! and Carousel? Hammerstein’s overly scholarly return to a Schlegelian-style chorus in an effort to write ‘tragic’ musical theatre alienated rather than delighted Broadway audiences because it sought to edify rather than entertain.

Keywords:   musical theatre, Oscar Hammerstein, Broadway, A. W. Schlegel, Friedrich Schiller, Thornton Wilder

As an offspring of opera, ballet, and popular entertainment, musical theatre not surprisingly inherited and developed a wide variety of choruses. During the early twentieth century alone, the popular Gaiety and Florodora Girls, glamourized versions of the fin-de-siècle female chorus line, featured in the opulent Ziegfield’s Follies, while the iconic precision choruses represented in Busby Berkeley films and in the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes spun off the commodification of the female form. The mid-century ‘book-based’ form of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical turned the homogenized chorus into psychologically believable characters. Since the mid-twentieth century, choruses have continued to appear on stage in an assortment of forms: Jerry Springer, The Opera! (2003) has a chorus in the style of an Oratorio Ballad opera chorus; Les Misérables (1980, French version; 1985, English version) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986) both contain a French grand opera chorus; Hair (1967) an idiomatically ‘Hippy’ chorus; Cats (1981) an anthropomorphic dance chorus; and both West Side Story (1957) and A Chorus Line (1975) contain the ‘synthesizing’ chorus that dances, sings, and acts.1

Of all the reimagined ancient choruses, it is perhaps the descendants of the Aristophanic chorus that have found Broadway most congenial. Most recently, the ‘Greek’ sorority sisters of Legally Blonde (2010) at London’s Savoy Theatre and Broadway’s Palace Theatre jettisoned the former stiff (p.244) tunic-clad choruses with the sass and swish of West Coast girl power, while, in Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre, the chorus of high‐school cheerleaders in Lysistrata Jones (2011) high-legged Aristophanes’ sexual politics on the basketball court. In 1947, a prototypical ‘Greek chorus’ made its one and only appearance in a new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical called Allegro. Unlike the hallmark foot-stomping folksy choruses in such hits as Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), the solemn commentators of Allegro observed and explained dramatic events that unfolded in the life of a small‐town doctor. This newfangled chorus empathized emotionally and visually with the life of the hero, thus creating a form of onstage spectatorship and surrogacy for the Broadway audiences. In other words, Hammerstein (as the lyricist and book writer) had turned the chorus into ‘idealized spectators’ of the kind August Schlegel in the nineteenth century would have recognized in the Hoftheater of Schiller and Goethe.2 Why such an idiosyncratic choice by this trusted stalwart of Broadway—why this experimental turn, which resulted in Hammerstein’s only major failure during the Golden Era of 1940s and 1950s Broadway musicals?

This chapter seeks to examine the reasons behind Hammerstein’s choice with reference to the general theatrical context, in which Thornton Wilder and T. S. Eliot were experimenting with the chorus of ancient Greek tragedy, and Arthur Miller was exploring the tragic ‘Everyman’ in relation to modern American society. Less immediate, but no less influential, were the theatrically effective choruses in acclaimed productions of Greek tragedy on Broadway, including Laurence Olivier’s 1946 landmark Old Vic production tour to Broadway to enormous acclaim, which was to remain in the American popular imagination for at least the next decade when it re-emerged in Vicente Minelli’s 1953 film The Band Wagon, with Jack Buchanan in the role of Oedipus in declamatory, portentous style.3 Post-Depression musical theatre itself was undergoing substantive change in form and content, and part of the new musical realism, which expressed itself most notably in Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin/Moss Hart’s psychoanalytically themed Lady in the Dark (1941), featured a stylized chorus.

If these forays into the realms of Greek tragedy worked, why did Allegro fail? This is not simply an academic question: it has, as we will see, serious implications for the writing of musical theatre history, which needs to be seen to be much more in dialogue with a broader theatre history than has often been the case.

(p.245) Allegro and musical theatre

As part of serious or popular drama, the chorus was simply part of American intellectual and cultural history for the likes of Hammerstein. In his youth, he had seen vaudevillian‐style and also the operetta choruses in the shows produced by his grandfather, the impresario Oscar Hammerstein I.4 Ancient Greek and Latin literature was part of the ‘classically saturated curricula’ of American higher education,5 and possibly the middle-class Manhattan upbringing and education that Hammerstein received. Hammerstein would have come across staged Greek choruses, parodied or otherwise, at New York City’s Columbia University, where he enrolled to study law and dabbled in ‘Varsity Show’ amateur dramatics.6 Ethan Mordden refers to Hammerstein’s easy appropriation of Allegro’s ‘Greek chorus’, which addresses the protagonist and ‘elaborates poetically on the events of the play’.7 For Stephen Sondheim, a protégé of Hammerstein who assisted his mentor in the making of Allegro, the experimentalism of Allegro springs from ‘an attempt to use epic theatre in contemporary musical theatre’, analogous to the Greek chorus that seeks ‘to tell the story of a life, not through events but through generalities. This is now what would be called a Brechtian approach.’8

