Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Sondheim: Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
What comes up, must come down. Sondheim's biggest flop was the 1964 musical, "Anyone Can Whistle." It served as the last new collaboration between book writer Arthur Laurents( of "Gypsy" fame) and Stephen Sondheim and the first collaboration between Sondheim and Angela Lansbury (making her, ironically inauspicious, stage musical debut). An original story by Laurents focused on a financially depressed town and how it's corrupt mayor (Angela Lansbury) fakes a miracle-a rock that springs water- to attract tourists and rescue the town. The show received terrible reviews in it's Philadelphia out-of-town try-out. Though somewhat revised for Broadway by Arthur Laurents the changes were not enough. The show closed after nine performances.
Despite it's total commercial failure, many of the songs have entered the popular Sondheim repertoire. The emotional ambiguity that would help define him as a composer is first evident in "Whistle's" classic tunes. Though it was cut from the final production, "They're Won't Be Trumpets" has become an exciting cabaret and concert staple. Of the songs in the show, "Everybody Says Don't" and, most of all, "Anyone Can Whistle" itself are pure classics. The lyrics to the shows titular number are amongst the the most personal ever written by Sondheim. "What's hard come simple/What's natural comes hard./Maybe you could show me/how to let go/lower my guard/Learn to be free./Maybe if you Whistle/Whistle for me."
I, in fact, have never seen the show live and, along with many Sondheim fans I suspect, think of the show as the most mysterious entry in his oeuvre. The musical received some redemption when it was revived for a Carnegie Hall concert in 1995 starring Bernadette Peters and Scott Bakula. Still, "Whistle" is almost never performed today and, at the time, threatened to label the composer/lyricist Sondheim a one-hit wonder. No one could have foreseen what was coming next.
Here is a random clip of Cleo Laine singing "Anyone Can Whistle." I recommend Bernadette Peters's definitive rendition in her Sondheim etc. Carnegie Hall concert; sadly it was no where to be found online.