MasterVoices to Perform Stephen Sondheim's 'Anyone Can Whistle' in Concert

Stephen Sondheim had so much success in his lifetime that it is hard to imagine that he actually had any flops, but he did. And his biggest flop in terms of performances was Anyone Can Whistle, which played only nine performances (and 11 previews) in 1964—a shorter run even than Merrily We Roll Along, which ran for 16 performances (and 44 previews) and has since become a cult favorite.

While Merrily has gotten several makeovers and many productions in New York and across the country, Anyone Can Whistle has not yet achieved cult status. But on March 10, Ted Sperling with MasterVoices is mounting a concert version at Carnegie Hall featuring orchestrations by Don Walker. MasterVoices, one of New York's musical treasures, has produced a range of rarely produced musical classics, including Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark and Let 'Em Eat Cake.

ted sperling MasterVoices
Ted Sperling, artistic director of MasterVoices, directs the concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle at Carnegie Hall on March 10. Laura Marie Duncan

Anyone Can Whistle, a "musical fable," is a satire on conformity with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents. It has a cast of Broadway veterans with more than a few connections to the works of Sondheim. Narrated by Joanna Gleason (who originated the role of the Baker's Wife in Sondheim's Into the Woods), the show stars Broadway veteran Vanessa Williams (who starred as the Witch in the 2002 revival of Sondheim's Into the Woods) as a corrupt mayoress who, with her three henchmen (Douglas Sills, Eddie Cooper, Michael Mulheren) fakes a miracle to revitalize her bankrupt town. The absurdist plot features a group of inmates from the Cookie Jar, a local asylum, an unlikely romance between Fay Apple (Elizabeth Stanley who played April in the 2006 revival of Company and fresh off her successful turn in Jagged Little Pill), an uptight nurse who tries to expose the fraud, and Dr. J. Bowden Hapgood (Santino Fontana, a Tony Award winner for Tootsie) who is out to make everyone question the meaning of sanity.

And if it has never spawned a hit, Anyone Can Whistle, like every other Sondheim musical, has a variety of songs that grow on you with repeated listenings. These include "Me and My Town," "A Parade in Town," "There Won't Be Trumpets," "Everybody Says Don't," "With So Little to Be Sure Of" and the title song.

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Elizabeth Stanley stars in Anyone Can Whistle at Carnegie Hall on March 10 Jenny Anderson

Pulling It Together

When asked what makes him choose a show to do for MasterVoices, Sperling, who serves as artistic director, told Newsweek, "First of all, I only want to devote all this energy to something that I passionately want to perform.

"And the next criterion for me is that it somehow relates to things that are on my mind, that are on my friends' minds, that what I hope are on our audience's mind, so that we're making some connections from the past to the present, especially if it's an older work.

"For example, when we were facing the [2020] elections, where I imagined the president might want to hold on to his position, we scheduled Let 'Em Eat Cake, which is very much about a president who can't accept that he didn't win re-election. And that's a very overt example."

In addition to relevance, MasterVoices mission is to shine a light on neglected works. Anyone Can Whistle is rarely seen and it tackles themes that hit home with Sperling. "Anyone Can Whistle jumped out to me. First of all, it's a piece that just doesn't get heard that often. It explores individuality and how that threatens some people in society. And the idea of trying to gather power in the hands of a number of wealthy individuals. What happens when a society gets divided so strongly into two camps that they can't see eye to eye about anything? And what happens when there's a charismatic leader who develops an almost cult-like following? All those are explored in Anyone Can Whistle. So, it felt very much like something that we should take another look at."

In addition, Sperling says, "it's easy to look at the Cookie Jar, at first glance, as just a mental asylum for insane people. But that's not really what the show is saying. It's actually described as a home for the socially pressured—it's very clear that the people are there because their individuality threatens people who consider themselves normal. And that I think at some level, the Cookie Jar is trying to 'normalize' those people. It's trying to sanitize them or make them all the same.

"The show is also saying, 'Who are you to tell me who's insane? We're all different, and we all have our own inner insanity.' How much do we let that out? How much do we allow ourselves to express our beings? And this was all coming to a head in the mid '60s, with so many different movements aborning, the conformity of the postwar years starting to disintegrate, and how threatening that was to so many people."