Allegro depicts the life and times of a small-town doctor named Joseph Taylor Jr, who goes to the city and discovers that home sweet home, and its simple values, is where the heart of his career and ultimately his happiness lie. This Everyman allegory, which Hammerstein thought up and suggested to Rodgers, represented a radical departure for the pair who two years previously had created the hugely successful landmark ‘book-based’ musicals—namely, Oklahoma! and Carousel. That Hammerstein should stray from a successful working model represents an experimental impulse in search of a new theatricality. In step with that process, Hammerstein envisioned a stage sans scenery, so that his Everyman allegory could flow quasi-cinematically from one episode to the next. The legendary scenographer Jo Mielziner actualized Hammerstein’s concept by using a semi-circular treadmill, three tiers of moving platforms, loudspeakers, and large stereopticon projections.9 Lifting imagery into the air undoubtedly created visual and physical breathing space (p.246) onstage for a large cast, which included twenty-two dancers, thirty-eight singers, and eighteen principal actors who were supported by a veritable army of forty stagehands.10 The stage traffic and overall direction were left to Agnes de Mille, who, uniquely for a Broadway production, was entrusted with the joint role of director and choreographer. The experimental drive behind the musical allowed de Mille to put into good use the effective representational dancing and acting she brought to Oklahoma! and Carousel.11

In that reimagined theatre space, Hammerstein envisioned a chorus—three in fact: a balletic dancing chorus, an operetta-style singing chorus, and a dramatic speaking chorus (or Greek chorus). During the two-act musical, the Greek chorus functioned interchangeably with its dancing and singing counterparts, addressed the audience, and offered commentary or reflection on the formative years of its main protagonist (that is, Joseph Taylor Jr’s birth, his first baby steps, college years, and marriage). They dressed variously as a collegiate choir with mortar boards, as high-school friends, and as a college fraternity, and they formed in rank and file, configured on slightly raised terraced platforms, as solemn witnesses and lifelong companions.12 The chorus could thus function as the eyes and ears of characters onstage as well as for the audience, which is evidenced, for instance, in this excerpt, when Joe Jr takes his first steps and the chorus collectivizes a grandmother’s thoughts:

  • You felt yourself falling
  • And you put one foot out to save yourself,
  • And you didn’t fall!
  • Say! Maybe if you keep taking steps,
  • One after the other,
  • One after the other—
  • Maybe going forward is easier than standing still!13

The decision to use a Greek chorus was pragmatic both from a dramaturgical and aesthetic point of view; simple town folk vocally signpost narratives and can also collectively function as demarcation for scene changes:

I think I got the idea because I was trying to write a play without much scenery. I was thinking not only of Broadway, but the colleges…I evolved a play with just props, chairs and tables and so forth…I borrowed the chorus idea from the Greeks, and then (p.247) found that I could do other things with the chorus to provide the audience with insight into the characters.14

Rodgers too understood the multi-dramaturgical function of the chorus in the Everyman allegory proposed for Allegro:

We also realized that such an episodic story would need something like a Greek chorus to bridge the scenes, comment on the action, and talk and sing directly to the actors and audience.15

It is unlikely that such pragmatic decisions were borne of German Romantic philosophical reflection; if Hammerstein kept a well-thumbed copy of Schlegel’s Lectures on Greek drama or of Schiller’s Bride of Messina16 on his piano, biographers make no mention of it, and neither does Hammerstein. Yet all Greek choruses interpreted on stage as ‘idealized spectators’, musical or otherwise, lead one way or another to German Romantic thinking. Whether there was some cultural transfusion of a hundred years via mid-nineteenth-century German immigration to New York, Hammerstein’s Allegro chorus and Schiller’s Messina chorus both reimagine the Greek chorus as a ‘reflecting spectator’, a dramatic persona that ‘contemplates and weighs the circumstances, pacifies those who are in conflict, supports the understanding, calls the deluded to their senses, [and] draws a lesson from what happened’.17 A brief example of this is in scene two of Messina, where a double chorus reflect back to the audience the polarity experienced in tragic conflict; they inhabit a state of calm reflection (objectivity) and also, in passionate moments, embody ‘a stage character itself’.18 This tension is captured in Don Caesar’s guilty outburst, which is followed by a chorus represented as a ‘stage character’ by Bohemund:

  • DON CAESAR. Accursed
  • The womb that bore me; cursed the secret arts,
  • The spring of all this woe; instant to crush thee,
  • Though the dread thunder swept—ne’er should this arm
  • Refrain the bolts of death: I slew my brother!
  • .  .  .  .  .
  • CHORUS (AS BOHEMUND). The tidings on thy heart dismayed
  • Have burst, and naught remains; behold!
  • ’Tis come, nor long delayed,
  • Whate’er the warning seers foretold:
  • They spoke the message from on high,
  • Their lips proclaimed resistless destiny!

