I put together the following notes in preparation for a concert-style production of Anyone Can Whistle at the Prince Music Theater that I directed during their 2005 season.
Anyone Can Whistle opened on Broadway in April of 1964 after an out-of-town tryout at Philadelphia’s Forrest Theater. While a few critics praised the show with plaudits like “breathtaking,” “ingenious” and “spectacularly original,” the New York Times opened its hostile review with the statement “There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it’s unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit,” and the show closed after nine performances. Imagination, wit and musical brio, as it turns out, are abundantly evident on the original cast album that was recorded the day after the show closed, leaving Sondheads to ponder (as they did after the failure of Merrily We Roll Along and, more recently, Bounce) how a show with such an exciting score could have fared so badly onstage.
Forty years later, Anyone Can Whistle remains a subject of considerable fascination among musical theater enthusiasts. Meanwhile, an eerie sense of timeliness has crept back into the show’s satirical barbs. In 1964, America was on the threshold of what would turn out to be a prolonged conflict in Vietnam, and in the chill of the Cold War, every citizen was acutely aware of the threat of Communism and nuclear devastation. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in public places such as hotels, restaurants and movie theaters, was vigorously debated during the spring of 1964 and was signed into law in July, The “counterculture” which blossomed during the “Summer of Love” in 1967 was merely an embryonic presence in American culture in 1964. Today, we find ourselves once more becoming embroiled in an international conflict, al-Qaeda has replaced the Communist Party as the demon du jour, and the threat of terrorism is no longer solely nuclear. In Washington, a conservative Republican majority holds power; our Chief Executive has chosen to surround himself with an insidious clique of advisors, and critics of the current regime are branded as unpatriotic. Women, gays and racial minorities have made significant strides toward equality and there is much talk (some of it lip service) about the value of diversity, but a conservative white hegemony still holds sway at the core of American culture.
It is little wonder that the message of Anyone Can Whistle, which encourages its viewers to question authority and resist the madness of conformity, seems attractive forty years later. On the strength of its legendary score and its putative relevance, the work has received two noteworthy revivals last year: one in London at the Bridewell Theater (January 2003) and one in Los Angeles at the Matrix Theater (February 2003). While these productions, both of which incorporated revisions by librettist Laurents, were well attended, both were judged harshly by reviewers, who found the work plagued by fatal flaws in tone, style and dramaturgical construction. While there is much to admire in this challenging and controversial work, the book of Anyone Can Whistle is viewed by its critics as being problematic, a fact that must be taken into consideration when contemplating a new production.
It is instructive to consider the case of another adventurous Sondheim work that has also been charged with inconsistencies of tone and style: Assassins, currently enjoying a successful revival at the Roundabout Theater Company. Assassins is a work whose tone changes drastically from scene to scene and even from moment to moment. For example, the scenes between Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore and the monologs of Sam Byck both veer unexpectedly from broad comedy to pathos, and songs like The Ballad of Guiteau and Unworthy of Your Love teeter on the fine line separating satire and sincerity. The point, according to Sondheim and Weidman, is not to make everything seem consistent and neat, but to use the devices of theater to stir up uncertainties and raise questions in the mind of the spectator. In the parlance of contemporary computer programmers, the inconsistencies of style and tone are not a bug but a feature. The success of the current production (in contradistinction to its predecessor at Playwrights Horizons) is the way in which director Joe Mantello embraces this fact in his production. He finds a way to give individual moments their proper tone and emotional weight while providing a satisfying sense of unity and overall form. It seems potentially fruitful to approach a presentation of Anyone Can Whistle armed with this insight. At the same time, it is important to be realistic about the degree to even the most sensitive of productions will successfully ameliorate all its book issues.
In contemplating a production for the Prince Music Theater, the following guidelines are proposed:
1. Make the excellence of the music a top priority. Hire high-quality singing actors as soloists, a big chorus and a big orchestra; provide adequate rehearsal time and good sound reinforcement.
2. Examine existing versions of the script (including the authors’ most recent revisions) to choose the version that dramatizes the story most effectively, and stage the presentation and coach the actors to present the material with clarity and specificity.
3. Embrace the notion that the piece changes tone significantly from moment to moment. Anyone Can Whistle is a melange, a mosaic in which each individual song and dramatic moment has its own identity. Don’t let a generalized notion of style smother the distinctive ingredients of the piece like a thick sauce.
4. Condition the audience regarding what to expect. Focus on the adventurous subject matter and artistic approach in a way that will (perhaps) minimize perceived problems in dramaturgical construction. Collateral materials (advance publicity, program notes, lobby displays, pre-concert talks) will serve an important purpose in this regard. Use the scheme of production to clue in the audience about what to expect and how to respond.