On Wednesday, April 8, 1964, Variety told me that Anyone Can Whistle had opened the previous Saturday to three raves and three pans. I’d never seen such an extreme split from the New York newspaper critics. When I read that the Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical would close on Saturday, I wasn’t all that surprised; the nay-sayers wrote for the more important papers.
Weeks later, I was in a record store with my cousin Anthony, who hated musicals and Broadway. I spotted the original cast album of Anyone Can Whistle. “Can you believe that they recorded this?” I asked — rhetorically really, because I knew Anthony wasn’t interested. “It lasted all of nine performances.”
Anthony looked at me with half-closed, ever-bored eyes. “So now you’re going to buy it?” he droned.
I’d certainly loved Sondheim’s work in West Side Story, Gypsy and Funny Thing. But nine performances?
“No,” I said. “How good can it be?”
Suddenly Anthony’s eyes widened as his face showed interest and astonishment. “Wow,” he said slowly. “If they can’t sell it to you, how can they ever hope to sell a single copy?”
Well, “they” certainly did sell a single copy — and then some. The original cast album of Anyone Can Whistle has barely if ever been out-of-print in the ensuing 49 years. Even some long-running and/or Tony-winning musicals can’t say that.
True, after Anyone Can Whistle was released on vinyl in an elaborate gatefold album, it got three steady demotions over the years: a single jacket with liner notes on an inside sleeve; a “Columbia Special Products” LP with a generic blue cover with liner notes; and then a plain black cover with nothing else.
But in that time frame, Anyone Can Whistle also made it to reel-to-reel tape, cassette, compact disc and even 8-track tape.
Long before those emerged, I had indeed bought the gatefold LP. I loved it from the ominous and dissonant chords of the semi-overture to the last notes of the glorious ballad, “With So Little To Be Sure Of,” although Harry Guardino had sung it very poorly.
Sondheim did his work so well that I wouldn’t have needed liner notes to follow the story of Cora Hooper Hoover (Angela Lansbury), a mayor who’d do anything to improve the fortunes of her woebegone town – even if it meant planning a fake miracle. What else could she offer its citizens, given that they “manufactured a product that never wore out”? (There’s a subject a musical had never tackled: planned obsolescence.)
The show also cited “people who made other people nervous by leading individual lives.” Mind you, this was four years before hippies and Hair. Religion was questioned, too, as Fay Apple (Lee Remick), the maybe-crazy, maybe-not visitor preferred “the miracles of man, such as the wheel, the alphabet and the pyramids.”
Fay was a crusader for individual rights, as was her maybe-equally-crazy, maybe-equally-not acquaintance J. Bowden Hapgood (Guardino). His charisma made the townspeople lose their heads rather than use them. Hapgood’s logic: “The opposite of left is right. The opposite of right is wrong. So anyone who’s left is wrong.”
That’s terrific Sondheim wordplay, but he had more to say about individualism in “Everybody Says Don’t,” where he urged audiences to “make a noise” – a few years before the youth of America actually did. Had ‘60s radicals heard this song, they might not have taken to Sondheim’s Broadway sound, but they would have embraced what he was saying.
In early 1964, however, this was not what Broadway wanted to hear. The nation had endured the Kennedy Assassination only nineteen weeks earlier, so it needed more belly laughs than Anyone Can Whistle could provide. That Columbia Records’ president Goddard Lieberson recorded the show the day after its closing was a greater miracle than any that Cora could have imagined.
Sondheim’s renaissance that started six years later (almost to the day) with Company is certainly one reason why Anyone Can Whistle has stayed alive. The more prominent reason, however, is his great and innovative score. More to the point, had Lieberson’s album not existed, there most likely would not have been the 1995 Carnegie Hall benefit concert and album.
Thirty-one years to the day that the aforementioned issue of Variety was published, the musical that in 1964 had endured “half-empty houses” (to quote another Sondheim lyric) had become the hottest ticket of the season.
To be sure, the casting helped: Madeline Kahn took Lansbury’s role; Bernadette Peters assumed Remick’s and Scott Bakula moved into Guardino’s. But even if Charo, Brigitte Nielsen and Professor Plum had been announced as the leads, musical theater enthusiasts would have scooped up seats.
