The story of Anyone Can Whistle with lots of details
by Mark Eden Horowitz.
News and Notes
“Really weird”: The stories behind Anyone Can Whistle
Casey Nicholaw directed Whistle for Encores!
Arts writer Stephen Schiff spent time “Deconstructing Sondheim” for a 1993 New Yorker article (Part I)
Joshua Schmidt (Adding Machine) discusses how Sondheim influenced his development as a composer
Sondheim on film and video (Part I) considers Forum, Company, Follies and Night Music
Lonny Price has directed a series of memorable concert producions for Chicago audiences at Ravinia
The women of A Little Night Music defy expectation
The director of a community theatre staging of Assassins describes how she made it work
Company’s original cast recording in 1970 was a landmark
Productions and Reviews
TSR’s thoughts about the redux revival of Night Music with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch
Opera Australia staged a production of Night Music
Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi gave St. Louis an unusual Night Music
Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre staged Sunday in the Park with George
Williamstown Theatre Festival staged an all-male Forum
Barrington Stage Company produced Sweeney Todd
Another 80th birthday event: the BBC Proms offer Sondheim a hero’s welcome at Royal Albert Hall
Cryptic Crossword: “Bang”
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
The story of Anyone Can Whistle with lots of details
by Mark Eden Horowitz
The first clipping for the show that would become Anyone Can Whistle appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 5, 1961: “For the winter of 1962, [Arthur Laurents] is nurturing another musical project, The Natives Are Restless. The narrative and staging will be Mr. Laurents’s handiwork; music and lyrics that of Stephen Sondheim. A meager description was furnished by Mr. Laurents, who refused to elaborate. Although the title might indicate otherwise, it is indigenous in content and contemporary in scope. No producer yet.”
This seems to contradict something that Sondheim said in an oral history for Columbia University in 1982. There he explained that, hurt by the response or lack thereof to the music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “I just remember thinking, ‘Okay, let’s go on.’ That’s when I went to Arthur and said I wanted to do something with really a lot of music in it and really weird. That’s why we did Whistle.” However, Forum opened in May 1962, and the announcement for this next show had been made several months previously. Still, the first known draft script for the show dates from Sept. 1, 1962, well after Forum’s opening, and Sondheim’s feelings about the response it received might have colored his feelings for how he now wanted to approach this new work.
Kermit Bloomgarden, Producer
There seems to be no new news about the show until July 14, 1963, in an article in The New York Times about Kermit Bloomgarden and the four shows he planned for the coming season. Two were maybes, two were definite; one of the latter was the Sondheim-Laurents musical, now titled Side Show. In retrospect, the article already points to what will become one of the show’s main problems — what exactly is it about? “Side Show, an entertainment for which no one, including Arthur Laurents who wrote the book, could find words to describe the story, will have music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. ‘It’s too zany,’ said Mr. Bloomgarden. Mr. Laurents, generally articulate, was willing to say only that the musical was ‘unusual and unconventional.’ There is, Mr. Laurents remarked by way of proof, a 20-minute sequence involving music, movement and dialogue. And further proof, this will be a musical in three acts. Four leading roles need to be filled and Mr. Laurents, who also will direct, emphasized that a leading man is needed ‘who can act and sing.'” The article goes on to announce that Herbert Ross would choreograph, with Jo Mielziner designing the sets. Rehearsals were to start Dec. 1, and the show was slated to open in late January. Bloomgarden might have offered Mielziner the job, but the designer selected was Ming Cho Lee, whom Laurents ultimately fired and replaced with William and Jean Eckart.
Bloomgarden’s papers are at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I have not seen them, but scholar Lara Housez, currently working on her dissertation, shared some of her discoveries with me. First is a letter to Bloomgarden from Arthur Laurents: “I beg you not to mention the money problems or any difficulties to Steve anymore. It depresses him terribly and makes it terribly difficult for him to work … It is damn hard to concentrate … when all the atmosphere is filled with gloom and forebodings about will the show get the money to go on? … Spare him the gory details.” This was a kind act on Laurents’s part — something that runs counter to his current reputation. This behavior is neatly mirrored by Sondheim, who, discovering that Laurents hated doing backers’ auditions, took over that responsibility, playing and singing more than 30.
