Interview by Ron Fassler

Stephen Sondheim, John Yap

It’s still Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday year and a special gift has arrived long in the making: the First Complete Recording of Anyone Can Whistle, the second Broadway show for which he wrote both music and lyrics. First recorded twenty-three years ago, it is finally (and happily) available for purchase online through John Yap’s Jay Records. Starring Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie and John Barrowman (all with significant on-stage Sondheim experience) and backed by the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Owen Edwards, it is truly a cause for celebration.

John Yap, Arthur Laurents

Co-written with Arthur Laurents, Sondheim’s collaborator on West Side Story and Gypsy, most critics didn’t know what to make of this outside-the-box musical back in 1964. Walter Kerr in the Herald-Tribune called it “exasperating” while Norman Nadel in the World Telegram and Sun wrote: “Were I a less inhibited creature, I would spend the next month hurling roses at the Majestic Theatre and at the beautiful people of Anyone Can Whistle.” Confused by the notices, no one showed up at the box office (that’s how it worked in those days, folks) forcing it to close at the end of its first week of performances. In his dual roles as both author and director, Laurents took the brunt of the criticism, with Sondheim’s score receiving a few kind words, but essentially, the show committed the crime of being ahead of its time. There was an assortment of smart cookies who understood what Sondheim was up to with this score; a harbinger of what was to come six years later with Company. That musical, bolstered by a funny and innovate book by George Furth, secured Sondheim’s position as a visionary. For those who saw that original production, as well as Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, all coming before the end of the decade, was as much a miracle as water from a rock (reference to a major plot point in Anyone Can Whistle).

Why it took so long to bring this wonderful CD to the general public is best told by its producer John Yap, who took the time to answer a few questions I recently posited to him on his obsession to get Anyone Can Whistle right for what proves to be its ultimate version:

John Yap, Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie

John Yap: I have always been on a quest to record and preserve for posterity in their complete form, musicals that are special, unique and deserving… both Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents [alive at the time] were immediately supportive when I proposed the idea, of a complete recording of Anyone Can Whistle (the original Broadway three act version), to them.

I knew that this score was very special and complicated. I didn’t want to just put it together, mix it and put it out. Until the lock-down earlier this year, I was perpetually busy recording new cast albums and solo artists albums, so I didn’t have time to finish it. It is thanks to the lock-down that Anyone Can Whistle is now finally being released.

Ron Fassler: Was there any resistance back in 1997 on the part of Stephen Sondheim or Arthur Laurents in going back over this specific territory for them again?

John Yap: No… they were not only supportive, but they were very enthusiastic about the idea of a complete recording and they opened all the doors for me… I was very surprised how the original orchestrations of the original version were kept intact perfectly, especially for a show that ran 9 performances in 1964. As I said, Steve and Arthur opened all the doors for me, and so I had no problem accessing whatever I needed to access.

Ron Fassler: One of the most startling aspects of this recording is how glorious Don Walker’s orchestrations shine through. Where does he stand amongst other orchestrators for whom you’ve worked diligently to recreate recordings of great musicals over the years? 

John Yap: I have always admired Don Walker’s orchestrations, but the revelation of his genius came [twenty years ago] with my complete recording of The Most Happy Fella. Having worked on that… and discovering intimately his amazing orchestrations (they were mostly buried in the Original Broadway Cast mono recording) that veered between Broadway showstopping sounds and Wagner, Don Walker became one of the top orchestrators for me. When I came to mixing Anyone Can Whistle earlier this year, I knew that I had to pay special attention to his amazing orchestrations and how much they contribute to the drama and essence of Anyone Can Whistle. I think it paid off spectacularly. Everyone who’s heard the recording so far, never fail to comment on how brilliant Don Walker’s orchestrations are.

Ron Fassler: How did you hit upon the idea of Laurents doing the narration?

John Yap: Because I had a close working relationship with Sondheim, I approached him to be the narrator (in the original Broadway version, the narrator is a character) but he suggested that I should ask Arthur as he thought that Arthur would do a better job at it. So, I asked Arthur and, Arthur without any hesitations, agreed to be the narrator… both Julia McKenzie and Maria Friedman are quintessential Sondheim actresses and interpreters, and so that was easy. Originally, I had a Broadway star for Hapgood (and we spoke about it) but my friend Janet Glass, who was John Barrowman’s agent, pitched John to me and was working very hard for me to cast him instead. The deciding factor came when Steve called me one evening after he had seen the musical The Fix at the Donmar Warehouse, London and said, “I have the perfect Hapgood for you. He is John Barrowman.” So, the next morning Janet Glass was delighted to have received that phone call from me. The Broadway star was very gracious about it when I told him that we cast John Barrowman instead.

Ron Fassler: Your website has a quote from Sondheim: “The brilliance of this recording gives the show more energy and sparkle than it’s ever had. It made me proud of it.” Do you think the line “it made me proud of it” is a loaded statement from Sondheim, considering the original was considered (at the time) such a failure?

John Yap: Yes, Sondheim is totally knocked out by the recording and he loves it. I was thrilled when he said that he would write an endorsement for it (knowing that he hardly ever does such endorsements in writing) and I was beyond thrilled when I read what he wrote. I think that his statement says it all. It is up to the readers what they make of it or think what he meant to say.

Anyone Can Whistle is available for order through Jay Records at their website.