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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted: April 12, 2010 02:49 PM

First-Nighter: Anyone Can Whistle Those Great Stephen Sondheim Melodies

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During the talk-back following the matinee of the just-ended Encores! series Anyone Can Whistle revival at City Center, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim--who knows as much about constructing a musical comedy as anyone practicing the art/craft today--explained why the show he constructed with librettist-director Arthur Laurents is ultimately deficient. "We did not make clear what our premise is," he said. "You have to be clear about what kind of story you're telling."

His putting it so succinctly saves a reviewer time getting to the core of the problem in a story about a dying 1960s town where the city fathers and tough mayor mother decide they'll fake a Lourdes-like miracle to encourage tourism. Doing so, they must squelch the hoax-exposing intentions of a crusading woman running a local sanatorium called The Cookie Jar. The wily but habitually strait-laced lady is aided by a romantic stranger who's mistaken for an authority on miracles when he's anything but.

In 1964, when Anyone Can Whistle ran for nine(!) performances (after 12 previews), what was truly alluring about the show were its stars (Lee Remick, Harry Guardino and Angela Lansbury--all making tuner debuts), its Sondheim score and the choreography by Herbert Ross, who created two ballets about which Broadway cognoscenti still rave--and which so astonished me that I saw the production twice.

For the thoroughly staged Encores! concert version--which boasted Sutton Foster, Raul Esparza and Donna Murphy performing at the top of their laudable forms in the Remick, Guardino and Lansbury roles--director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw only got around to one of the ballets, "The Cookie Chase." In it, the supposedly mentally-deficient patients who've escaped from a jail where they've been hastily locked up impound the four-man police force instead. Nicholaw--apparently helped by original cast member Harvey Evans's memory of the unrecorded Ross steps--did a bang-up job of recreating the humor intrinsic to the ballet and thereby honoring Ross's contributions.

Nevertheless, the storyline--which Sondheim declared was meant to mock the conformity of the Eisenhower era--remains so confused that even series adapter David Ives confessed to understanding what was transpiring only a few days before the first public performance. Most people assume--myself among them--that Anyone Can Whistle is not so much about the wages of conformity as it is about lunatics being the only sane people in an insane society. This theory was perhaps best articulated by another of the period's acclaimed gurus, R. D. Laing, in his widely-read and influential book, The Divided Self.

While the Ross dances have pirouetted into the mists of time, the Sondheim score survives triumphantly. And curiously, it's another instance of Sondheim's not making himself clear. Indeed, it's indicative of his unconsciously not making himself clear throughout his entire brilliant career. That's because his canonization in the theater--and, yes, the Henry Miller Theater is about to become the Stephen Sondheim Theater--is predominantly based on his genius as a lyricist and not as a lyricist-composer.

To some formidable extent, clever wordsmith Sondheim has been too clever by half when it comes to putting words to his music. Too many of the listeners who revere him talk solely about his unparalleled way with words. As a result, when his songs are cheered, his melodies are often not even mentioned. If they are, they're dismissed, denigrated. Okay, perhaps they aren't in The Sondheim Review, a periodical read by a precious few in which everything Sondheim is held in awe.

But guess what, fans! In song-writing, where success is ideally a matter of fifty percent lyrics and fifty percent music, Sondheim almost always achieves the delicate balance. His melodies are marvelous, his harmonies carried out with inspiration. (He prepares elaborate piano arrangements but never ventures into orchestrations.) His songs are unending examples of melodic flow, of surprise. To cite any single example is to begin a list that includes almost everything he's written on his own since his first Williams College property, Saturday Night. Okay, I'll mention just one song: the title item from Anyone Can Whistle. It's about the inability to lose control and is possibly the most autobiographical of the master's songs. Listen to what he does with the notes each time he sets the word "easy."

There's also something else to listen to these days. To be more precise in Sondheim's much-commemorated eightieth-birthday year, it's not something but someone who must be listened to: superb jazz pianist Barbara Carroll. In her Oak Room stint at the Algonquin Sunday brunch, Carroll is playing a lengthy Sondheim medley. Although she does sing the trenchant love song "With So Little to Be Sure Of," she mostly just plays--and plays with--the melodies. She proves without a doubt that had Sondheim never written a word, he'd be a composer for the ages.