(from NPR, 3/22; via Pam Green; Photo: Even after brutal reviews for the short-lived Anyone Can Whistle, Stephen Sondheim continued to create provocative and form-shattering musicals. Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.)
It’s been just over a year since anyone has seen a “live” Broadway musical – but ever since I got hold of a lovingly crafted new-slash-old cast-album recording, I’ve been thinking about a show once left for dead.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but in April of 1964, Anyone Can Whistle was a flop. It came into Manhattan with a great pedigree, headed by two movie stars making their musical debuts — Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, each an Oscar nominee just a year earlier for Manchurian Candidate and Days of Wine and Roses, respectively.
It had music and lyrics by a new kid, Stephen Sondheim, whose first stint as a Broadway composer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was still packing in crowds in its third smash-year. The book and direction were by Arthur Laurents, who’d earlier collaborated as librettist on two shows for which Sondheim contributed lyrics, West Side Story and Gypsy.
Everything seemed promising. But Anyone Can Whistle, which centers on a town faking a Lourdes-like miracle water, was zany and satirical but also absurdist, scattershot, and — some thought — off-putting in its amusement at its own cleverness.
As Sondheim would later write in Finishing the Hat, he and Laurents had perhaps “overstepped … the very thin line between smart and smart-ass.”
The reviews were brutal. “Anyone Can Whistle,” said Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune, “but no one can sing.”
The show barely made it through nine performances. On April 12, 1964, the day after it closed, the company assembled to record a cast album on the cheap, leaving out half the music. (But hey, who was gonna listen?) The thing is, Sondheim went on to write a dozen of the most provocative, form-shattering musicals in Broadway history — from the operatic Sweeney Todd, to the fairy-tale-based Into the Woods — and the seeds of all of them are in Anyone Can Whistle. It’s become a cult favorite.
Years later, when Columbia reissued the cast album as a CD, they restored some things — part of a ballet, a song, “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” that had become a staple of nightclub acts but that had been cut in tryouts. But it was, still, much less than a full recording.
Flash forward 56 years, to March of 2020. Jay Records, which specializes in forgotten and obscure musicals, put together what it trumpeted as the first “complete” recording of Anyone Can Whistle, in time for Sondheim’s 90th birthday (on 3/22).
The master was evidently pleased. Though not known for gushing, he allowed the public release of the two-disc set in plenty of time for his 91st birthday (today, March 22) with a quote — “The brilliance of this recording gives the show more energy and sparkle than it ever had” — for the liner notes.
It also gives the listener an hour of additional music, played not by the original’s pit band, but by the 42-piece National Symphony Orchestra. Restored in this recording, about half of the overture, which had been truncated for the original-cast album in order to squeeze as much of the score as possible onto an LP record only capable of accommodating about 45 minutes of music; that first recording was a rush job that hit stores just five days after the cast scattered.