(p.248) In the opening of Allegro, the chorus bears witness to Joe’s birth. Having the chorus members directly address the audience as fellow witnesses presents the ‘folks’ of small-town Illinois as the idealized spectator: like them, powerless to influence the actions of the protagonist or the story, yet, in a sense, one foot ahead of Life’s game and therefore wise enough to universalize the conflicts and tensions along the way. In the ‘One-foot, Other foot’ number, the chorus enact the wonderment of a grandmother at the sight of her baby grandson’s tentative steps. When the grandmother dies during a dance in which they play-act scenes of childhood, the chorus, nanny-like, offer sympathy and instruction:

  • ‘These things are nothing for kids…’
  • But it did happen to you.
  • You’re a kid,
  • And yet here you are,
  • And suddenly you have no Grandma.

In another instance, a wedding scene (at the end of Act One of Allegro) depicts Joe marrying Jennie. Hammerstein’s Greek chorus is ever-knowledgeable of internal as well as external conflicts in a relationship that points to uncertain outcomes. Like Schiller’s Messina chorus, the bride and groom’s entourage is represented by a kind of double chorus—the Brinker and the Taylor group. A hymn-like church choir accompanies a narrator who speaks ‘softly and earnestly’ to the audience about what they should be feeling when the vows are read (‘a change has come over us’) and what they should be wishing for the newlyweds as the curtain goes down (‘these children desperately need our hope’). The scene ends with a rousing chorus finale about ‘hope’.

On the whole, the Allegro chorus is like a character in a Norman Rockwell painting, a collective of wise diagnosing doctors who mark Joe’s progress, say what’s gone wrong, offer cure-alls, and dispense universal prescriptions, as captured in the lyrics of the penultimate song, ‘Allegro’:

  • Our world is for the forceful
  • And not for sentimental folk
  • But brilliant and resourceful
  • And paranoic folk…
  • ‘Allegro’ a musician would so describe the speed of it
  • The clash and competition of counterpoint—
  • …we know no other way
  • Of living out a day.

The reviews for Allegro, when it premiered at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on the 10 October, oscillated between dutiful reverence and outright rejection. Brooks Atkinson, a stalwart supporter of Rodgers and Hammerstein, wrote in the New York Times about ‘the lyric rapture of a musical masterpiece’ and (p.249) the staging, which demonstrated ‘the eloquent simplicity of genuine art’.19 Detractors such as George Jean Nathan, in the New York Journal-American, found it ‘as pretentious as artificial jewelry and just about as valuable’,20 and Louis Kronenberger, in the New York newspaper PM, ‘an out-right failure’.21 The reaction to the Greek-style chorus was caught up in similar jousting. Atkinson in the same review congratulated the show’s creators for ‘abandoning the routine of musical comedy choruses’, and for returning the chorus to its ‘original function as comment and interpretation’. Others found the chorus heavily didactic in an already belaboured drama. John Gassner, remarking that ‘Largo’ rather than ‘Allegro’ suited the title of this cumbersome show, cavilled further that the ‘use of the chorus is unquestionably the most original and the boldest innovation in the field, even if their craftsmanship is defeated by their matter’,22 a sentiment echoed by Cecil Smith, who called Hammerstein’s chorus the ‘most verbose speaking chorus in all history’.23 The reception of out-of-town try-outs in Boston should have already warned Hammerstein that the chorus had outstayed its welcome: ‘“Allegro” puts so much time and effort into the massive speaking and singing choruses and devotes so much space to ballet…Individual lives do not develop well enough to sustain interest in a story.’24

By July 1948, ten months after its premiere in New York, this most anticipated musical in the history of Broadway (it was given cover stories in both Life and Time magazine), with record-setting advance ticket sales of $750,000,25 closed. Following Oklahoma! and Carousel, expectations were indeed high for Broadway’s dynamic duo, if not the unfailing creative trio that included Agnes de Mille. De Mille, having to accommodate Hammerstein’s last-minute rewrites while coping with a Leviathan production, was redeemed at least by parts of the press for having ‘absorbed these apparently indigestible lumps of massed humanity without calling attention to her own mechanisms or shortcomings of the script’.26

