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Anyone Can Whistle

Dateline: 15th March, 2010

Sandra Giorgetti looks at Stephen Sondheim's biggest failure and why it's worth a visit more than forty years on.

This month, Stephen Sondheim celebrates his 80th birthday, a fact reflected in the myriad Sondheim tribute concerts being produced and works of his being staged this year.

One such of these is Anyone Can Whistle. It is directed by Tom Littler, no stranger to Sondheim having directed Saturday Night last year which transferred from the Jermyn Street Theatre to the Arts Theatre and having been resident director on A Little Night Music when it transferred to the Garrick Theatre from the Menier.

It is now widely recognised that Anyone Can Whistle was ahead of its time. A while after its first staging Sondheim said of this strange piece, "We were trying in a smart-assed, condescending way to be nonconformist and cover too many aspects of society". No surprise then that it flopped spectacularly, closing after only nine performances, a record all the more striking for coming after three hits.

Of its opening Whitney Bolton of the Morning Telegraph said, "To all concerned... a thank you for trying, a thank you for wanting to elevate the American musical theatre to new standards of intellect."

But this "marriage of musical comedy with theatre of the absurd" with its "undeniably innovative dance numbers" courtesy of Herbert Ross enraged musical theatre traditionalists and lost its backers, who included Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne, their whole $350,000 investment.

But what came out of the failure of Anyone Can Whistle was not all bad. For one thing it launched the musical theatre career of Angela Lansbury, but more importantly it started an avalanche of questions and challenges for the creators of the genre, who were largely stuck in a comfort zone. Something similar could be said of the audience.

The piece now, and for some time, enjoys cult status but it remains difficult to digest. Its "scathing satire" so scandalising at the time has lost its bite and what remains without this shock element is diminished. In the circumstances one can understand Tom Littler's approach: "This production is going to return to Laurents and Sondheim's inspirations - the darkly comic European theatre of Brecht and Kurt Weill".

Musical theatre commentator Mark Steyn is not alone when he says "everyone blames the book", and this surreal and unconventional questioning of the value of conformity and definition of sanity requires an open mind and a willingness to enjoy the musical compositions in spite of the book if it proves too impenetrable or simply outdated.

Anyone Can Whistle tells the story of a bankrupt town run by a corrupt dictatorial mayoress (played in this production by Issy van Randwyck) whose authority is challenged and whose money-making scam is prejudiced by Fay, a nurse in the local asylum, and Hapgood, a political dissident (played by Rosalie Craig and David Ricardo-Pearce respectively). Not exactly the plot of Hello Dolly! or Half a Sixpence!

Composers should write tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle - Thomas Beecham

Musically it was also 'difficult' for the time. Sondheim says of the interrogation scene where inmates from the asylum have mixed with the townspeople and only Fay can tell them apart, "It mingles dialogue, dance and music in a kind of surreal stew and there was even some spoken vocalise". This just wasn't what people were expecting to hear when they went to a musical.

Academic Stephen Banfield is right when he says that Anyone Can Whistle "does not show Sondheim at his most compelling as a lyricist" describing some of the lyrics as gauche, and Sondheim admits of the show that "It has one severe and not-quite-fatal-flaw in it, which is the (title) tune isn't quite good enough".

That said, it hasn't stopped the title song and "With So Little To Be Sure Of" from becoming much performed and recorded songs, along with "There Won't be Trumpets" which was originally cut from the show, being considered unnecessary after a rousing speech of protest from Fay, played by the then top billing film star Lee Remick.

So are those few successful songs the only reason to go and see the show? No, there are other good songs too, notably "Everybody Says Don't" and the pastiche show tunes of the mayoress which are jolly entertaining.

There is more to it than that too - there is a contemporary ring to the story in our time of personality politics, dubious dealings and recession: mayoress Cora, desperate to be "popular with the populace", tells the town's treasurer to pay the bills with "ingenuity". When she asks, "Why can't you think of a plan that will work?" the answer is "This one will: it's unethical". One wonders if that was part of the conversation Tony Blair had with BAE Systems.

Back in 1964 Whitney Bolton said that we live in crazy times, and Laurents "puts before us the credo that in this day to be mad is to be sane, to be insane is to be healthy and in a proper mental frame for this day." It's tempting to trot out the old cliché plus ça change ...

So what that the show was pilloried in the 60s? - "it's so much better to be disliked than ignored" as Sondheim told Frank Rich in a New York Times Magazine interview.

And there were a minority of voices that recognised the show for what it was: "... brilliantly inventive musical," said Martin Goottfried "[Laurents'] humour does not condescend with cheap broadness, his characters do not insult with ... superficiality. Nor has Mr Sondheim provided simpleminded music for it. Here are songs that combine musical sophistication with theatrical flair".

Or as Mark Steyn puts with a more 21st century touch, "[It] inaugurated the Sondheim we know today - a genius too special for the ... schmucks who'd prefer to be vegged out at Hello Dolly!"

"Anyone Can Whistle" plays at the Jermyn Street Theatre London until 17th April from Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm with matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 3.30pm except Easter Sunday

Sandra Giorgetti

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©Peter Lathan 2010