City Center Encores! Anyone Can Whistle
By Ellis Nassour
Get thee to the City Center box office. Don’t walk, run! Encores! season finale of the eagerly awaited concert of Sondheim and Laurents’ unconventional musical satire, Anyone Can Whistle, with only five performances April 8 – 11, appears to be a hit before it opens. Already there’s talk of a Bway transfer. Ticket sales have been brisk. Buzz is international. There’ve been ticket requests from as far as the U.K., Germany, and France!
This Encores! has special revelance, coming on the occasion of the composer’s 80th birthday and amid numerous salutes such as the renaming of the Henry Miller’s to the Sondheim.
ACW, termed "an experimental satire," took aim at every target on the American cultural scene — conformity, psychology, race relations, greed, religion, and politics.
Tony and DD-winner Sutton Foster, three-time DD and two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy, and three-time DD-winner and multiple Tony-nom Raúl Esparza fill the roles played by Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury, and Harry Guardino in the original 1964 production, with an original book by Laurents, who directed. Choreography was by the late Herbert Ross [House of Flowers, Finian’s Rainbow, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, On a Clear Day…]. His sole Tony nom was for ACW, and also was the show’s only nom.
Sutton plays uptight nurse Fay Apple; Murphy portrays corrupt mayor Cara Hoover; and Esparza is town sanitarium second in command Dr. J.Bowden Hapgood.
This is the first remounting of the musical, originally done in three acts. Three-time Tony and Drama Desk nominee Casey Nicholaw [up next with Minsky’s] is directing/choreographing.
At the recent Drama League gala saluting Miss Lansbury, Murphy stopped the show, as Miss Lansbury did early in Act One, with her saucy rendition of "Me and My Town." She was very excited to discuss playing the role. "It’s such an incredibly well-written role, with lots of bite, in such a legendary show that, perhaps, was simply way ahead of its time."
The show had pedigree, especially with Laurents famous for Gypsy, not to mention Sondheim who was following not only WSS, but also Gypsy, and Funny Thing… The late Miss Remick was a major movie star and making her return to the stage 13 years after her Bway debut in the three-nights-only comedy Be Your Age [written by Mary Orr, who had written the story that became About Eve.
Miss Lansbury, a major movie star since her early teens, had just wrapped almost a year in Shelagh Delane’s hit A Taste of Honey.
The wild card was Harry Guardino, not known to be a singer but who was a noted film character actor who had played featured roles on Bway since 1953.
Anyone Can Whistle opened nearly a half century ago, April 4, 1964, at the Majestic, closing after nine performances. The critics were divided, some baffled. The masses didn’t line up at the box office. But a legend was instantly born. The title song and "With So Little to Be Sure Of" survived as theater classics. "There Won’t Be Trumpets," cut from the show later became a classic when included in Craig Lucas and Norman René’s Sondheim revue of songs from his shows that landed on the cutting room floor, Marry Me a Little.
The rarely heard complete score is a riot of jazzy, show-biz razzmatazz, waltzes, gospel numbers, and Bway pastiche, as full of variety and surprise as the show that gave birth to it. Songs include "A Parade in Town," "Miracle Song," "I’ve Got You to Lean On," "Simple," "See What It Gets You," "Come Play Wiz Me," and "Everybody Says Don’t."
The story takes place in a town so broke, only a miracle can save it. Its politicos scheme to bring back prosperity – and kickbacks from businesses. The town’s booming business is Dr. Detmold’s Sanitarium for the Socially Pressured – those who can’t whistle, called "The Cookie Jar" by natives. Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper, the town’s richest person and wildly unpopular, laments the situation. To save the town, the politicos stage a miracle, which results in a latter-day Lourdes, with "pilgrims" flocking there for a cure from a spring. Hooper promises they’ll be anything except themselves – with payment of a fee.
That the miracle is fake doesn’t bother many. Nurse Apple, who can only unwind when she speaks French, brings her "Cookie" charges to the spring for a cure and pandamonium breaks out. After she escapes arrest, Apple bristles at the scheming and longs for a miracle of her own, the hero who will come and save her and the rest of the town – he may be an unlikely hero and arrive only in the nick of time.
Rob Berman, celebrating three seasons with Encores!, is music directing with the original orchestrations of the brilliant Don Walker [numerous shows from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, By Jupiter, and A Connecticut Yankee…, to Carousel, Finian’s Rainbow, Call Me Madam, Pajama Game, and Fiddler] and the full compliment of the Encores’ orchestra.
The concert co-stars Jeff Blumenkrantz [Tony nom’d for his musical contribution to Urban Cowboy] as treasurer Cooley; John Ellison Conlee [Tony nom’d for The Full Monty, playing police chief Magruder; Edward Hibbert as Comptroller Schub; and an ensemble of 24.
Encores! sponsor is Newman’s Own, with major support from Perry and Martin Granoff, Mary Jo and Ted Shen, and the Stephanie and Fred Shuman Fund for Encores! Jack Viertel is Encores! A .D.
Tickets for ACW are $25 – $95 and available at the City Center box office, through CityTix at (212) 581-1212, and online at www.NYCityCenter.org.