(p.250) Rodgers and Hammerstein, mulling over their first defeat at the box office, conceded that the story of Allegro just did not get through to their audience. Hammerstein stood by an old dictum: ‘If the writer’s aim is misread, it can only be because he hasn’t written it clearly enough.’27 Part of that misreading had much to do, as the historian Ann Sears points out, with ‘the commentary of the “Greek chorus” [which] seemed too moralistic’ and outweighed the importance of the main characters.28 The revelatory role of the chorus often meant that subtext was overexposed at the expense of dramatic tension. For instance, in Act Two, Joe and his wife Jennie have a row over Joe’s career. The characters’ actions and emotional journey are blatantly clear, yet the ever-present chorus weigh in:

  • ENSEMBLE (OF WOMEN). Go easy, Jenny!
  • When a man slams a bathroom door like that,
  • You’re in trouble!
  • Use your head!
  • This is the biggest chance you’ll ever have—
  • Maybe the only chance—
  • To get the kind of life you want.
  • Don’t throw it away with a few angry words.
  • Use your head.

And, while the chorus dominated in the first act, it became less important in the second as the life of the hero–protagonist belatedly asserted its importance. Joe Jr may have seen the error of his ways and returned home, but for the chorus there was no peripeteia.

We might now take stock of the problems of the Greek chorus in Allegro, and note in its Broadway reception those same conceptual and staging issues—the visual cumbersomeness, stilted characterization, stuck-in-the-mud moralizing, and confusing polymorphic role—that have dominated modern criticism of the chorus since the Renaissance and French neoclassical theatre. It is, however, Hammerstein’s idealization of the chorus that situates the analysis nearer to the framework of German Romantic Idealism, in which the Greek tragic chorus was given a privileged, albeit brief, reception in the writings of the post-Kantian philosophers, including Schiller, Schlegel, Hegel, and Nietzsche. By evoking such a chorus, Hammerstein strayed close to Schiller’s perception of that role of the chorus as an embodiment of ‘first the common mind of the nation, then the general sympathy of all mankind’.29 But how do nationhood and human sympathy translate into the terms of musical theatre?

Musical theatre choruses are special because they can accomplish theatrical feats that individual characters on their own cannot. The choral aggregation, (p.251) or ‘ensemble effect’,30 of singing and acting, as in opera, potentially induces high-octane moments, or a hyper-theatrical sense of the drama. Such an effect of course necessitates a ‘co-presence’ of the spectator to be able to co-manifest such a transformative event.31 Utopian (or dystopian) feelings of nationhood32 may arise because the sight and sound of geometrically perfect assembly-line parades of humans, decked out in finest apparel, or town folk harmonized in thought and action, combine with the principles of physical and ethical excellence; America, emerging as a global power in the twentieth century, sounds and looks best through the musical chorus doing what it, and no one else, can do.33

Allegro’s chorus may have ‘sounded’ and ‘acted’ apple pie, but it ended up alienating Broadway audiences and critics, who expected their choruses to entertain them, not to educate them overtly. Near the close of the nineteenth century the director of the Vienna Burgtheater, Adolf Wilbrandt, declared the chorus an impenetrable ‘enchanted castle’;34 earlier, the young firebrands Clemens Brentano and August Schlegel found the Schiller chorus ‘a wretched hotch-potch, tedious, weird, and ridiculous throughout’.35 However the principles of German Romantic Idealism found their way into Hammerstein’s creativity, there still remain unanswered: why the experimental turn?; and why in 1947? Hammerstein was in serious pursuit of capturing in musical theatre a transcendent element (what Goethe might have called the ‘Urphenomenon’); and it was no doubt recent developments in the American theatre, both in its interest in Greek tragedy and its preoccupation with the chorus, that led to his experimental turn.

New theatre and the experimental turn of the ‘the chorus’

In 1922, the third annual meeting leaflet of the American Classical League records Nicholas Murray Butler, then President of Columbia University, as having endorsed classical studies: ‘The classical past might be culturally and (p.252) chronologically remote, but it informed the present age by showing how “they” had become “us”.’36 Butler’s view chimed with the educators in the previous century who wanted to advance moral and educational instruction by combining the lessons of ancient tragic heroes and heroines with Anglo-Christian ethics. Such purveyors of ennobling instruction were keen to mould the mind and spirit of American men (and increasing numbers of women) who enrolled in undergraduate humanities curricula in the early twentieth century. Hammerstein would have been one of the ‘moulded’, having pursued his education privately first at a school in Central Park West, and then as an undergraduate enrolled in Columbia in 1912–15, which was followed by Law School.37