What good luck that the concert musical didn’t completely disappear after one performance; it received a recording that is arguably even superior to the 1964 album.
This is hardly an indictment against the original, for which we’ll always be grateful. Bless Lieberson for daring to spend the money on an album that couldn’t possibly pay back … but somehow turned a profit. Still, the 1995 concert represents the definitive Anyone Can Whistle.
Certainly those who enjoy the immediacy of live recordings will appreciate the rabid audience reaction. That feeling that we’re actually there comes through loud and clear.
That CD technology allows us to hear snippets of Laurents’ dialogue that are sprinkled between songs is a bonus. But an even greater advantage, of course, is getting to hear more of Sondheim’s score.
The overture is slightly expanded, followed by four lines of the townspeople’s “I’m Like the Bluebird.” “Simple,” which many audiences viewed as a thirteen-minute monstrosity in 1964, is greeted by the Carnegie crowd as a fifteen-minute masterpiece. It has a few more penetrating lyrics, some extra interstitial dialogue, and a bit more of Betty Walberg’s dance music that seems to be a demented take on Peter Howard’s work in “Dancing” in Hello, Dolly!
Those who know the show cold may be jarred when the delectable “Come Play Wiz Me” doesn’t immediately follow “Simple.” The massive piece was actually the end of Act One of this three-act musical (which was another of Whistle’s eccentricities). Here we get the Act Two Entr’acte and a bit more choral music prior to “Come Play Wiz Me.” (There is no second Entr’acte, however; this concert was done in two acts.)
A full verse precedes “I’ve Got You to Lean On,” which also includes some extra choral work and some sizzling hot dance music. Taste a few extra crumbs of “The Cookie Chase.” And while “There’s Always a Woman” wasn’t always in the score, the subtle slugfest between Cora and Fay makes an appearance here.
Hearing these songs and orchestrations we’ve heard hundreds of times with different voices is both ear-catching and exhilarating. For those who have found Lansbury’s voice too thin or reedy, here’s Kahn. She’d wowed Broadway a quarter-century earlier with her coloratura in Two by Two; here she uses it to great advantage in “Me and My Town.” Kahn is looser than Lansbury was, and just the way that she plays with the word “sidewalk” shows she’s having fun with it. So will you.
There’s quite a tale behind “There Won’t Be Trumpets.” Originally, the song followed a long monologue that Remick delivered so forcefully that the song seemed anti-climactic. Sondheim reluctantly dropped it, but Lieberson knew how much it meant to him, and had Remick record it. It didn’t make the LP, but was included in the 1988 CD release.
In the 1995 recording, not only does Bernadette Peters do the song, but she also has a bit of the monologue, which is a harangue worthy of Harold Hill. The audience goes crazy for both, just as it does for her rendition of the title song. Remick had delivered a very pretty song; Peters discloses a psychological study. If this concert had played Broadway, Peters wouldn’t have had to waited until 1999 to win her second Tony.
But the greatest improvement comes courtesy of Scott Bakula’s voice. Long before he gets to “Come Play Wiz Me,” we hear his, to quote the song, “unmistakable authenticity” as a singer. This makes “Everybody Says Don’t” and especially “With So Little To Be Sure Of” far more rewarding.
When Guardino sang the latter, he dropped an octave on the song’s third line; we got the impression that he had to because he couldn’t go any higher. Here, we’re confident that Bakula could go high if he needed to, but doesn’t because Sondheim actually wrote the song this way. That’s reiterated when the recording comes to a close with a lovely chorale arrangement of this most underrated of ballads.
Those who fear that they might miss Lansbury will be somewhat assuaged by her appearance here as narrator. Her opening lines are priceless: first “Welcome to a town that’s so broke only a miracle can save it.” (The audience needs a few seconds to catch on that the description applies to the very town in which they’re sitting.) Second: “Thirty-one years ago, I myself was the mayoress of such a town – for a very short term.”
Well, yes, if you consider the actual run of the show. But not if you take into consideration how Lansbury continues to rule on both the 1964 and 1995 recordings of Anyone Can Whistle.