In a world that is suffering from severe irony deficiency, some lines or speeches might not travel so well these days, a fact certainly not lost on Sperling. "I think even in 1964 a lot of language in Anyone Can Whistle was deliberately meant to shock and provoke. We're not rewriting the show. We're just gently editing it down for length. It's remarkable that stuff that was controversial back then is just as controversial now."

With Sondheim and Without

Sondheim was still alive when Sperling decided to do Anyone Can Whistle. He told Newsweek, "I had already put it in our calendar but I needed to get the blessings of the authors to present it in New York. You know, doing a big showing of a work like this in New York usually requires special permission. And this piece in particular, I think, is carefully guarded by the authors. So, I went straight to Steve and asked him, 'We'd like to do this. Do I have your blessing? And how do you suggest we deal with the script? Because we're not gonna be able to do a full production, we'll probably need to shorten it somewhat.'

"We discussed the various scripts options. I got his advice about that. And I followed it."

They talked about casting, but just as Sperling was poised to ask Sondheim some more questions, Sondheim died, and Sperling lamented, 'Unfortunately, I missed my chance."

"He was excited to come see it. And I was excited to have him come."

Anyone Can Whistle also attracts Sperling on several levels, personal and professional.

"I feel equipped to tackle it because I have always responded to the humor of this piece and also because I had a little bit of a warm up: I directed another absurdist musical not that long ago—Red Eye of Love—and it's based on a play by Arnold Weinstein which was a hit 1961, in the early days of off-Broadway. Having directed one absurdist musical already, I was ready to face the challenges of this one head-on."

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Santino Fontana stars as Hapgood in MasterVoices new concert production of Stephen Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle" at Carnegie Hall on March 10 in New York. Nathan Johnson

Cast Your Fate

Santino Fontana, who plays Hapgood, joined the cast after the death of Sondheim on November 26, 2021.

"It was in December. When Ted called me, I jumped at the chance because I knew this piece doesn't come around that often."

Fontana has become just a little obsessed with this musical. It started when he played Magruder, the chief of police. "This was the musical chosen by our high school director my freshman year. I thought, 'What the hell is this?' And the audience felt the same way I think."

And as Sondheim's music grew on him, so did his attachment to Anyone Can Whistle. "In those rehearsals, I became kind of obsessed. We listened to that [1995] Carnegie Hall concert all the time, because we were trying to understand what's going on? It's complicated musically, logically, emotionally.

"Then in college, the class below me wanted to do a musical and they chose Anyone Can Whistle. I directed it in early 2000s. So, I've always been fascinated by it. I've talked to some director friends in the past about it, wondering if it could ever be successfully revived. I love the score and the ambition of the story."

Fontana agrees with Sperling that the show is at least as relevant now as it was when originally produced. "It's a story about a corrupt government lying to its people in order to better control them. Sound familiar? Truth doesn't matter. It's all about perception. If you repeat a lie enough times, some people will believe it. You don't need consensus to maintain control, you need chaos. Just enough chaos to distract your detractors."

The Bottom Line

But Fontana emphasizes, "We're doing the concert version to celebrate the score, which is amazing, and to give it context—so an audience can really enjoy it and have a great time. We're not trying to fix the show. We're not rewriting the show. We're also not staging the original; we're doing a concert version in order to make a great night for all."

Every time a new production of a Sondheim show, regardless of its original reception, is announced the best creatives in theater—singers, actors and musicians—line up to sign on. Their enthusiasm is palpable and unreserved and Anyone Can Whistle is no exception. Sondheim always worked with the best librettists, and while relevance in any work rises and falls with the social tides, well-drawn characters and solid plot lines make a show watchable and great songs make them listenable. So, if it has not yet achieved cult status, Anyone Can Whistle has a growing number of devoted followers—and some of the finest songs this side of, well, Sondheim, making this concert a must-see for all his fans.

For more information and tickets go to MasterVoices.org/Events/Anyone-Can-Whistle.

Update 3/7/2022 9:59 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to include pictures of Fontana and Stanley.

Vanessa Williams dancers Anyone Can Whistle
Vanessa Williams rehearses with the dancers of the MasterVoices production of "Anyone Can Whistle," which plays at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 10. Jason Brouillard