REVIEW: Anyone Can Whistle - 2020 Studio Cast

Recording CoverThey began recording it in 1997, and it's finally being released next week. If, like me, you've been waiting for JAY's complete studio recording of Anyone Can Whistle for over two decades, you may find it a little difficult to believe you finally have a copy of it in your hands. No need to pinch yourself – yes it's real, and yes, it's really good.

It has a lot to live up to. The show's now-legendary original Broadway cast recording, made the day after the Broadway production closed after a run of just twelve previews and nine performances, is one of those albums that makes you wonder how a show could possibly have failed to find an audience. As heard on that recording, Stephen Sondheim's songs for the show sound dazzlingly original, and they're given warmly characterful (if not always flawlessly sung) performances by the production's trio of stars – Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick, and Harry Guardino, none of whom had previously appeared in a Broadway musical.

Unlike Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim's other notorious flop, though, this is not a case of an original cast album laying the ground for a rehabilitation of the show's critical reputation via a series of high-profile revivals. Anyone Can Whistle has an extraordinary score, but Arthur Laurents's book, in which the leaders of a bankrupt town construct a fake "miracle" of water flowing from a rock to draw in tourist revenue and then have to deal with the chaos that ensues when the inmates of a local asylum are brought to take the waters, escape, and prove to be indistinguishable from the townspeople, is a slightly too-precious, messily unfocused satire on conformity that is very much a product of its time. It's never quite as funny or as penetrating as it thinks it is, and the final act ends on a somewhat optimistic note that the material hasn't entirely earned (should you wish to read it, the script was published in hardcover some years after the show closed, and secondhand copies are not too difficult to track down, although their price seems to fluctuate wildly between reasonable and jaw-droppingly expensive). In Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co, Lansbury notes that the show seemed to anger critics because "it appeared he [Laurents] was going to dose them with a phenobarbital but it turned out to be an aspirin", and based on the script that's a reasonable assessment; still, though, Sondheim's songs deserve a wide audience, even if the show is unlikely ever to be revived in anything other than a fringe production.

While it's something no self-respecting Sondheim fan would want to be without, though, the original Broadway cast recording offers a significantly truncated account of the score, with deep cuts within some of the show's extended musical sequences (I've Got You To Lean On, for example, is reduced to only the song's two choruses) and a significant amount of material left unrecorded. A subsequent concert recording from 1995 fills in a few of the gaps but by no means all of them; John Yap's new but long-aborning studio album contains half an hour more material than the 1995 concert disc and forty minutes more than the OBC.

Given that the show's book is – to say the least – problematic, and that some of the additional material on this newest album includes dialogue scenes, you may wonder whether it's something you really need to own. The answer is an emphatic yes; I doubt this album is going to lead to any great critical reappraisal of the show itself, but the previously-unrecorded material is always fascinating and sometimes very exciting, it's wonderful finally to have the music for all the show's extended choreographed sequences recorded in full, and the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John Owen Edwards, get the full range of colours out of Don Walker's distinctive orchestrations.

As for the three headline stars, they're all right at the top of their game. As Cora Hoover Hooper, the shallow, corrupt mayoress of the one-horse town where the show takes place, Julia McKenzie is clearly having the time of her life. She tears into Cora's opening Me And My Town with lip-smacking relish, has great fun with the Mayoress's sly sales pitch in The Miracle Song, and belts A Parade In Town into the rafters. John Barrowman's J. Bowden Hapgood, a "doctor" who turns out not to be at all what he claims, is possibly the best thing he's ever recorded, and his account of Everybody Says Don't, the show's paean to non-conformity, is more or less flawless.

As Nurse Fay Apple, a woman of science who sets out to prove the town's miracle is fake, Maria Friedman's work here may prove more divisive; Friedman is a very distinctive but also very idiosyncratic singer and actor, and those idiosyncrasies are very much on display here, most clearly in Nurse Apple's big Act One monologue (Now Point One), in which she makes some very BIG choices. If you aren't a fan, this recording isn't going to convert you. If you are – I am – you'll find her takes on There Won't Be Trumpets and See What It Gets You thrilling, and for me her simple, intimate version of the show's achingly moving title song, which might well be my favourite thing Sondheim has ever written, is the recording's highlight.

Because of the nature of this score, which gives a very disproportionate amount of the solo singing to the show's three leads, it's fair to say the supporting cast get fewer opportunities to make a strong impression, although the smaller roles are all impeccably filled. Arthur Laurents supplies the linking narration – yes, this album has been in development for a very long time - and the dialogue sequences included here are chosen well: there's just enough to give a flavour of what the show must be like in performance, but not enough for the listener to get lost in the book's sometimes rather self-indulgent convolutions.

If you're already a fan of the Broadway cast album, you're probably going to buy this anyway – but it's a real surprise to discover how thoroughly entertaining the previously-unrecorded material is, even given that it's also obvious from this recording that the show itself is probably never going to completely work in production. The Miracle Song and the title song are each worth the cost of the recording on their own, and Julia McKenzie, now in her late seventies, quit doing stage musicals in the mid-1990s and is never going to give us another big, brassy leading-lady performance, either on stage or on record. At her best, McKenzie is better in this kind of material than nearly anybody else, and John Yap captures her here at her absolute best. We've been waiting for this recording for a very long time – and for once, the wait turns out to have been worth it.


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