by Marilyn Lester

When Stephen Sondheim (music/lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) devised the three-act musical Anyone Can Whistle, the two were a few years beyond their Broadway success of West Side Story. Having been in Leonard Bernstein’s shadow on that project, Anyone Can Whistle was Sondheim’s opportunity to take the musical lead. The show was announced in 1961 and finally debuted in April 1964, receiving varied reviews, but pans from the New York Times and now defunct Herald Tribune––enough negativity to cause the show to close after 12 previews and nine performances, and without a full cast album being made. Over the years, Anyone Can Whistle achieved a kind of cult status (it is Sondheim, after all), birthing several revivals and concert stagings.

Initially, a truncated original cast recording was released on vinyl by Columbia Records, selling mostly to an audience of musical theater aficionados and dedicated Sondheim fans. This same recording was issued by Sony on compact disc in 2003. In 1997, however, the first complete recording of the show was made in the studio; yet it promptly ended up in the vaults without a release––until now. Jay Records has finally brought the recording to life, available as a 2-CD set. The cast is a fine one, including Julia Mackenzie, Maria Friedman and John Barrowman, plus a roster of over 35 West End featured actors and stars who sing as a chorus. The UK’s National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Owen Edwards, play the orchestrations of Don Walker. But why now? The answer is that John Yap, who produced the 1997 recording, has spearheaded the release as a gift to Sondheim on his 90th birthday.

The book of Anyone Can Whistle may be problematic––the plot revolves around a town in an economic depression whose corrupt mayor cooks up a fake miracle to lure in tourists––but the music lives on. Those who follow the trajectory of Sondheim’s work will instantly perceive the evolution of this earlier effort to the more mature compositions that followed over the years. Several of the numbers of the many adequate originals do stand out and have become new Songbook standards, such as the beautiful title song, the ballad “Anyone Can Whistle.” Also widely performed over the years are “Everybody Says Don’t” and “There Won’t Be Trumpets.” This 2-CD set, with 23 tracks on the first disc and 15 on the second, features the entire score, including snippets of dialog playoffs, interludes, and exit music. And of course, there are the vocals of the principals, McKenzie, Friedman and Barrowman, in their prime.