In these theatre-starved times, every so often a little spark of light appears to remind us of what we’ve been missing since March. December 4th sees the official release of the first complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s 1964 flop Anyone Can Whistle, timed to celebrate the great man’s 90th birthday. Recorded in 1997, this surreal, fantasy musical explores what can happen when a once-great American local community decides to mire itself in fake news, pretend miracles and corrupt leadership. Incidentally, in 1964, Donald Trump was a pukey youth of 18, medically deferred for military duty, and in 1997, he was a wrestling promoter married to Marla Maples. Can’t think why I’ve mentioned that.
Before getting hold of this (fantastic) 2 CD set and doing a spot of reading around, my knowledge of the show was pretty limited. I knew the three songs that appear in the delightful cabaret show Side by Side by Sondheim, the fact that it was Sondheim’s second attempt to write both music and lyrics to a show, and that it ran for a stupendous twelve previews and nine performances. Was it simply an awful show? A terrible production, perhaps? With a cast led by Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury, you wouldn’t have thought so, although there were tales of unhappiness within the cast, poor reviews in the try-outs, plus the fact that none of the three leads had been in a musical before. Alternatively, you might be tempted to think of it as one of those way ahead of its time shows; however, the presence of two extended ballet scenes – straight outta Oklahoma – together with its very traditional three Act structure, suggests otherwise. The main problem is that there was nothing in the show for the 1964 audience to latch on to and recognise; no one with whom you would choose to identify. Today, in the almost post-Trump era, you can appreciate the satire of a grotesque leader who spins lies, and a populace desperate to believe in miracles. So, the show is both behind the times and ahead of the times – but strangely not of the times themselves. 1964 also gave us Funny Girl (Barbra Streisand was originally a possibility for the role of Cora but chose Fanny Brice instead); it gave us Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof, massive crowd-pleasers one and all, with big showtunes or haunting melodies. Anyone Can Whistle – maybe because of the challenging nature of its themes and musical content – just faded away. Until now!
Like 99.99% (recurring) of the world’s population, I’ve never seen a production of this show, but the release of this new 2 CD set gives you all the excitement and vibe of being about to witness an incredibly significant First Night – and all from the comfort of your headphones. Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie and John Barrowman lead the cast in this sensational audio experience, with the late Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, featuring as The Narrator. Along with the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Owen Edwards, a glimpse down the cast list is like tripping back in time 25 years. As well as the leads, the names of musical theatre stalwarts like Matt Zimmerman, Stuart Pendred, Danielle Carson, Lori Haley Fox and Shezwae Powell pepper the cast, and the result is an incredibly rewarding, musically rich experience, full of surprises.
If, like me, you come to the show fresh, from a position of ignorance, you’ll be completely stunned by what confronts you. You think you might know how a Sondheim musical can capture your heart, or your imagination, or your inner fears and concerns; but not this time. Mayoress Cora promotes a faked miracle so that her miserable, bankrupt town can become a tourist Mecca – how that plays out forms one of the two dramatic threads. The other is the rather insensitive notion of the Cookie Jar, the name given to a sanatorium for nonconformists (basically, an asylum); how the inmates (the cookies) are released into the community, with the result that no one can tell who is nonconformist and who isn’t. Whilst on the surface, the nonconformists are treated as though they are mentally ill, you could extend their significance to include any other section of the community who doesn’t abide by society’s norms. This is not comfortable subject material!
As you listen to the music unfold the story, at times you have to pinch yourself to believe quite what you’re hearing; and it’s a challenge to the listener who hasn’t seen the show to imagine it progressing on the stage of your mind’s eye. The chaotic lunacy of some parts of the show put me in mind strongly of the Marat/Sade, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, and Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist – even though Anyone Can Whistle predates these latter two. At the end of the first Act the cast round on the audience and mock them – prescient of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience in some respects. Cora’s staccato lines in The Cookie Chase reminded me strongly of Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Additionally, the wonderful showtune-style orchestrations set up a vivid juxtaposition with the savage weirdness of some of the content. The three songs I already knew – Anyone Can Whistle, There Won’t be Trumpets and Everybody Says Don’t – all stand out, but, on a first listen, I was also really impressed by A Parade in Town, I’ve Got You to Lean On, and the reprise of Anyone Can Whistle as part of See What it Gets You which takes its meaning on to another level.
This is a fascinating and vital recording, and essential for any Sondheim fan, wanting to piece together all parts of the jigsaw puzzle that make up his career. Julia McKenzie is in full pantomime-villain form as the awful Cora; needy, whining, corrupt and totally transparent about it. She affects that tough, East-side hectoring voice that blasts her way through the big numbers and is in perfect contrast to the intimate but repressed characterisation of Nurse Fay Apple by Maria Friedman; what those two performers don’t know about interpreting Sondheim’s work isn’t worth knowing. John Barrowman is in fine voice as the smart-talking, charismatic, and credible Hapgood, who is mistaken as the new assistant at the Cookie Jar. This is going to require a lot of re-playing in order to get to the heart of this surreal, allegorical show – and I know it’s going to be thoroughly worth it!
Go to Jay Records to find out how you too can get your hands on a copy!