Physician, Sing Thyself: A Doctor Checks Up on a New “Allegro”

Physician, Sing Thyself: A Doctor Checks Up on a New “Allegro”

Aside from Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein, there are not a lot of doctors in Broadway musicals.

Yet a show about father-and-son physicians was written by perhaps the greatest songwriting team in Broadway history: the composer Richard Rodgers and the librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. Considered by some to be their greatest flop, “Allegro,” which opened in 1947, is rarely performed today.

But if the show had its flaws, the medical themes it raises are much the same as those I encounter as a physician: Are primary-care doctors more true to their profession than specialists? How bad is it for doctors to try to make a lot of money? And is medicine still a profession that doctors should encourage their children to enter?

Modern doctors — and the general public — will be able to grapple with such questions once again when an Off Broadway revival of “Allegro,” directed by John Doyle, opens on Nov. 19 at the Classic Stage Company’s theater in the East Village. As a physician myself and the son of a physician, it’s a show I would not miss.

The original 1947 Broadway production of “Allegro” with John Battles, left, and John Conte. Credit Photofest

“Allegro” couldn’t have been more eagerly anticipated the first time around. Two earlier Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” had been smashes, bringing a new synthesis of drama, music and dancing to Broadway. Advance sales for “Allegro” topped $700,000, 10 times the average for the era.

Whereas “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” were based on plays, “Allegro” was completely original, with Hammerstein writing both the book and lyrics. The musical tells the story of Joseph Taylor Jr., the son and grandson of doctors, who joins his father’s virtuous small-town practice during the Depression.

But when a job comes open in a ritzy private practice in Chicago, Joe, egged on by his ambitious wife, Jenny, takes the post. Much of the second act sees Joe catering to the worried well, giving unnecessary injections and attending parties with his wealthy patients. This hectic big-city lifestyle gives “Allegro” its title.

At one point, Joe is so distracted he misses an ulcer on a patient’s X-ray, which his faithful nurse, Emily, points out. Emily, who secretly loves Joe, rues what he has become: “Big politician, big social lion, and banquet man — not much of a doctor.” Having saved the patient — and the doctor — Emily sings one of the show’s catchiest numbers, about her boss, “The Gentleman Is a Dope.”

The choice of a medical backdrop remains somewhat obscure. While there were no doctors in Hammerstein’s family, one of his best friends was his personal physician, Harold Hyman. Hammerstein liberally picked Hyman’s brain as he wrote the show.

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Richard Rodgers, left, and Oscar Hammerstein II in Boston during pre-Broadway tryouts of “Allegro” in 1947. Credit Photofest

Hammerstein was also quite familiar with a nonfictional family of physicians: that of Richard Rodgers. Richard’s father, William, was a well-respected New York general practitioner who had delivered Hammerstein’s children William and Alice. Rodgers’s brother, Mortimer, was an obstetrician.

However, as Alice Hammerstein Mathias, Hammerstein’s daughter, recently told me, neither the character of Joseph Taylor Jr. nor that of his father was based on anyone specific.

Most of the critical response to “Allegro” focused on its theatrical devices, including a Greek chorus that analyzed the characters’ inner thoughts, dead people who reappeared, ballet sequences and spare staging without formal scene changes. Stephen Sondheim, who at 17 served as an assistant on the production, years later praised the show as “an epic story in a musical” and the critic Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times termed it a “musical masterpiece.” Other critics were less impressed, such as William Hawkins of The New York World-Telegram, who called the show a vast disappointment.

“Allegro” ran for a respectable 315 performances, but both Rodgers and Hammerstein were displeased, blaming themselves for not connecting effectively with the audience. The enormous cast of 78 and orchestra of 35 ensured no profits.

The current production retains the original experimental spirit and adds other novel elements. The cast, whittled down to 12 members, serves as the orchestra, playing instruments while acting, in what has become a signature of Mr. Doyle’s style. (Malcolm Gets plays the father physician and Claybourne Elder his son, with Elizabeth A. Davis as Jenny.) Cast members are also the omniscient Greek chorus, which knows the show’s outcome even though the characters do not. The ballet sequences have been eliminated.

Mr. Doyle, who won a Tony for his scaled-down take on “Sweeney Todd,” was drawn to the experimental nature of “Allegro” but also to the profound questions it raises: What is one doing with one’s life? Do you follow your money or your soul?

Hammerstein was struggling with these exact issues as he worked on the show. Just as Joe Jr. had become too engrossed in the social trappings of medicine, Hammerstein worried that his growing role as a public figure, spokesman and fund-raiser for the Authors League, the World Federalists and other groups had taken him away from songwriting.

These same issues permeate modern medicine. Today’s medical students often enter school prepared to do primary care and serve the poor but, saddled with debts from their education, ultimately choose more lucrative specialties, such as plastic surgery, dermatology or concierge medicine, in which well-off patients pay an annual fee for access to their physicians.

So, too, the devotion to patients that medical students emphasize in their applications dissipates. It is Marjorie, Joe Sr.’s wife and Joe Jr.’s mother, who best conveys what it means to be a doctor. “They’re your people,” she says, “after you’ve helped them.”

My dad, Phillip Lerner, provided 24/7 care to his patients. He was on call for 20 straight years and spent our vacations speaking with patients and the doctors caring for them.

Although I became a primary-care physician who treats the underserved, I, like other doctors of the baby-boom generation, have pulled back from my dad’s model. I am no longer in charge of my patients when they are hospitalized. My colleagues and I have an elaborate coverage system that permits substantial time away from our patients. And we practice medicine based on guidelines, often not with the personal touch of my dad — and Joe Sr.

Have today’s doctors betrayed their calling? As “Allegro” shows, there are still more questions than answers. But with a background score of beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein music, they surely are enjoyable to ponder.

Originally published in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, November 16, 2014, pages AR 6, 8.

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