Ultimately, 115 investors were found to back the $350,000 production — including Richard Rodgers and Sondheim’s father. But there are also letters to Bloomgarden from potential backers complaining about the score — comments include “too far out,” “too way out” and “too avant garde.” There is a particularly fascinating letter from Jon de Hart, who worked for Bloomgarden: “‘Anyone Can Whistle’ is the one song in the show that has any appeal. It should be stressed in the Entre Acts [sic] and Overture. I think it would be beneficial for you to talk to Don Walker about his ideas on the score. We seem to forget how far out this music really is. We have heard it so many times that we now think it’s melodic. It isn’t.” Without meaning to, de Hart is arguing a point that Sondheim will often make in the future — it’s familiarity that makes scores seem melodic and accessible.
Once the show had its producer, news items became more regular. Dorothy Kilgallen reported in her syndicated column that Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick were being sought to play the two female leads. But it isn’t until nearly two months later, on Sept. 9, 1963, when they are announced for the roles, noting that “Side Show will mark the musical debut for both actresses.”
The casting of Anyone Can Whistle has always been a bit of an oddity. While it is now not only common but expected for Broadway shows to be cast with movie stars, at the time of Whistle it was not. To have three leads all come from Hollywood and none to have been in a musical before was almost unimaginable. In the case of Whistle, it can perhaps partly be explained by the fact that Bloomgarden’s most successful musical to date had been The Music Man (1957), a smashing success that not only revitalized but improved the career of Robert Preston. There is also some sense that Laurents, with his already significant Hollywood credits, if not exactly star-struck, was at least thinking more broadly about his casting choices than was common at the time.
According to recent emails and a phone conversation with Sondheim, Laurents originally wanted Keith Michell (who had previously found great success starring in Irma La Douce and The Rehearsal) to play the role of Hapgood; for forgotten reasons, those negotiations fell through. He believes it was Bloomgarden who suggested Harry Guardino in his place. (Shortly thereafter, Michell played Cervantes/Don Quixote to great acclaim in the original West End production of Man of La Mancha, suggesting he might well have been a great asset to Whistle.) Sondheim also recalls that Laurents suggested Angela Lansbury for the part of Cora Hoover Hooper, but he could not remember who had first mentioned Lee Remick to play Fay Apple, a part originally offered to Barbra Streisand.
In 1962, Laurents directed the musical version of I Can Get It for You Wholesale, whose cast included Streisand in her Broadway debut. She played a secondary character, but almost stole the show from its leads, and apparently Laurents felt somewhat proprietary toward his discovery. Early drafts of the Whistle script have the character named Fay Cohen, with Laurents tailoring the part for Streisand. Offered both Whistle and the lead in Funny Girl, Streisand wisely chose the latter. At first it might seem difficult to imagine Streisand in a role we now think of as a buttoned-down, puritanical shiksa (until released by a red wig and a French accent). But a decade later, Laurents would write the screenplay of The Way We Were for Streisand, and suddenly one sees the similarities between the characters, particularly in their fervent battles against an overwhelming establishment.
Three blurbs in December 1963 are of interest. First, in The New York Times on Dec. 4, Guardino becomes the male lead in Side Show. The piece goes on to say, “The part assigned to Mr. Guardino is that of a man who confuses a town by dividing it into two groups … ‘Unlike most of today’s plays,’ Mr. Laurents said, ‘”Side Show” is decidedly positive and optimistic. Its theme is a commitment to principles and belief.'” On Dec. 18, the show’s title changed to Anyone Can Whistle, and in an article in The Los Angeles Times (Dec. 29), Remick explained, “My career in Hollywood has eminently equipped me for the new role — a nurse in an insane asylum.”
