Whistle in Concert
Another of those special nights; a concert of Anyone Can Whistle
A review of the Whistle concert CD
News and Notes
A West Side Story tour, updates on Woods and Sweeney films
Scott Ellis talks about his plans for Company
Follies in Houston and Seattle, Pacific Overtures in Lancaster, PA
Sondheim shows from east to west
Assassins and West Side Story in Australia, Into the Woods in Toronto, A Little Night Music in Munich
Set designer William Eckart recalls the original Anyone Can Whistle
Why do Sondheim shows seem to arouse such passion?
Ken Mandelbaum describes the Sondheim original cast performances that have been shown on TV and are, somewhere, available on video
Ute Lemper sings Sondheim; a punk West Side Story
For Your Amusement
The Contest: Ideas for new shows; another to enter
A word search
Sondheim creates an elaborate treasure hunt
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
The original Whistle: ‘Gems searching for a setting’
Jean and William Eckart designed the sets for the original Anyone Can Whistle in 1964. We asked William Eckart, now living in Dallas, to recall that time and place.
Looking back can be tricky. One tends to emphasize the successes and minimize the failures, retain the positives and forget the negatives. Remembering Anyone Can Whistle is particularly tricky. Even though it is classed as a commercial failure, I remember it with great fondness as a winner–one of the highlights of our Broadway career. It had more unrealized potential than so many of the shows that we were associated with before and after.
If Jean were still alive, she could clarify some of my recollections. Through the years we found that while our overall memory was usually identical, sometimes we had chosen to remember different details or to remember details differently.
Earlier in our career we had discovered that our enthusiasm for a show that we were designing was not necessarily a barometer of the taste of the general public. And vice versa. In 1955 we had designed Marc Blitzstein’s Reuben, Reuben. We loved it! At the final run-through before going out of town, we, along with other members of the audience, were moved to tears of joy–leaving us totally unprepared for the audience reaction in Boston. They hated it with a passion that had to be voiced as they walked out during the middle of the first act. They couldn’t wait until intermission.
It should have prepared us for Whistle. But it didn’t. We approached it with the same naive love, admiration and enthusiasm. It was (and still is) an exciting work that somehow wasn’t able to whistle clearly enough.
Anyone Can Whistle opened at the Majestic Theater on April 4, 1964. Since this was a Saturday, the reviews did not appear until Monday, April 6. Walter Kerr began his in the New York Herald Tribune: “Anyone Can Whistle is an exasperating musical comedy.” And Richard Watts Jr. ended his in the New York Post: “But Anyone Can Whistle is an unfortunate letdown of an evening paved with the highest intentions.”
The other notices were equally unenthusiastic, and the show closed on the following Saturday, April 11, after a run of only one week. It was a sad day for us.
Jean and I had come to the show quite late. Originally the title of the piece was The Natives Are Restless and then Sideshow, and Ming Cho Lee had been hired to design the scenery. But something happened during the process, and that old bugaboo–“artistic differences”–reared its ugly head. Ming withdrew.
When Arthur Laurents called to ask if we were interested, we were elated, but also reluctant. Elated, because we had tremendous admiration for both Arthur and Steve Sondheim, whom we had known only socially before, and the opportunity of working with them was very, very attractive. Yet reluctant, because of several things. We knew that this was no ordinary project; there wasn’t much time before rehearsals were scheduled to start; and the hazy ethics of the situation made us quite uncomfortable. So we called Ming, whom we also admired, and got not only his reasons for withdrawing, but his blessing as well. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship.
We accepted the assignment with a clear conscience, much enthusiasm and even more trepidation. The enthusiasm was genuine. By this time we had read the book, heard the score and talked with Steve and Arthur. We were fascinated by the project and the possibilities that it offered. The trepidation was equally genuine. We knew it was a difficult task with little time for agonizing reappraisals.
Whistle is very complex. It’s about many things: the delicate line between sanity and insanity, who is who, conformity and nonconformity, what is what, idealism, cynicism, romanticism–all lumped together in a crazy plot about a fake miracle, created by the corrupt mayoress of a depressed town, and its impact on an idealistic nurse from the local asylum (the Cookie Jar) and a cynical psychiatrist who later turns out to be one of the Cookies.
It’s insane, but enormously appealing. And the score is equally so–varied, innovative, extremely witty. All of it is so full of potential. At the time we told Arthur and Steve that our fear was that there might not be time for us to evolve a design that we felt the piece deserved, and so it might become necessary to rely on our own clichés.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened (a wish-fulfilling prophecy?). The design was adequate. It was quite serviceable and didn’t do any harm. But it didn’t do much good. It served but didn’t illuminate. We failed to capture the delicate balance between fantasy and reality that was needed. For example, the rock from which the water miraculously came (actually the mayoress and her henchmen had installed a pump) should have been rather special. Unfortunately, ours was a somewhat large “stage rock.” It moved on and just sat there. In Philadelphia we covered it with plants and flowers in an attempt to make it seem less lugubrious, only to find that it looked like an artificial flower display on a large fake rock in a department store. The foliage was cut.
Other parts of the design were more deft and successful, and it moved from scene to scene gracefully. But overall, it was a pastiche of our former work–a large portion of The Golden Apple with a dash of Damn Yankees, a pinch of Fiorello!, a bit of She Loves Me and, of course Reuben, Reuben. Goulash, when it should have had its own distinctive flavor. Somehow we failed to capture the elusive essence of the work.
Granted that that essence eluded everyone. But it was there. The mood of the rehearsal period was joyful. I recall going to the Majestic to see a rehearsal of the “Cookie Chase,” the stunning ballet in Act II comprised entirely of waltzes. As Jean and I came in the stage door, Betty Wahlberg, the dance arranger, provided musical accompaniment–“Lookie, lookie, here comes Cookie…”–for our walk across the bare stage. That was the prevailing atmosphere. We were all Cookies on a delightful adventure.
And despite the negative notices in Philadelphia, that atmosphere remained. Even the crew was infatuated. On closing night in New York, we were all astonished and delighted at the end of Act I to see the property person, George Green (a large, burly man), appear on stage as a member of the fake audience of actors and mannequins applauding the real audience. And if I recall accurately, he was in drag. At the time it was reassuringly heartwarming. Looking back, it seems so perfectly appropriate. Perhaps there’s a germ of something there that we all missed. Perhaps we were all too timid, trying too hard to be safe, afraid to risk being absolutely outrageous more of the time.
Now, thirty years later, Anyone Can Whistle is still as vivid and as elusive as it was then. There was something rather remarkable underneath that couldn’t get out. All of the raw materials were there–an intriguing idea and a host of great talents. It was full of gems searching for a setting or at least a miraculous, invisible glue to hold it all together.
Would that we had found it.