- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

Joe DiPietro is a different kind of writer. In addition to being a playwright and author, he also writes books for musicals — the all-American kind of musical, integrating dance, story, music and character, which, done well, can send an audience into a swoon. Done badly, it can send viewers into a sulk and the project into history’s dustbin.

The congenial New Yorker agrees that it’s a tricky mix, and he has enough experience behind him to know for sure. None of his musical forays to date has failed, but, these days, he faces what most pros in the business would admit is the ultimate challenge. He is responsible for a rewrite of “Allegro,” a groundbreaking work by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein that was less than a success when it debuted on Broadway more than 56 years ago.

The songs were, and are, fabulous. Think back to “A Fellow Needs A Girl” and “The Gentleman is a Dope.” The storyline, or “book,” was not. Even the famous R&H; team thought it was responsible for eventually sinking the musical’s fate in spite of initially good reviews and ticket sales.

Normally, a composer fits songs to a story, but Mr. DiPietro has had to write around the music for an entirely revitalized version of the show, the first revival ever attempted of its kind. With previews beginning Tuesday, leading to a Jan. 11 opening at Arlington’s Signature Theatre under Eric Schaeffer’s direction, these are the quickening days, the countdown to what musical-theater aficionados hope will be a definitive interpretation of a historic work.

Among his other accomplishments, Mr. DiPietro, 41, is the award-winning author of the still-running off-Broadway musical comedy “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and a forthcoming show based on Elvis Presley songs. He also has been part of a redo of a musical by George Gershwin and a new one based on Gershwin tunes. So he need not be unduly modest when discussing the reasons why “Allegro” never won the acclaim of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” which preceded it in 1943 and 1945, respectively.

“The plot just doesn’t work. It’s a little simplistic. It’s overwritten,” he says of “Allegro,” the first show by the team that was not based on pre-existing material.

It also is what he describes as the first “concept” musical of the kind that Stephen Sondheim — a protege of Oscar Hammerstein and a gofer on the first “Allegro” production — later would make famous, wherein each scene’s staging is integral to the whole.

The plot is an Everyman story, about a young man who comes from the Midwest to the big city — Mr. DiPietro changed the city from Chicago to New York — and what happens to him as he matures. “It’s a period piece, very much the ‘Our Town’ type of show — about these people’s lives and about the scars of life,” he says. “I read ‘Our Town’ again before I started on this. Like the Thornton Wilder play, this one is deceptively simple, what I hope we will be.”

Reworking old shows requires a collaboration with the original composers, dead or alive, he notes. “You write in their idiom, to say what I think they were trying to say. … Rodgers and Hammerstein were geniuses, so it’s a little intimidating, but at some point, you have to say, ‘OK, they are Oscar and Dick, and we’re trying to make this number work.’ You need to respect them and humble yourself, and then just get on with it.”

Doing so involves listening to the score over and over until it is inside him, he says — until he knows the lyrics by heart and can feel what they mean to the character singing them.

“It is a law of our civilization that as soon as a man proves he can contribute to the well-being of the world, there be created an immediate conspiracy to destroy his usefulness, a conspiracy in which he is usually a willing collaborator. Sometimes he awakens to his danger and does something about it,” the late Mr. Hammerstein once wrote to describe the plot.

Mr. DiPietro, in conjunction with the late Jamie Hammerstein, Mr. Hammerstein’s youngest son, kept the thrust of the story but brought out the themes in a more concrete way. There is new emphasis on the father-son relationship in the second act, for example. And a song about time’s passage written for the first production but never used has been introduced.

“If we are successful, there will be a lot of heart to this show. There is a certain sweetness to ‘Allegro’ that is extremely Rodgers and Hammerstein,” he says. And while he acknowledges a theme that “explores more melancholy things about life,” he points to an optimism to their creative work that isn’t as apparent in, say, a Sondheim musical.

Born in Teaneck, N.J., the son of a banker, Mr. DiPietro graduated as an English major from Rutgers and found a job working as a writer for CBS Sports. His rise in the theater world was swift and full of serendipity. Jamie Hammerstein, who died five years ago at age 67, became the producer of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” because, in Mr. DiPietro’s words, “he came to a reading and said, ‘Gee, I really like this show,’ and was the only one who said that.” Mr. Hammerstein chose Mr. DiPietro to rewrite “Allegro” and intended to direct it himself, Mr. DiPietro says.

Signature’s version, with a cast of 14 and an orchestra of 10, is considerably pared down from the original. Dena Hammerstein, Jamie Hammerstein’s widow, approves of this approach wholeheartedly and praises Mr. DiPietro for creating “a simple, pure story with real emotions.”

Both Mrs. Hammerstein and Mr. DiPietro opted for Signature and Mr. Schaeffer because, in Mr. DiPietro’s words, “he very much treats a musical like a play, which is what we are striving to do.” And always in back of his mind is the old saying, “In order to have a hit show, you need a great book, and in order to have a classic, you need a great score to go along with the book.”

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