On Broadway, as in every other industry, not even the greatest of greats have flawless resumes. Ford Motor Company gave us the Pinto. Bill Gates gave us Windows Vista. And Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents gave us Anyone Can Whistle.
Within the world of musical theater, Sondheim and Laurents were powerhouses of their generation and have become religious figures to those subsequent. They made West Side Story and Gypsy together. Yet in 1964, their collaboration yielded an infamous flop. The original production of Anyone Can Whistle lasted nine performances.
New York’s City Center has its Encores program, which revives forgotten or neglected musicals for limited engagements. This is the program that brought Chicago back to the fore, so clearly there are talented minds at work. Everyone at City Center brought their A-game for their concert production of Anyone Can Whistle, which ran last week for almost as long as the original–only this one got great reviews. Add mine to the list of happy voices.
Whistle is primarily the story of Cora Hoover Hooper, the tact- and scruple-free mayor of a destitute town, who conspires with a trio of yes-men to fabricate a miracle that will put the town on the map. An added bonus of their nefarious plot will be to lock away those more troublesome townsfolk, the ones bound to question this miracle, as they question anything else Cora has a hand in. Cora’s main opposition comes from the proudly analytical (perhaps even cynical) Fay Apple, a nurse at the county asylum. Things become hopelessly more complicated (for the characters and for the audience), with the arrival of Dr. J. Bowden Hapgood, an unconventional psychiatrist with an unusual secret.
Out of deference to the creators (both still living) and perhaps to some perverted sense of nostalgia, the creative team at City Center swears to have made few changes to the material. As such, it’s easy to see why the show was a failure. The story is all over the place. It dead-ends repeatedly, recurring bits of comedy last longer and get less laughter each time they’re used, and the romance between Hapgood and Fay peaks far too soon. The score includes some lovely songs, but none are particularly memorable and there isn’t a tremendous variety of style (the lovers have ballads and songs of declaration, while Cora has brassy comic numbers).
Yet beneath all that, there is something there. The creative team, led by director Casey Nicholaw, went to great and effective lengths to draw out the play’s thematic subtext about what “crazy” really is. Is everyone else mad as a hatter, or is it really just you? If everyone’s crazy, is anyone crazy? Do you have to be just a little bit crazy in order to get by? Those questions can make for great theater, and particularly great comedy. It’s to Nicholaw’s credit that he manages to pull out what he can from the muddled book.
I thought there was way more to be done with the character of Cora. The show retained its 1960s setting and style, but I couldn’t have been the only one watching Cora, a shameless opportunist who only loves parades when she’s the grand marshall, without thinking of a more recent personage. Cora’s desire to separate the obedient and pious pilgrims to her town from the allegedly kooky “Cookies” of Fay’s asylum stinks of Sarah Palin’s “real America” schtick; perhaps Tina Fey in the role would have been overkill.
It also would have been robbing the audience of the wonderful Donna Murphy, who lead a delightful cast that made this problematic material worth watching. Murphy herself was outstanding. She was clearly having a blast with her over-the-top material, and two particular bits of ad-libbing on her part sent already hilarious moments into the stratosphere. Sutton Foster, the loveliest of Broadway lovelies I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, played all aspects of Fay’s personality–restrained, reproachful, liberated, and defiant–beautifully. Raul Esparza was coiffed and coutured within an inch of his life to look like John Hamm on Mad Men, but his impish charm shone through, and nothing can subdue his wonderful voice.
Nichalow, who choreographed as well as directed, must have worked the cast to exhaustion in their brief rehearsal period, based on the elaborate and complicated dance numbers featured. The costumes were appropriate to the period and were just skirting the edge of cartoonishness (as was much of the action), and the City Center orchestra sounded great as always.
It was an interesting night at theater, that’s for sure. I don’t recall seeing a show that was so thoroughly dependent on its interpreters. Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Laurents should be grateful the stars aligned as they did for this brief engagement. It’s highly unlikely that Anyone Can Whistle will be seen in any other format ever again.