(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/19; via Pam Green; Photo: From left, Maria Friedman, John Owen Edwards, John Yap and Stephen Sondheim working on the recording of “Anyone Can Whistle” at Abbey Road Studios in 2013.Credit…Doug Craib, via JAY Records.)
A sparkling new recording of the 1964 musical makes half the case for Stephen Sondheim’s endlessly inventive score.
A new recording of “Anyone Can Whistle,” the 1964 musical by Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, has for decades been on the wish lists of Broadway cultists and completists. Now that their wish has been granted — a complete studio version from the English label Jay Records was released in December — I think they’ll find that new isn’t always enough.
Which is not to say it isn’t vastly welcome. The original cast album from Columbia Records, though better than you might expect from a one-week flop, is less than ideal. Sondheim’s endlessly inventive score was heavily truncated, and the singers, who recorded it on the Sunday morning after the closing on a Saturday night, sound exhausted. Bungles abound. Despite lovely moments, that disc (now available on Masterworks Broadway) comes off less as a living record of the show than as a hasty, sketchy post-mortem.
Maybe that was apt. The disaster that opened at the Majestic Theater on April 4, 1964, had already been in florid trouble out of town. One actor had a heart attack during a Philadelphia performance; a dancer caused a heart attack when she flew off the stage, into the pit and onto a saxophone player. Everyone else was left to squabble and panic. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when “Whistle” eventually got to Broadway, in a season otherwise notable for “Hello, Dolly!” and “Funny Girl,” it struck many theatergoers as chaotic and alienating.
Chaotic it still is. Laurents’s satirical book, though clever and novel, works too hard at too many things, aiming darts at every -ism in its path: conformism, evangelism and cronyism among them. The gangly plot, involving a venal mayoress faking a miracle (Angela Lansbury in the original production), a repressed nurse with a French alter ego (Lee Remick) and a psychiatrist who’s actually a psychiatric patient (Harry Guardino), seems to be held together by spit and sarcasm.
But it wasn’t just the complicated book; audiences weren’t yet ready for the complications of Sondheim. Despite his score for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — a hit that was still running after two years on Broadway — he was mostly pegged as a lyricist, and his music for “Whistle” did not go over well. In The Times, Howard Taubman allowed that some songs were pleasing, “but not enough of them.” Another critic called the music, inaccurately, atonal.
Despite such judgments, several songs from “Whistle” — including “A Parade in Town,” “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “With So Little to Be Sure Of” and the title song — are now widely performed. Smallish revivals over the years, and a starry Encores! presentation in 2010, demonstrated that much of the show could be redeemed by its score.