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Anyone Can Whistle

A group of people in a church

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Anyone Can Whistle


                            by David Schultz


Master Voices One Night Concert revived a rarely performed early Steven Sondheim musical at Carnegie Hall for ardent Sondheim lovers. The Sold-Out crowd was primed and outwardly effusive to experience the work in full glory. Musical conductor Ted Sperling marshaled a 22-piece orchestra and 60-person chorus on the cavernous Carnegie Hall.


Theater aficionados are well versed in the history of the musical. The year—1964. Musical tastes and performances were definitely more conventional in that decade. One need only to scan the theater listings of that time to see Hello Dolly!... Funny Girl, and Fiddler on The Roof for further proof of the musical style that pervaded the decade. This decidedly unusual over-the-top merry-go-round absurdist musical had other things on its mind. Sadly, this provocative work closed just nine nights after opening at the Majestic Theatre on April 4th, 1964.


Director Herbert Ross had cast three well known performers in their musical debuts. Harry Guardino, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury…incredible to imagine all that talent up on the boards. The reviews as a whole savaged the work as unintelligible and chaotic with some grudgingly approving of the musical score. The overarching cynical nature of the piece left a bitter taste for the paying audience as well. A recording was made a short time afterwards to preserve the original cast. As the years and decades have proved to each successive generation, the complex intricate lyrics and music have become cherished classics. 


Whistle has been performed quite rarely, and just in concert iterations. Since the plot is truly a convoluted miasma written by Arthur Laurents that ultimately is thin and wobbly, and just a tad too absurdist for most tastes, but ahh…. the music that is contained within the insane plot, that’s another matter entirely. Complexities abound, the unique lyrical complex words that bounce off the innovative music were way ahead of its time. If produced now, this work would no doubt have an entirely different response from critics and audience alike.


The storyline in a nutshell details a small town that is facing bankruptcy, since its last item it produced never wore out.  The queenly corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Vanessa Williams) works her wily scamming ways to convince Comptroller Schub (Douglas Sills) to concoct a silly but amazing fake miracle that will revive the town’s decline and bring forth tourists and maybe a few inmates from a local asylum to “cure “, creating a sort of modern-day Lourdes to salve the ailments of the populace. A nurse, Fay Apple (Elizabeth Stanley) discovers this potential magical wonderment and as she works at a nearby home for the insane, aptly known as The Cookie Jar, seeks to include 49 of her inmates. A doctor (Santino Fontana) with a hidden life also hits the town running, and has a passionate crush on nurse Apple. The Mayoress has some unworthy cretins, Treasurer Cooley (Eddie Cooper) and the local Police Chief (Michael Mulheren) to do the dirty work for her.  Working to seal the fake miracles…a magical healing elixir that sprouts from a stone, is what sparks interest that draws the simple folk from far and wide to seek succor from the waters.


This is the wacked out plot of the show. Just leave your brain on hold. What matters in this show if one cannot get derailed by the intricate silliness is the music that runs as a commentary on the entire proceeding. The concert version had eight dancers that flitted about the stage, choreographed by JoAnn Hunter. Some performers were “on book”, some were “off book”, giving the impression that the very brief rehearsal time wasn’t sufficient for the one-night performance. The scaled down version actually worked in its favor. Some of the storyline details were thankfully condensed so it made the work flow more seamlessly. Helped immeasurably by the narrator (Joanna Gleason) the music remained thankfully the main focus.


Surprisingly Ms. Williams was a tad distanced from her villainous role and seemed to not fully connect…. Her haughty demeanor felt at odds with her take on her character. Musically speaking she was impeccable, but the disconnect was quite obvious all night. The other performers had no such difficulties. The 20-minute musical within a musical titled “Simple” was a walk in the park for Santino Fontana as he corralled and separated the normal folks with the “Cookies” in separate groups. Maddening propulsive rapid paced music that coalesced with demonically rhyming lyrics were on full display.


The musical highlights though were left in the very capable hands of Ms. Stanley. As Fay Apple. Her faux French accent and demeanor worked miracles as she sang “Come Play Wiz Me” against a smitten hapless Hapgood. The lyrics completely beguiling and trey amusing. The musical highs kept increasing with her next classic ode to love with “Anyone Can Whistle”, the audience completely rapt in its simple ode to unrequited love. This actress had a complete understanding of her role and seemed to own and run with it as proven by the last quite memorable song that brought the evening to a close. Mr. Sondheim had in previous interviews stated that “With So Little to Be Sure Of” was one his most cherished…it’s easy to see why.


A group of people on a stage

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Douglas Sills  Vanessa Williams  David Cooper Eddie Mulharan

photo by Nina Westervelt


With minimal staging and a truncated plot that could have derailed the evening, this classic score flew out into the rafters and almost gave one a thought. If in the right hands, with meticulous care, could this emotionally dense work ever get fully mounted again? With the recent passing of Mr. Sondheim last November this could indeed come to pass. The intellectual and musical sophistication of the current milieu could certainly see this work in a new light. This musical highlight of the Spring season surely can bode well for a brand-new revival. The production has been recorded for posterity, so for the fervent, curious Sondheim fans this album will be added to the collection of the Original Cast recording and the various concert versions at hand.   


Performed on Thursday, March 10th 2022 at Carnegie Hall N.Y.C.