Butler’s Anglo-centric antiquarianism found a synchronicity with early twentieth-century Broadway reception of Greek tragedy, which led to a new critical consensus that ‘Greek drama is worth seeing’.38 Barker’s staging of Euripides’ Trojan Women in 1915 and M. Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko’s 1925 Lysistrata (as part of the Moscow Art Theatre Musical Studio) demonstrated that Greek drama and choruses could hold their own on Broadway. The reviews of Greek tragedy productions resonate with the sentiments of Butler, or at least appeal to cultural pragmatism. Atkinson, reviewing the 1932 New York production of Sophocles’ Electra, states: ‘To understand the history of the [ancient] drama it is good to have Greek tragedies staged occasionally. If it does nothing else it reminds us of the theatre’s heritage.’39 Of the productions that featured choruses, it was perhaps the Federal Theatre Project’s militantly anti-war Trojan Incident (1938), with its double chorus of twenty-three—a singing chorus representing the ‘voice’ of the people and a dancing chorus its communal ‘body’—that most prefigures the use of a multiple chorus in Allegro.40

When, or in what manner, artists choose to move away from convention may tie in with any number of circumstances. In Hammerstein’s case, being part of a progressive theatrical environment that emboldened new creative and career directions, and having a hand in the development of an integrated form of musical theatre (one necessarily evolving the function of the chorus ensemble in storytelling), set up conditions for his own experimental turn.

As a college graduate fresh out of Columbia University, Hammerstein started his career on Broadway relatively successfully, penning operettas and musical comedies. Showboat (1927), which he wrote with the composer Jerome Kern, marked Hammerstein’s legitimate entry into the A-list of musical theatre writers. The Depression-era 1930s proved to be wilderness years, (p.253) until his career revived when his collaboration with Richard Rodgers, through the Theater Guild, resulted in the Guild’s productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel. The Guild, after 1919, was credited in New York City with having fostered and produced several landmark plays and musicals in the 1920s and 1930s, including those by O’Neill, Ference Molnár, George Bernard Shaw, and George Gershwin. The Guild’s non-commercial ethos helped sustain an environment in which new writing and writers could flourish, and it was not mere happenstance that Allegro was backed by Guild associates, Lawrence Langer and Theresa Helburn. Buoyant from their two major musical hits, Rodgers and Hammerstein also dabbled as theatre producers themselves, and backed two successful comedy shows in 1946—Irving Berlin’s Annie get your Gun and Anita Loos’s Happy Birthday. In the same year, Hammerstein may have seen the Old Vic Company tour in New York of Laurence Olivier in Sophocles’ Oedipus, or at least read the reviews that highlighted again the popularity among critics of Greek tragedy: ‘If all productions were like this [Oedipus], the public would be clamouring for more.’41

American musical theatre with its bricolage of loosely drawn characters, revue-style entertainment, and light drama developed, during the 1940s, into a dramaturgically integrated form: songs furthered plot, character development mattered, and the music and plot worked together to achieve a coherent narrative. The chorus also emerged as an actively storytelling ensemble, no doubt encouraged by developments in dance. George Balanchine, soon after arriving in New York, started the School of American Ballet in 1934. The principles of the corps de ballet, its ability to communicate plot and character’s emotions, combined with the melting pot of jazz and modern-dance idioms on Broadway, gave future choreographer–directors such as Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, and Hanya Holm a means to evolve the chorus from the iconic drill team and girl revue follies of yesteryear to a psychologically expressive ensemble.

At the same time, the theatre of realism fostered both by the Guild and by the Federal Theatre Projects in the post-Depression America sustained an increasing trend in Broadway for the darker workings of the mind and themes that explored a bifurcated sense of self and society. Following the 1930s’ revue-style spoofs on American-brand politics created by George Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and Ira and George Gershwin, in the 1940s the chorus moved into a mediating role as commentator on action and character. In the psychoanalytical drama of Weill and Gershwin’s Lady in the Dark (1941), with book by Moss Hart (one of the few legitimate theatre playwrights to cross into writing for musical theatre), a stylized chorus materialized as though recalled in a therapeutic trance. The dream scenes, which included a ‘glamour dream’, (p.254) ‘wedding dream’, and ‘circus dream’, are startlingly similar to the episodic structure that Hammerstein used in Allegro: a penultimate wedding scene in Lady, for instance, depicts a mood of ambiguity and moral uncertainty wherein the chorus in counterpoint and in unison interjects matter-of-factly of the couple’s situation: ‘This is no part of heaven’s plan. This woman knows she does not love this man.’42

In the era of theatre that produced plays such as Our Town (1938), The Iceman Cometh (1939), The Glass Menagerie (1944), and A Street Car Named Desire (1947), and dark-hued musicals such as The Cradle will Rock (1937), and Pal Joey (1940), ‘melodramatic heroes were replaced by so-called anti-heroes, action was replaced by introspection, clear-cut morality was replaced by ambiguity, and the traditional dramatic model was replaced by free-form structures or structure devoid of meaningful content’.43 In view of an American theatre that was retreating from normative, lyrical mimesis and heroic Aristotelian narratives to coarser diegetic or Brechtian models, it made sense for playwrights to have perceived the chorus as the necessary eyes and ears of the audience; or, if you will, the chorus was situated in the role of spectator’s therapist who gazed at the deeper disturbing psyche beneath archetypal stories. Yet, prior to the 1940s, the chorus, in serious theatre, was already being put through its experimental paces: as the multiple chorus in Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed (1925) and The Great God Brown (1926); a chorus-like compère (in the guise of a stage manager) and the spectral faces in the graveyard scene of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town; and the discursive commentators in Wilder’s absurdist play, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942).

