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A Cult-Classic Sondheim Flop Gets An Essential New Recording

Even after brutal reviews for the short-lived <em>Anyone Can Whistle</em>, Stephen Sondheim continued to create provocative and form-shattering musicals.
Stephen Lovekin
Getty Images
Even after brutal reviews for the short-lived Anyone Can Whistle, Stephen Sondheim continued to create provocative and form-shattering musicals.

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.

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.

The new version was significantly less rushed. Much of it, in fact, was taped 24 years ago at Abbey Road Studios, with leading roles played by Julia McKenzie and Maria Friedman, who'd headed the original London casts of quite a few Sondheim shows by then. Friedman hadn't just performed Sondheim's work, she'd also directed it, so her approach to the title tune on the 2-disc set is acted to a fare-thee-well with a sort of whispered intimacy that's not how a performer would likely perform the song on Broadway. Where the original had a buffed-by-audiences live-ness, this new recording is clearly studio-crafted.

On the other hand, it compensates by including stagey bits that didn't make the LP: dialogue, dance arrangements, and the original's Into-the-Woods-like narration. That the recordings were made decades ago allowed Sondheim collaborator Laurents (who died in 2011), to voice the narration. Who better after all, than the librettist and director to set the scene.

There's one other treat that I've not heard on the cast album of any musical, ever: the exit music. Not the curtain call music, though that's here too, with swells toward the end that pretty clearly mark the star entrances – by exit music, I mean the music the band plays after the bows, when the audience is heading up the aisles.

I've been hearing exit music at musicals for decades, generally without paying much attention to it as I instead thought about the show I'd just seen. It's always bouncy, lively, and jazzy – if I thought about it at all, it was to note that with the singers and dancers off in their dressing rooms, the musicians were finally able to cut loose and have some fun. Melodies they'd been playing to match vocals, or dance moves, they were now swinging to beat the band.

Except of course, the musicians aren't improvising, they're still on the clock.

With a Symphony Orchestra swinging brightly, I realized something that had simply never occurred to me: it always sounds like the musicians are having a ball at the end of the evening, because the exit music is written that way. Can't wait to get back in a theater with that little tidbit tucked in my brain.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.