A Cult-Classic Sondheim Flop And An Essential New Recording An updated recording of Anyone Can Whistle, a now-celebrated musical by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, has some surprises, even for the completist.


Music Reviews

A Cult-Classic Sondheim Flop Gets An Essential New Recording

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/979959291/980075614" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Because of the pandemic, it's been more than a year since anyone has seen a live Broadway musical. But critic Bob Mondello has been thinking about a musical that was once left for dead - a show about a miracle and, as it happens, one that has benefited recently from a minor miracle.


BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Not to put too fine a point on it, but in April of 1964, "Anyone Can Whistle" was a flop. It had a great pedigree - two movie stars making their musical comedy debuts, Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, both Oscar nominees a year earlier; music and lyrics by that 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. Everything seemed promising, but the show, while zany, was also absurdist and some thought off-putting, perhaps overstepping, as Sondheim would later write, the very thin line between smart and smart ass. The reviews were brutal. Anyone can whistle, said one critic, but no one can sing.


ANGELA LANSBURY: (Singing) Everyone hates me - yes, yes.

MONDELLO: The show barely made it through nine performances. The day after it closed, they recorded this cast album on the cheap, leaving out half the music. But hey, who was going to listen?


LANSBURY: (Singing) Which causes me nervous distress - yes.

MONDELLO: 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," so it became a cult favorite. Years later, when Columbia reissued the cast album as a CD, they restored some things - part of a ballet, a song that had been cut in tryouts.


LANSBURY: (Singing) There won't be trumpets or bolts of fire to say...

MONDELLO: But it was still much less than a full recording. Flash forward 56 years to 2020.


MONDELLO: Last March, for Sondheim's 90th birthday, J 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 his 91st birthday, which is today, they've made it available to the public with a quote from Sondheim saying the new recording gives the show more energy and sparkle than it's ever had. It also gives the listener an hour of additional music played not by the original's pit band, but by a full symphony orchestra.


MONDELLO: This is a restored part of an overture that had been cut almost in half for the original cast album, a rush job that hit stores just five days after the cast scattered. This new recording was significantly less rushed. Much of it, in fact, was taped 24 years ago, 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 here is acted to a fare thee well.


MARIA FRIEDMAN: (Singing) Anyone can whistle. That's what they say - easy. Anyone can whistle any old day - easy.

MONDELLO: This sort of whispered intimacy is not how you'd likely perform this song on Broadway. Where the original had a buffed-by-audiences liveness, 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 sort of "Into The Woods"-like narration.


ARTHUR LAURENTS: Our setting is the main square of a town that is so broke only a miracle can save it. Look at its citizens.

MONDELLO: That's the late Arthur Laurents, Sondheim's collaborator not just on this show, but earlier on "West Side Story" and "Gypsy." He wrote the dialogue and directed "Anyone Can Whistle" in '64, so who better to set the scene?


LAURENTS: There is one place in this town that's still doing business. That's the Cookie Jar, a sanatorium for the socially pressured.

MONDELLO: Even dedicated Sondheim fans will be discovering that bit. And 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. The exit music the band plays after the bows, when the audience is heading up the aisles. I've heard it for decades, always bouncy and lively and jazzy.

And I always thought it was cool that with the singers and dancers off in their dressing rooms, the musicians were finally able to cut loose, have some fun. Except, of course, they're not improvising. They're still on the clock. With a symphony orchestra swinging to beat the band, I realized something that had simply never occurred to me. It always sounds like the musicians are having a ball because the music is written that way. Can't wait to get back in a theater with that little tidbit tucked in my brain.

I'm Bob Mondello.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.