When Allegro arrived on the scene in 1947, given Hammerstein’s wave of successes, his exposure to new theatre, and his part in the development of the integrated form of musical, he could feel himself an experimentalist in line with the great playwrights of his day. Yet the Greek-like chorus, as conceptualized in new playwriting, does not in itself explain its theatrical appeal to Hammerstein in the manner it presented itself either as a pragmatic tool in connecting episodic scenes, or as a dramatic device that Broadway critics and audiences seemed to accept in serious straight theatre. The Greek chorus spoke directly to Hammerstein’s personal experience and his relationship to the allegorical Everyman story.

According to Francis Fergusson, modernists such as Brecht, Wilder, and Eliot rejected realism and sought ‘to use theater in the service of their consciously worked-out moral and philosophical ideas’.44 Part of that plan was to emphasize the artifice of theatre, its make-believe qualities. In pursuit of those aims, such playwrights used the chorus to provoke ‘the collaborative activity of the spectator’s imagination’ and raise the play’s action ‘from the (p.255) specific’ to the universal.45 The universal principles, consciously worked-out in Hammerstein’s imagination, are embodied in the American Everyman, who finds himself trapped between the bygone years of isolationist small-town values and the alluring materialism following America’s post-Second World War success. There is a deep vein of morality and personal history that taps into the conflicted nature of Hammerstein’s Everyman doctor (and possibly alter ego), Joseph Taylor Jr:

I was concerned when I wrote Allegro about men who are good at anything and are diverted from the field of their expertise by a kind of strange informal conspiracy that goes on…People start asking them to join committees…and the first thing you know they are no longer writing or practising medicine or law.46

Hammerstein’s increasing fame and influence were accompanied by a demanding schedule, which meant presiding over committees and championing causes, including those of the Anti-Nazi league, War Writer’s Board, and the Author’s League.47 If the Everyman allegory appealed to Hammerstein in his conflicted state, the artistic bridge was offered through two significant plays that used choruses: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and Wilder’s Our Town.

Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the story of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, premiered in England in 1935, and a year later on Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre. Eliot progressively experimented with the chorus, farcically as music hall-style chorus characters in Sweeney Agonistes (performed in 1934), and as a chorus communicating the meaning of significant biblically themed events in his pageant play The Rock (1934). By the time he wrote his famous Everyman play, the chorus assumed almost Aeschylean proportions, which, in accordance with David Jones’s critique of Eliot’s choruses, uttered wisdom as part of a ‘spiritual community’ and also from the unique perspective of ‘individual [Christian] sacrifice’.48 As in Allegro, in which the chorus comments on the conflicts facing the protagonist in a seemingly materialistic world, in Murder in the Cathedral the chorus aids in setting forth ‘the eternal and universal moral struggle in which any man is obliged by circumstances to choose between life and integrity’.49 The experimental turns that Eliot continuously makes with the chorus represent a theatrical response to a deep personal belief in the Anglican–Christian faith, which assumes that personal sacrifice is a means to achieve salvation and yet has to coexist with the secular values of the sensual Everyman. Hammerstein’s Everyman doctor grows up in a world of Judeo-Christian values, and, when the chorus call Joe ‘home’ at the end of the musical, like Eliot’s Cathedral chorus, it is to remind the audience of the Christian home ground in which personal idealism and sacrifice are rooted.

(p.256) If we take Wilder’s Our Town as our second example, the playwright’s comments in the preface to his play seem to mirror Hammerstein’s creative impulses in having ‘wished to record a village’s life on stage, with realism and with generality’.50 The setting of a small-town America and its simply sketched characters constitute natural tropes in an allegorical story, one that starkly juxtaposes, on the one hand, the triviality of daily life and, on the other, significant themes about death, geological time, and the ephemeral human condition. The licence to unite seemingly opposing worlds on stage may have been the influence of Pirandello’s meta-theatre. We observe the legacy of Six Characters in Search of an Author particularly in Our Town in the use of a stage manager who stands outside the drama, a disintegration of theatre’s illusory fourth wall, and a simple, direct style of dialogue. The stage manager in Our Town, functioning almost as a chorus, bridges the trivial and the universal as he addresses the audience. A ‘chorus’ is also implied in the spectral ensemble of the Grover’s Corner departed, who appear in Act III. Like memorial folk painting, the chorus of the dead stare off into infinite space (past the fourth wall), and they mouth and perceive what the audience is possibly thinking and feeling as they, too, stare into the moral and dramaturgical vacuum imagined in Wilder’s play.