Don Walker, Orchestrator
Sondheim doesn’t recall how Don Walker was selected to orchestrate Anyone Can Whistle, but believes it was probably Bloomgarden who chose him. Bloomgarden had used Walker on three previous musicals — The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man and The Gay Life. Sondheim was happy with the choice; he was already a big fan of Walker, particularly because he had previously orchestrated his favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein score, Carousel. He liked what Walker did, but the orchestrator was condescending and dismissive, making it a difficult collaboration. Sondheim suspects that Walker was envious of a young guy with a show on Broadway, whereas he had not found success as a composer with his own show, Courtin’ Time, and was now relegated to being merely an orchestrator once again.
Walker’s papers are at the Library of Congress; there are two notes from Sondheim among them. The first, presumably given on opening night, reads, “Thank you not only for the marvelous work but for your tough-mindedness and patience. I hope we do many other shows together — Steve.” They didn’t. The second note reveals a kind and thoughtful side of Sondheim, as there would have been no expectation for him to have sent such a thing: “Dear Don — I’ve been looking at the score of Anyone Can Whistle for the first time in a year, having just received it from Mattie [music copyist Mathilde Pinchus], and I listened to the record again. It prompted me to send you this note, to thank you once more for the marvelous job you did. I still feel proud of the piece — surprisingly — and your contribution is no small part of the glow. With deepest gratitude and affection, Steve.” (While most of the arrangements were indeed Walker’s, some were scored by Herbert Greene, who did the title tune, and some by Arnold Goland.)
The Walker collection also includes a brief review of the album from Cash Box, which includes the inexplicable sentence, “Don Walker’s cerebral orchestrations often steal the show.” My favorite item is a hand-drawn cartoon by an unidentified wag. It shows a door bearing the sign:
“The Think System”
This is a tweak that riffs on Walker’s previous show, The Music Man, where Prof. Harold Hill had developed the “think system” as his snake-oil method for teaching his young protégés to play their band instruments. Guardino, notoriously, had difficulties singing in the show.
I once asked Jonathan Tunick his thoughts about Walker’s orchestrations for Whistle. Tunick, also a fan of Walker’s work, responded: “I think he approached Steve thinking something like this: ‘This kid doesn’t really know how to write a Broadway show — I’m going to help him out. And the way I’m going to help him out is that I’m going to make this score sound as much like The Pajama Game as I can. That’s really going to help this show be a hit, and that’s what he really wants, but he just doesn’t know how to get it .’ And he proceeded to do just that.”
As Anyone Can Whistle’s Broadway opening neared, it was clear that the show was in some trouble, and that additional work was needed. The opening was postponed from March 26, 1964, to April 4. The show was running long, and the creators began doing what they could to cut and streamline. Realizing that the three-act structure was probably a mistake, they attempted to reconfigure the show into two acts, but this was virtually impossible at such a late date due to the impact on so many of the show’s technical aspects, such as the time needed to do set and costume changes. This is one of the reasons why it’s often a bad idea to have an author direct his own show, especially in its first production. There simply isn’t enough time to work on rewrites while trying to rehearse, restage and deal with the myriad other challenges that beset a musical during its tryout. Sondheim and Laurents were able to trim about 15 minutes from the show, including cutting the song “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” which seemed duplicative and was less effective than the speech that preceded it.
Odds and ends about the score
Sondheim has often mentioned the influence of Kay Thompson on the songs he wrote for the character of Cora, the venal mayoress, played by Angela Lansbury. Thompson was a composer, arranger and performer who had developed sophisticated vocal arrangements (often accompanied by the Williams Brothers) that called for tight and jazzy harmonies, as well as a presentation that was highly choreographed and included rhythmic hand-clapping. Adapting Thompson’s style for Cora’s numbers conveyed the coldness, calculation and focus on image over substance of the character; it made perfect use of Thompson’s style to convey Cora, who is constantly being surrounded by her sycophantic “boys.” Moreover, it provided an audience-pleasing color and energy to the score.
Sondheim knew Thompson slightly: She once hired him to write a song for Ginger Rogers to perform in a nightclub act. But he has no memory of whether she ever saw the show, recognized the homage or had any reaction. Asked if there were any specific numbers of hers that might have served as a model for “Me and My Town,” he wasn’t sure, but he recalled as a possibility the “Madame Crematante” portion of the “Great Lady Gives an Interview” sequence Thompson wrote for Judy Garland in the film Ziegfeld Follies, particularly for the way it used the boys in hand-clapping accompaniment.
