Although when MasterVoices chose the third of the four Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents collaborations, Anyone Can Whistle, as part of their 80th season at Carnegie Hall, they had no way of knowing that it would prove to be a memorial to the late Mr. Sondheim rather than a tribute. This rarely revived show, now considered a “cult classic,” a euphemism for a quick flop in 1964 running only nine performances, was ahead of its time, attempting a new form, one that Sondheim has called “the first absurdist musical.”
Performed by stars Vanessa Williams, Santino Fontana, Elizabeth Stanley, Douglas Sills, Eddie Cooper, Michael Mulheren, and Joanna Gleason as the narrator, it was beautifully sung under the direction of maestro Ted Sperling, but can’t hide the fact that Laurents’ libretto is extremely scattershot taking on far too many targets for one show. Subtitled “A Musical Fable” in its first publication, the musical is really a cartoon satirizing everything imaginable. The theme is one of individualism versus conformity, a standard trope for shows and movies in the turbulent 1960’s, now symbolized by the more famous King of Hearts (1966), Your Own Thing (1968), HAIR (1968) and Easy Rider (1969).
Laurents’ book tells of a small town that has lost its manufacturing base and has gone bankrupt, aside from its successful Cookie Jar, a sanitarium for the socially pressured. Its corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (the richest woman in town), and her henchmen Comptroller Schub, Treasurer Cooley and Police Chief Magruder stage a fake miracle in which a rock which spouts water in order to create an interest in the town. When Nurse Fay Apple brings her 49 patients from the Cookie Jar to try the waters of the miracle, the creators realize that if the waters don’t cure them, they will all be branded as frauds. Fleeing to keep from being arrested, Fay allows her patients to mingle with the pilgrims so that no one knows who is who. At that moment J. Bowden Hapgood arrives and is mistaken for the new psychiatrist at the sanitarium. His attempt to separate the Cookies from the Pilgrims makes him the town’s hero.
Originally written to be performed in three acts, recent concert stagings like the New York City Center Encores! one in 2010 which starred Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster and Raúl Esparza, and the 1995 Carnegie Hall benefit for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis which included returning original cast member Angela Lansbury now as the narrator, Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters and Scott Pakula as well as this one have combined Act Two and Three making a two act musical. The plot becomes more and more anarchic with Fay returning as the extremely French Colette, The Lady from Lourdes, a miracle inspector, Hapgood falling in love with her, and Cora and her cronies planning a second fake miracle. It all works out in the end, but not so well for individualists. Among the targets are France and French pretentions, corrupt politics, economics, science, religion, psychiatry and social institutions.
The first Sondheim show to feature both his music and lyrics, the original cast album of Anyone Can Whistle has become a cult classic and the songs “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “Everyone Says Don’t” and the title song have become cabaret standards. The MasterVoices presentation also restored both the clever “There’s Always a Woman” and the impassioned “There Won’t Be Trumpets” which were cut from the original production. There are other witty songs that are not as familiar in the bold and audacious score from the modern master, as well as a great many marches given expansive room by the large orchestra. Featuring the original 1964 Don Walker orchestrations, there were strangely dissonant moments in the scoring that seemed out of place. Unlike the Encores concert version, there seemed to be less dancing in this version but choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter did an excellent job with the climactic “Cookie Chase” in which the denizens of the sanitarium are rounded up.
Vanessa Williams chose to play the wicked Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper as world-weary and tired rather than joyful and upbeat, diminishing this role to some extent. Elizabeth Stanley, most recently honored with a Tony Award nomination for her Mary Jane Healy in Jagged Little Pill, was rather bland as Nurse Fay Apple, while Santino Fontana as J. Bowden Hapgood was definitely laid back, making him less a presence than he might have been. Eddie Cooper as Treasurer Cooley and Michael Mulheren as Police Chief Magruder were given little to do and hardly registered, while Douglas Sills as Comptroller Schub obviously relished his villain status and gave the best performance, demonstrating what the show could have been. As the absentminded Dr. Detmold, director of the Cookie Jar, Mark Spergel was a bit much playing all of the stereotypes for medical quacks. The huge chorus, also playing the 49 Cookies, was almost too large a sound for Sondheim’s intricate lyrics.
MasterVoices must be commended for bringing back this notoriously difficult Sondheim musical which has been seen by very few since its Broadway premiere and has not been a critic’s favorite from the beginning. While the show was originally ahead of its time, it now looks a bit dated in its scattershot approach to its overstuffed book and varied songs. However, given its first-class cast the performance was pleasant though not as much of a carnival as it has been in the past with its lack of scenery and very basic monochromatic costuming for each of the principals. Anyone Can Whistle may not be all that suitable for concert performance as its appeal would be heightened by colorful sets and costumes for its circus atmosphere.
Anyone Can Whistle (March 10, 2022)
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets call CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800 or visit http://www.CarnegieHall.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission