By Brian Scott Lipton . . .
“It was a moment. A marvelous moment,” two characters sing at the end of Anyone Can Whistle, and that sentiment perfectly summed up the feeling many of the 2,500 people who packed Carnegie Hall on Thursday, March 10 had at the exact moment those words were uttered.
This semi-staged concert presentation by the always impressive Ted Sperling and MasterVoices of the wacky 1964 Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim musical was a long-awaited return to the theater for some; an initial experience to hear this rarely-performed show live; and, above all, a chance to pay tribute to Sondheim, our greatest composer-lyricist, who passed away in November. Accordingly, what ended up on the stage was not to be judged by any ordinary standard.
In fact, even under the best of circumstances it can be hard for anyone to know how to properly assess this show. In 1964—a year that also saw Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl—this deliberately absurdist tale actually lived up to George S. Kaufman’s quip that “satire is what closes on Saturday night” after an official run of nine official performances. Would 2022 really yield a different result?
Perhaps, since many of the show’s themes—the venality of petty politicians, the dangers of conformity, the distrust of the medical profession—speak far more clearly to present-day audiences. Still, Laurents’ unwieldy book (presented here in a very abridged version with narration provided by the priceless Joanna Gleason) and less-than-lovable characters might still make it impossible to sell tickets.
Sondheim’s score, though, remains a marvel of ingenuity and variety. The big, brassy numbers such as “Me and My Town” for the corrupt mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (embodied by a glamorous Vanessa Williams, effortlessly exuding the kind of deep-down nastiness familiar to fans of her work on Ugly Betty) to the tongue-twisting “Simple” and the defiant “Everyone Say Don’t” for the seemingly virtuous Dr. Hapgood (a strong yet sympathetic Santino Fontana) to the rarely-heard “It’s Always A Woman” (performed with great brio by Williams and Elizabeth Stanley as the show’s “heroine,” the idealistic nurse Fay Apple) to the deliberately old-fashioned “I’ve Got You to Lean On” (engagingly enacted by Williams, Douglas Sills, Michael Mulheren and Eddie Cooper) not only provide their own delights, but each harbors hints of future Sondheim shows to come.
Intriguingly, though, Fay gets many of the musical’s finest numbers, and Stanley’s ability to hit each one of them—a poignant “Anyone Can Whistle,” an anthemic “There Won’t Be Trumpets” or an insouciant “Come Play Wiz Me—out of the proverbial park was little short of breathtaking.
I know (for a fact) there were smart producers and other theater creators in the audience, and each one should be plotting Stanley’s next starring vehicle ASAP. And when one comes up with that show, please whistle for me . . .
Anyone Can Whistle was performed for one night only at Carnegie Hall on March 10, 2022. www.mastervoices.org
Photos: Nina Westervelt