The first two major numbers in the score — “Me and My Town” and “Miracle Song” — belong to the character of Cora, which seems surprising, given that she’s arguably the least important of the three leads. When asked the reason, Sondheim says, “It was a matter of storytelling. First you have to establish the town’s situation. You can’t do that with Fay. It’s just the way the plot unfolded.” Asked why the Pilgrims incant “Comfort” and then later “Rainbow” during the “Miracle Song,” Sondheim says, “I was trying to show the madness of crowds. Everybody’s looking for a miracle. What’s a miracle? Being comfortable. Achieving dreams. It was just an abstract or metaphoric way to express what people were looking for.”
“Simple” (aka “The Interrogation”) is Sondheim’s first large and complex musicalized scene — what he calls “plotting songs,” numbers that include singing, dialogue with underscoring, and action that feels and functions coherent while moving the story forward. When work began on the show, the collaborators hadn’t anticipated the number, but as Sondheim explains: “When we got to it, Arthur had the idea for the scene, and it struck me that since it’s one long mad sequence that gets madder and madder, it seemed right that it should be somehow encapsulated musically, even though there was a lot of dialogue in it. So, to begin with, we ad-libbed some of it at the piano. Arthur would sit on the edge of the piano bench, and I would play some musical ideas I had invented or developed for it, and he would ad-lib dialogue and I’d say, ‘And then she can take over and sing,’ and then I’d ad lib a lyric on that. So a lot of it was worked out together. But it was not planned to be a number when we sat down to write the show. It just arose — it just seemed like it was right to make the whole thing a musical sequence.”
Sondheim has spoken of his general dislike for what he calls, the “peasants on the green” type of number, where suddenly a disparate collection of characters are singing the same thought. Even though musicals are an artificial form, it generally feels false to him and rarely seems justified by the situation. In “Simple,” he not only found a way to justify it, but it also made a larger point. Where the character of Hapgood initially asks various characters for their individual watch-cries, until there is a cacophony of responses, the charismatic leader is then able to divide everyone into two groups who become automaton-like in their responses, singing in unison or in two unison groups.
There is a surprising parallel between a climactic moment during “Simple” and a scene from the 1940 film His Girl Friday. In the musical, Hapgood interrogates Schub, cornering him into submission with this line of questioning:
HAPGOOD: What do you think of someone who makes a product and doesn’t use it?
SCHUB: He’s crazy.
HAPGOOD: Most of your money goes to the government in taxes. What does the government do with most of the money? Makes bombs. But you say to make a product and not use it is crazy. Isn’t that what you said, Comptroller Cooley? And doesn’t that make you crazy for letting them waste your money, Treasurer Schub?
And here’s the sequence from the film:
HILDY: What’s the purpose of a gun, Earl?
WILLIAMS: A gun? (He thinks — then a revealing smile breaks out) Why — to shoot, of course.
HILDY: Is that how you came to shoot the policeman?
WILLIAMS: Sure. You see, I’d never had a gun in my hand before, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Well, when I get stuck, I know that there’s an answer for everything in production for use. So it came to me in a flash: What’s a gun for? To shoot! So I shot. Simple isn’t it?
HILDY: Very simple, Earl.
WILLIAMS: There’s nothing crazy about that, is there?
HILDY: No, Earl, not at all.
According to Sondheim, there was no conscious relationship between the two works, either by him or Laurents. He also doesn’t think there’s really a parallel. My first misapprehension.
The second of my three misapprehensions about the score was my assumption that “The Cookie Chase Ballet” was a pastiche of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (especially since one of the show’s early titles had been The Nut Show). Sondheim says his primary inspiration seems to have been simply that he likes to write waltzes, and the ballet gave him the opportunity to write several of them. It was dance arranger Betty Walberg who worked with Ross and Sondheim in adapting the themes to the choreography.