Wilder’s innovations are also part of the experimentalism connected to his earlier plays such as the collection The Angel that Troubled the Waters and Other Plays (1928) and Pullman Car Hiawatha (1931). The playwright dissolved the Aristotelian logic imposed on modern drama, and instead followed a decidedly anti-naturalistic (or realistic) style. David Castronovo makes the point that Wilder’s plays broke down the ‘illusions of real events that take place on stage’ so that an audience can directly apprehend as their own the ‘established patterns of action’ in people’s lives as they confront forces beyond their control.51

Whether or not Hammerstein felt a Eureka moment deep in his psyche when he encountered Wilder’s theatre, such innovative plays (and their successful reception by the Broadway public) provided a paradigm that encouraged the American innovator of musical theatre to move in a direction that, like Goethe in Weimar, was meant to raise the Broadway theatre experience to a more exalted level, and, like Wilder, tap more deeply into the elemental need to perceive the people onstage as truly and vividly ‘us’. It was a very short leap of imagination from Hammerstein’s previous musicals to come up with a chorus of life-like town folk who chummily and effortlessly compère everyday realities and larger-than-life emotions. That Hammerstein labelled his chorus ‘Greek’ was in some ways a mediation between its current musical incarnations and Broadway’s classical heritage.

(p.257) Coda

Two years after Allegro, Rodgers and Hammerstein quickly returned to conventional form in their highly successful musical adaptation of James Michener’s semi-autobiographical novel South Pacific (1949). Allegro, however, continued to weigh on Hammerstein’s mind. Many years later, in a taped interview at his college alma mater, Hammerstein recalls the use of the chorus and infers a sense of having bitten off more than he could conceptually chew:

I intended Dick [Rodgers] to write music for it [the chorus] but we wound up reciting the chorus instead; we also wound up with a great deal of scenery…without this device, it was much better I thought…I’m not blaming anyone, because we all accepted it, we all collaborated…but it was a mistake.52

And revising Allegro for television thirteen years later, a terminally ill Hammerstein, ever experimental, reimagined the cumbersome chorus as Beckett-like ‘unseen voices’, and ‘not [as] a lot of people [who] march up and down the stage aimlessly’.53 Schlegel remarked of Greek tragedy that it remained ‘an exotic plant, which we can hardly hope to cultivate with any success, even in the hot-house of learned art and criticism’.54 Hammerstein should have heeded his advice. But caught up in an experimental mood, he could already hear a Greek chorus urging his alter ego, Joe Jr: ‘Maybe going forward is easier than standing still!’

Yet, Hammerstein did not ‘go forward’, and the problem of the Greek chorus remained unresolved. And his view of himself as the tragic poet–dramatist of musical theatre failed. Cogitating on the ‘unmitigatedly commercialized system’ of New York theatre in the 1990s, Arthur Miller harked back to the days of Broadway’s betting men, producers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, who took him on and also the ‘theatre’s ancient burden…the moral illumination of society and the human condition’.55 Miller’s seminal tragic illuminations, All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), situate Hammerstein’s Allegro in that culture of creative gambling and of shouldering the ‘ancient burden’. Allegro was Hammerstein agonistes, the musical Greek chorus his interlocutors whom he gifted with homespun platitudes in an attempt to educate his public in the ‘ethical self-positioning’ (or German Romantic Sittlichkeit56), which he himself was undergoing in his professional life. Hammerstein was sailing close to the Parnassus of the tragic Everyman in American society, Miller’s territory, and a subject the celebrated playwright explored in his landmark essay ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ (1949). From (p.258) a Wilderian perspective, Hammerstein’s Joe Taylor was Oedipus, a ‘man setting out on the journey of self-knowledge and inquiry’.57

Allegro’s chorus gestured academically towards the ‘experimental’ Greek chorus because that choice synchronized with 1940s-style experimentalism and a modernized ‘tragic’ Everyman. In the context of commercial musical theatre, where boy meets girl is much preferred over boy meets chorus, Allegro’s chorus could offer only an empty Utopia, a nostalgic salvaging of Americana, which the audiences and the critics did not entirely take to heart. Twenty-three years later, George Furth and Stephen Sondheim solved the problem of the chorus in Company (1970). With rocketing divorce rates and impending stagflation, theirs was a decisively dystopian ensemble.


(1) The various styles, images, and formations of the choruses also reflect the hybrid, collaborative, and totalizing nature of music theatre. See Dunbar (2012).

