Misunderstood Musicals: "Anyone Can Whistle"

Misunderstood Musicals: "Anyone Can Whistle"

Joel Fenster

  • OnStage Guest Columnist

I’m proud to admit that I had the delightful pleasure of being completely dismissed by Stephen Sondheim on the one opportunity I’ve had to potentially meet him. I was standing no more than a foot away from him, clutching my hardcover copy of the script to Anyone Can Whistle (published by Random House in 1976 – twelve years after the show had flopped on Broadway). Mr. Sondheim rushed past me as I tried to get his attention, but he merely gestured me away saying he was only present to meet certain people. I was stunned for a moment and then found the whole thing humorous. I treasure that moment and still hold my unsigned hardcover copy of Anyone Can Whistle in high regard because it is my favorite Sondheim musical (or tied for first with a number of others).

How did this obvious flop become what I consider to be one of his best works? As I said, I’ve never actually seen the show performed live. I’ve only listened to it (over and over and over and over) and seen a smeary VHS version of the 1995 concert version. There is an original cast album that preserves the Broadway debuts of both Angela Lansbury (as the Mayor) and Lee Remick (as Nurse Fay) and while it is a good album, for me the “go to” is always the 1995 recording of the concert version Live at Carnegie Hall (as an AIDS benefit concert for Gay Men’s Health Crisis). This version stars Madeline Kahn as the Mayor, Bernadette Peters as Nurse Fay and Scott Bakula as Hapgood with Angela Lansbury narrating the parts of the story that need more fleshing out.

It’s a complex work on every level (like almost every other Sondheim show). The whimsical “fairy tale” plot involves a bankrupt town whose leaders come up with a plan to infuse cash into their accounts by creating a fake miracle: a rock which spouts water that is claimed to heal the sick. People will flock from all around and the town can be flush with cash and its leaders can be rich again. Unfortunately, a nurse brings some of her patients from the local asylum to bathe in the waters and all hell breaks loose as “the cookies” (as the asylum is called “The Cookie Jar”) get loose and no one can tell who is a normal townsperson and who is a “cookie.” Only the arrival of a new young Doctor can save the day…or will he?

The show is a satire of life in general, but specifically life in a small town. It is a good starter for discussions about politics, government, religion, mental illness and life in general. This was Sondheim’s second show where he served as both composer and lyricist (after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). It was also his third collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book. And here’s where the problem seems to be. In reading about the original production in various books and articles (including Sondheim’s own words in Finishing the Hat), it seems that Sondheim and Laurents had no one to say “no” to them, as Laurents not only wrote the book for the show, but was also directing it. This is a problem I believe inherent with Laurents in general as it’s the same problem with Nick & Nora which I did see. It was a mediocre show with a great score that was a huge flop; we’ll examine it at a later date. Actually it’s a problem with almost everything else he wrote and directed, except revivals of Gypsy.

Most articles about the show seem to point to the end of the first act where the cast as inmates are looking out at the audience and laughing and mocking them (a visual not “visualized” when just listening to the music). Do you really want to be making fun of your own audience? Would an early 1960s audience accept that? I don’t believe so. 1964 was a point in time many see as a change in American societal attitudes – JFK had only been gone a few months – and I believe Sondheim understood this based on his later works. And with no one to tell the creators “no”, the show folded very quickly.

The score is what keeps it alive, and the story, while flawed, is really a whimsical piece that was probably too far ahead of its time. There really isn’t a clunker of a song in the bunch. From the whistful longing of the title song, to the pomp and circumstance of the Mayor’s confused number “Parade in Town”, to the heroic intro for our hero in “There Won’t Be Trumpets” to the amazingly gray ending with “With So Little To Be Sure Of”, every song advances the story in an entertaining and meaningful way.

The complexities of story and character are more of a precursor to Sondheim’s later works than the works that come before this. Scenes and numbers are timeless as most of them still easily resonate today in regards to things happening within our world. It’s just too bad the show really didn’t have a chance back then. Maybe in today’s environment a revival would work well since it truly is classic Sondheim that really hasn’t been seen much at all. And it wouldn’t be hard to mount a production as, like most of Sondheim’s shows, it is more conceptual in staging than needing to be realistic.

I would love to see a production of this show. It’s not complicated, had a great whimsical story, some lovely amazing and complex music (the Act 1 ender alone is worth it) and because it’s a rarely seen Sondheim, would probably draw a crowd simply due to curiosity.

Photo:  Muhlenberg College

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