Given the zaniness of the show, it is perhaps surprising how wistful and heartfelt the title song is. The music is among the most haunting Sondheim has ever written. It is Kern-like in its straightforwardness and boasts one of those rare melodies that seems as though it was plucked from the air rather than written.
Sondheim’s lyric sketches for the song reveal some of the sweat behind the creation. For instance, he struggles among the small, connective words to find the best one. Should it be “What’s hard seems simple” or “… is simple”? Should it be “What’s natural comes hard” or “… seems hard” or “… is hard”? “Learn to be free” or “… get free” or “… feel free”? There is also a wonderful list of attributes to select from: “I can slay a dragon … play piano … dance a tango … speak/read Italian … carve a turkey … weave a carpet … write a sonnet … turn a cartwheel.” And finally he offers: “Anything that’s taught (learnable)/I can learn.”
My third misapprehension relates to a segment of the cut song “There’s Always a Woman.” I had wrongly assumed it was Sondheim’s murderous homage to Dorothy Parker’s poem of suicide, “Résumé.” Though Sondheim is well aware of the Parker poem, no relationship was intended.
The reviews were not kind. Still, some of them are more positive than one might assume. Howard Taubman in The New York Times wrote, “There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it’s unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit.” But he does go on to say, “Mr. Sondheim has written several pleasing songs but not enough of them to give the musical wings.” John Chapman is more positive in The New York Daily News citing its “briskly syncopated score, educated lyrics, original and frisky dances, waltzing scenery, and an imaginative story which the cast had to cope with rather strenuously. This book and the lack of melody I could whistle impeded my enjoyment of the last two acts, which didn’t quite fulfill the high promise of the joyfully daffy first act … Sondheim’s witty chorus songs are generally more appealing than his romantic solos.” And in a somewhat schizophrenic and ill-informed review in The Christian Science Monitor, Anne Sloper wrote, “Perhaps in his latest effort [Sondheim] was seeking new modes of musical expression; but whatever the cause, his avant-garde score lacked melody, indeed at times bordered on the fringe of tortuous electronic music. His lyrics, however, demonstrated the customary Sondheim flair.”
Reviews of the original cast recording tended to fare a bit better — untethered as they were from the script. The review by John S. Wilson in The New York Times is not always complimentary, but it closes with a perceptive observation: “The score often rambles on in undisciplined fashion, but there is so much imagination in it, so much that is unhackneyed, that one cannot help feeling that it might be shaped into something far more effective than it is now.”
In a last-ditch effort to save the show, Sondheim and Laurents, who had already waived royalties, each spent $1,500 of their own money to buy an ad in the Times. To no avail. The show closed on April 11, 1964, after 12 previews and nine performances. Goddard Lieberson insisted on recording the show, which allowed the score to find acolytes. Its reputation has continued to grow. A telling September 1964 profile of Lieberson in the Times includes this moving bit: “Mr. Lieberson can work up plenty of vehemence over a show that Columbia was interested in and which turned out to be an impressive flop for all: Anyone Can Whistle. … Mr. Lieberson characterized it as ‘a brilliant new effort, genuinely original,’ and is ready to maintain that judgment against all comers. He is not depressed by its commercial demise. ‘If the same situation came up again,’ he says, ‘I’d buy it again.'”
Though Anyone Can Whistle was indeed a commercial flop, it was a daring show that planted many seeds that bore fruit in future works. Sondheim seems to have found his mature voice in this score. He experimented with the uses of pastiche as a way to delineate character for the first time, wrote complex contrapuntal choral sections, crafted a score that broke dramatically from the typical 32-bar song form and in “Simple” wrote the first of his ambitious musicalized scenes. Sondheim has said one of the things he observed from working with Leonard Bernstein was that, if you’re going to fall off the ladder, it’s fine as long as you don’t fall from one of the lower rungs. If Sondheim fell off the ladder with Anyone Can Whistle — his first commercial failure after three successes — at least he fell from a very high one. |TSR|
MARK EDEN HOROWITZ is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Sondheim on Music. He is a frequent TSR contributor, most notably of “Biography of a Song,” in-depth analyses of Sondheim’s compositions.