Anyone Can Whistle first complete recording... the 23-year wait is over

Craig Glenday, Chair of The Stephen Sondheim Society, is treated to listen of the soon-to-be-released recording of Anyone Can Whistle made more than 20 years ago with Julia McKenzie, Maria Friedman and John Barrowman... and is blown away by it

Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent's troubled 1963 political satire Anyone Can Whistle famously flopped on Broadway, closing just eight days after its opening night. A cast recording was made - with stars Angela Lansbury (in her first Broadway musical role) and Lee Remick, among others - but the show effectively disappeared off the musical-theatre radar, despite some delightful songs that have found their way into the cabaret repertoire. This year, however, a "lost" recording made more than 20 years ago of the entire show is due to be published in December 2020, and a recording featuring the cream of the UK theatre scene, no less: Julia McKenzie, Maria Friedman and John Barrowman.

The recording - a passion project spearheaded John Yap, founder of JAY Records - was made in 1997 at Abbey Road Studios with a full 42-piece orchestra (National Symphony Orchestra) and chorus of more than 35 West End featured artists. Sondheim himself worked on the preparations for the recording, and Laurents even provided the narration. For years, its release has been speculated, rumours have circulated but this past weekend, in anticipation of its impending release on 3 December this year - miracle of miracles! - the Sondheim Society's Tina Foote and I were treated to a complete listen of the two-disc recording ("the first people other than Sondheim to hear the whole thing," Yap reassures us!) at the producer's home in Islington, London.

And what a spectacular recording it is! It's a complete documentation of the original Broadway production - with "There Won't Be Trumpets", thankfully, but also every note of the underscoring, the entr'acte, bows and exit music (but not the complete libretto or, sadly, "There's Always a Woman", which was not part of the original Broadway production). Most thrilling of all, however, is the glorious and complete "Don't Ballet", a surrealist dance sequence slotted into "Everybody Says Don't" that makes its first ever appearance on record.

Ultimately, though, I suspect that it will be the killer cast that will be of most interest, to British listeners, at least. At this point in their careers, McKenzie, Friedman and Barrowman were undoubtedly at the height of their powers, and all three have never sounded better. The power in Julia's voice is a potent reminder of why she is one of the - if not the - definitive Sondheim interpreters; she unleashes the ferocity, desperation and comedy locked into the part of the corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper like no one else has (maybe even Lansbury, but I will need a second or third listen to be sure) - and what a treat to be hearing a "new" Julia McKenzie performance! Friedman is simply wonderful as Fay Apple, again giving the role a feistiness that's rarely heard (yet with incredible tenderness in a tear-jerking "With So Little To Be Sure Of" and "Anyone Can Whistle", the latter of which you can hear below), and Barrowman is her equal as the mad Hapgood, also strong of voice and beautifully matched in their quirky duets.

Anyway, this is not a review - merely my initial excited reactions from hearing what is effectively a new Sondheim. It's all in there - including the insanity of "Simple" (anything but!) and "The Cookie Chase", which will, I suspect, turn listeners off and on in equal measure. But that score! John Owen Edwards is given the glorious job of conducting the full National Symphony Orchestra (did I count four percussionists?!) and bringing to fruition Don Walker's absolutely lush, scintillating, jazz-inflected orchestrations. At times, it even manages out Bernstein Bernstein, and certainly reveals just how much of a dance show this (and likely why choreographer Herbert Ross was given the show's only Tony nomination)... I can already hear the likes of Bill Deamer and Stephen Mear itching to get this material up on the stage once again.

I'm gushing now but seriously, this recording will be a must for any Sondheim fan, and an major historical record of how the show was meant to be realised. I was sadly not given a copy to take home with me but can't wait to hear it again in all it's sparkling glory. I hear that Steve himself is pleased to finally hear the show as it was meant to be, and there can be no better an endorsement than that.

Lending her endorsement to the recording is The Stephen Sondheim Society's founding member Julia McKenzie. She spoke to the Society about her role in the show and had this to say:

  • Bravo John Yap! You've taken on this crazy show and made a terrific job of it. At the time it was recorded, I believe everyone concerned with its production knew they were doing something special. And now, twenty years later, it has emerged triumphant. For my part, I'm only sorry I never had a chance to do Cora on stage. Retrospectively, it was a joy to record, and if I may say, somewhat smugly, I think I did an OK job.

And there can be no better a time to release such a zany, political satire than in the current climate, when the inmates do indeed appear to be running the asylum. This, according to Yap, has been part of his impetus to release the recording - that and, courtesy of Covid-19, having the last six months locked up at home, giving him the chance to finally put the finishing touches to the album. And if there is any justice in this corrupt world of fake news, quarantines, asylum-running-lunatics and dark theatres, I could really see the release of this album being an impetus to bring this flawed masterpiece back to the stage or at least inspiring a concert version in its full glory.

But I'm getting ahead of myself! For now, Society members will be given an advance opportunity to buy Anyone Can Whistle in addition to other significant discounts made available exclusive to members of Sondheim recordings on the JAY Records label (up to 40% off); members should check their emails for details on how to be the first to buy this important release.

CAST (in order of recorded appearance)


Cora Hoover Hooper JULIA McKENZIE


Treasurer Cooley IAN BURFORD

Comptroller Schub BILL NOLTE


Dr. L Sidney Detmold MATT ZIMMERMAN

J. Bowden Hapgood JOHN BARROWMAN