First listen: Anyone Can Whistle
Sondheim Society Chair Craig Glenday shares his rave review of the much-anticipated 1997 cast recording of Sondheim & Laurents' infamous flop
I've now had the chance to have multiple listens to JAY Records' Anyone Can Whistle, and I can confidently say that it's one of the best recordings of any Sondheim show I've had the pleasure of listening to. (Read my initial reactions here.) The clarity of the sound – the perfectly balanced voices with that gorgeous full-size orchestra – is exceptional, and it paints a 3D-like sound picture in your head, especially if you listen on good-quality headphones.
Whether or not this anarchic, satirical musical has any place in your heart shouldn't deter you from enjoying this particular recording. There's a good chance you've heard the original 1964 Broadway cast recording with Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick (recorded the day after the show closed!), or the live 1995 Carnegie Hall concert performance with Madeline Kahn and Bernadette Peters. But this newly released version has both of those Trumped [sic!] You'll be sure to find many new things in this, the first full account on record of the original Broadway show. Of particular interest to Sondheim completists will be the three-part "Don't Ballet", captured here for the first time and which hints at just how important dance was in the original production. You're also treated to all incidental, curtain and exit music, much of which out-West Sides West Side Story in its jazzy, finger-snapping coolness.
As I published online just minutes after hearing this two-disc set for the first time, the principal trio really are at the top of their game. I'm sure we've all played Fantasy Sondheim Casting, and here you couldn't ask for a better team. Julia McKenzie circa 1990 is a powerhouse and, wow, her Cora is a fully realised, fleshed out character. This is no stand-and-deliver cast recording: you'd think Julia had been playing the role for months. In the hands of such an experienced (and vocally trained) performer, Cora emerges as the most corrupt, cynical and back-stabbing of malfeasants... so the perfect politician! Just listen out for her "Parade in Town" – full of vitriol and scorn - and her sly "I've Got You To Lean On", both wickedly good fun!
Equally as spunky is Maria Friedman as Fay, who bristles with anger and feistiness – qualities that rarely if ever come off in other recordings of this show. Yet Maria also lets Fay's true feelings bubble up and break through her otherwise protective carapace, delivering an unmatched "Anyone Can Whistle". (Presented in this recording with the preceding dialogue, "Whistle" is thus given context (why can't the singer of this song whistle?!) – a rarity but much appreciated, much in the same way that the dialogue prior to "Send in the Clowns" sets up the song's meaning, with its perhaps otherwise baffling theatrical references.)
Rounding off the principals is John Barrowman as the delinquent Dr Hapgood. Again, he's never sounded better, imbuing Hapgood with a youthful mischievousness and infectious energy. You could easily see why pilgrims and patients alike would be happily led up the garden path by his puissant pied piper.
Adding another layer to this recording is the timing of its release. It couldn't be more apposite, coinciding as it does with the unfolding political drama in the USA (and in the UK, arguably!) although this could equally speak to the timeless challenges facing the art of the possible. I received my review copy on the afternoon of the US election, offering the perfect soundtrack to the day's news, the endless ticker tapes and gibber-gabber being thankfully drowned out by McKenzie, Friedman, Barrowman et al slugging it out in the show's unnamed township.
So, I hope you discover – or re-discover – the joy to be found in this famously troublesome show. Personally, I found it akin to hearing a Sondheim show for the first time. And while I admit to still finding the book a bit bamboozling, the songwriting, the performances and those glittering jazzy orchestrations more than make up for any misgivings about the plot. As the good doctor says, "Don't be afraid"!
A full review of Anyone Can Whistle will appear in the December issue of Sondheim The Magazine.