(2) A. W. Schlegel (1894: 70). For history, see Carlson (1978: 243), Schadewaldt (1996: 286), and Macintosh (1997: 286). For comment, see Goldhill, Chapter 2, this volume.

(3) Macintosh (2009a: 152–3).

(4) Nolan (1979: 35).

(5) Winterer (2002: 16).

(6) Winterer (2002: 35, 37).

(7) Mordden (1992: 97); cf. Van Aken (2006: 231).

(8) Nolan (2002: 173). Sondheim perceives Hammerstein’s experimentalism to be on a Brookian level: ‘What few people understand is that Oscar’s big contribution to the theatre was as a theoretician, as a Peter Brook, as an innovator.’ See ‘Conversations with Sondheim’, by Frank Rich, NYT Magazine, 12 March 2000 〈http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000312mag-sondheim.html〉 (accessed 2 June 2012). Further readings: Bryer and Davison (2005: 193–4), and ‘Stephen Sondheim Recalls Allegro’, in the CD notes for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (Rodgers and Hammerstien 2009: 15–17).

(9) Henderson (2001); cf. Fordin (1995: 253); Long (2003: 46).

(10) Fink (2009: 12).

(11) Easton (1996: 208, 265–71); Stempel (2010: 564–7); John Martin’s New York Times review, ‘The Dance: De Mille’s Oklahoma’, 9 May 1943.

(12) Allegro publicity photos, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

(13) From the song ‘One Foot, Other Foot’, in Allegro, 16–17. In this chapter, all citations of Hammerstein’s Allegro are taken from the online perusal libretto 〈https://www.rnh.com〉 (accessed 30 June 2012).

(14) Cited in Citron (1996: 181).

(15) Rodgers (2002: 251).

(16) Schiller (1841). A modernized version of Sophocles’ Oedipus which Schiller turned into a story of two warring brothers. See further Goldhill, Chapter 2, Billings, and Chapter 8, this volume.

(17) Prader (1996: 150).

(18) Prader (1996: 152).

(19) New York Times, 11 October 1947.

(20) Cited by Fink (2009: 10).

(21) PM, 13 October 1947. Hammerstein cites this critic in ‘Note from the Author’, in his preface to the Allegro libretto.

(22) Gassner, ‘The Theatre Arts’, rev. of Allegro, in Forum, Jan. 1948: 23–4, cited by Van Aken (2006: 240).

(23) Smith, ‘Three New Musicals’, rev. of Allegro, in Theatre Arts Monthly, November 1947: 13–15, cited by Van Aken (2006: 239).

(24) Elinor Williams, Boston Herald, 14 September 1947.

(25) In today’s value, $75 million 〈http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm〉 (accessed 2 February 2012).

(26) Easton (1996: 265–71). In CUE entertainment magazine (16 August 1947) (no author indicated), a review states how ‘the dances are devised so as to be integrated with the action, instead of against it, as happens in musical stock comedy’.

(27) Fink (2009: 13).

(28) Sears (2008: 157).

(29) Schlegel (1894: 71–2).

(30) McMillin (2006: 78–101).

(31) Fischer-Lichte (2008) argues the case for the ‘transformative’ and the necessary ‘co-presence’ of spectator and performer.

(32) For musical theatre and its relation to American national identity, see Knapp (2006); for discussion of Utopia and political theatre, see Dolan (2005).

(33) Schneider (1998) offers an overview of dance and physical education in America and the development of musical theatre dance forms. Cf. Dunbar (2011) for cultural resonances of Apollonian and Dionysian in the musical theatre chorus.

(34) Wilbrandt, cited by Schadewaldt (1996: 292).

(35) Boyle (2000: 742).

(36) Winterer (2002: 135).

(37) Nolan (1979: 37). Hammerstein attended Columbia University Law School from 1915 to 1917 but did not complete his degree.

(38) Hartigan (1995: 20).

(39) Hartigan (1995: 29).

(40) Davis (2010/11: 463–4).

(41) Herrick Brown, New York Sun, 21 May 1946, cited by Hartigan (1995: 40). Hartigan’s brackets.

(42) McClung (2007: 11–14).

(43) Aronson (2000: 88). Cf. Adler (2005: 159–74).

(44) Fergusson (1996: 61).

(45) Fergusson (1996: 64).

(46) Citron (1996: 181–2). No citation given by Citron.

(47) Citron (1996: 181–2).

(48) Jones (1971: 80).

(49) D. Clark (1971: 7).

(50) Wilder (2007: 657).

(51) Castronovo (1986: 61–2, 72).

(52) Fordin (1995: 257). My brackets.

(53) Fordin (1995: 256).

(54) Schlegel (1894: 71).

(55) Miller (1994: p. xv).

(56) Goldhill, Chapter 2, this volume.

(57) Wilder (2007: 716).