There are artists (usually writers) whose works I enjoy immensely while at the same time feeling an undercurrent of irritation at them. Stephen Sondheim is one of those artists.
There is a fastidious rightness in his best work that I love, exemplified in the lines from A Little Night Music‘s “The Sun Won’t Set”, a song all about an uncanny feeling of time standing still: “Perpetual sunset/Is rather an unset-/Tling thing.” The snap of the perfect rhyme which exactly matches the sense that is wanted takes the breath away.
But at the same time I wince, and rather enjoy, when he overreaches himself, as when in the same show he makes a tremendous effort to drag in “raisins” as a sort-of rhyme to “liaisons.”
This double attitude of mine may not be unrelated to his much-voiced disdain for the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert: “sometimes clever and inventive, they have energy and charm, and they bore me to distraction.” Ah, but they don’t bore me.
Nevertheless, many of Sondheim’s shows fill me with excitement and admiration; and not necessarily the obvious ones. I love A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Assassins, The Frogs… and Anyone Can Whistle.
This 1964 “musical fable”, with a book by Arthur Laurents (who also wrote the books of West Side Story, Gypsy, and others), is a powderkeg of mocking satire against much (though not everything) that was stale and established. It lasted on Broadway for 12 previews and 9 performances, followed by an incomplete and raw but treasurable original cast recording.
Starring Angela Lansbury as the corrupt and self-serving mayoress of a typical mid-American town, it tells of a fake Miracle which saves the town from bankruptcy, the arrival of inmates from the local Sanitarium for the Socially Pressured (aka the Cookie Jar), the mingling of the Cookies amongst Pilgrims come to take the waters, and the further arrival of a mysterious disruptor called Hapgood (Harry Guardino) who guides the town into anarchy and chaos and truth.
Anyone Can Whistle takes shots at all kinds of targets… the Mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper, has strange parallels with Donald Trump, including a penchant for crying: “Lock ’em up!”… but it does not always hit its target, and some of its Sixties attitudes have not worn well.
Nevertheless, it is the music that really shines: bold, wild, mocking; Sondheim at his best. The piece is innovative but it also looks back at an older tradition: satirical Gershwin shows like Strike Up the Band or Let ‘Em Eat Cake; Marx Brothers movies like Duck Soup; even Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The score begins with a high-octane Prelude which perhaps echoes the cartoon music of Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley. That wildness goes all through, alongside song pastiches such as “I’ve Got You To Lean On”, a more satirical echo of Cole Porter’s “Friendship”: “When everything’s hollow and black,/You’ll always find us at your back./No matter how hollow,/We’ll follow/Your lead.”
The Act One finale, a complex sequence lasting over ten minutes called “Simple”, ruthlessly demolishes all sacred precepts and assumptions, disrupts all distinctions between “sanity” and “madness”, and ends on a genuinely frightening note of savage mockery.
In some of the show’s later developments it becomes disappointingly almost-conventional, even ending with a romantic reconciliation; Hapgood starts as Groucho but by the end he is more like Zeppo. But all the same, the music is box of rich treats, with perhaps only one dud, an embarrassing ditty called “Come Play Wiz Me”.
The original cast album had the main musical items, with only one or two significant omissions; but it was far from perfect as a performance. Angela Lansbury has talked about some of the reasons here:
Her description of the musical director Herb Green’s extraordinary way with inexperienced singers suggests extremely unprofessional conduct and she says it was “very bad” for both her and her co-star Lee Remick; I believe her. To listen to the recording in the light of what she says explains some of the sense of strain in the voices. Another factor, mentioned by Angela Lansbury, is the fact that the recording was made immediately after the show closed, with all the emotional strain that implies.
There’s another previous recording of the show out there: a live performance from 1995 as a benefit for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Though it has its points, it is also fairly flawed, with the stumbles and glitches of a live event.
But now there is a new recording (recorded in 1997 and 2013 but only just released), by far the best we have had: it boasts that it is the first complete recording, and it includes music I have never heard before, most notably a ballet sequence nine minutes long called the Don’t Ballet which is full of modernistic touches, and more than slightly West Side Story-ish. I thoroughly recommend this new recording from Jay Records, which you can buy here:
Starring Julia McKenzie, Maria Friedman and John Barrowman, with a narration recorded by Arthur Laurents himself, and all conducted by the wonderful John Owen Edwards, it is simply gorgeous. The voices are better than we have heard before, there are no stumbles (!), and the listener gets a fuller picture than ever before of what Laurents and Sondheim were trying to say in this crazy, sprawling three-act musical. (Sondheim thinks it was the last three-act musical, and no wonder.)
Just one more thing and I’m done. Sondheim is on record as being pretty critical of Anyone Can Whistle, calling it too “clever” (in a bad way) and condescending to the audience. But he also has a great deal of fondness for it, and has bracketed it with Gilbert and Sullivan (not in a bad way):
“The most attractive thing about Gilbert and Sullivan is their energy, the energy of extremely sophisticated schoolboys making fun of authority, something I can identify with (it describes Anyone Can Whistle).”
I’ll take that.