Anyone Can Whistle is a great musical that will never work, a morality tale Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim wrapped in thematic muslin, for a moment forgetting the fact that muslin breathes.
Last week’s presentation of the 1964 tuner, capstone to the Encores season at City Center, generated critical acclaim, audience adoration and about as much ecstatic rapture as the New York theater world ever sees. (Not all critics agreed, but it’s a fair summary.) Yet no one, sane or insane, pictures Whistle whistling to a full-fledged Broadway run. It would be too improbable, too difficult to profit, too hard a sell. Sure, the the theatrical buzz-makers made equivalent statements after last year’s Encores’ look at Finian’s Rainbow, the 1947 E.Y. Harburg-Fred Saidy-Burton Lane tuner, and that show did transfer to Broadway — where, despite critical acclaim, audience adoration and about as much ecstatic rapture as the New York theater world ever sees, it lasted a whopping 15 weeks.
Commercial producers make the same foolish error all the time: confusing a culture of hyperactive recycling with the idea that all “reclamations” can be made profitable.
Still, a Broadway run of Whistle would be delicious. As feckless mayoress Cora Hooper Hoover, Donna Murphy might as well have winked at the audience, exclaimed “Gotcha!” and crooned balefully about seeing Russia from her house. Ra√∫l Esparza’s Dr. Hapgood was also perched in the ionosphere: cast rather against type, the actor constrained his energetic persona in such a way that you wondered if and when his character would snap. Which Dr. Hapgood does, per Laurents’ script, thereby exposing what is terrifying yet mirth-making about the mentally ill.
And then there was Sutton Foster, of whom I’ve never been a fan. Big, blaring, blowzy Broadway voice, yes, yes — but too often in previous shows registering too little on her face, a musical-theater automaton, an Ethel Merman with more sex appeal. Well, the sex appeal is there in Whistle but so much more: her arch, sensuous, sly-puss Nurse Apple had — if you’ll forgive the pun — a core. Even in the face of Laurents’ dopamine-deprived plot, Foster delineated a trajectory for Apple that represents a true acting breakthrough for her. Her performance seemed effervescent, easy, effortless.
The problem, as as everyone knows and I’ve already said, is the book — actually, the plot that the book pummels into a state of whipped submission. Water spouts from a rock, thus rescuing Hooper’s decrepit town from penury? Clumps of sane and insane people indistinguishable from each other, thus threatening the riches from the rock? Oh, my dear. In Laurents’ universe circa 1964, the post-Kennedy-era of sweeping social change was to be embraced, decried, mocked; there’s so much talk and singing about “groups” in the epic musical number “Simple,” one might be forgiven for thinking that whole phrases came out of Barry Goldwater’s famous acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Who would doubt that the reactionary who fulminated “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” could also have said:
The opposite of left is right.
The opposite of right is wrong.
So anyone who’s left is wrong, right?
Anyone Can Whistle is an allegory on speed.
There should be a place for the musical, though, beyond a five- or six-performance indulgence. The American stage is littered with the refuse of fascinating failures, meaningful mediocrities and tantalizing titles that will never survive in the commercial theater again. Many such shows are probably not high on the list of programming options for nonprofit theater companies, either, given what they cost to mount, given the interest level of general audiences, or given their subject matter. Earlier this season, Encores brought back the musical Fanny, a 1954 hit with a book S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan, with a score by Harold Rome, based on a trilogy of plays by Marcel Pagnol. Most audiences, if you gave them all of that aforementioned information, would probably stare back blankly and say, “Who?” Fanny was totally ripe for reclamation, but that doesn’t mean the title can derive a profit on Broadway.
Curiously, the problem there is both the book and the score: the first act ends three times and approximately half of the score, in my view, is fundamentally superfluous, though pretty to listen to. (The second act of Whistle ends three times.) Effort like Encores allows us to appreciate these museum pieces, but five performances and they’re gone.
So here’s an idea. We already have the Theatre Museum, a wonderful organization that Helen Guditis has, by sheer will, networking prowess and vision, transformed into a reality. It’s programming is very good and we’d like to see lots more of it. Why couldn’t it support a repertory company to perform reclaimed musicals and plays? Which is to ask: Where is it written that a theater museum may only focus on manuscripts, documents, posters, playbills and the preservation of the past? Why could not a theater museum also keeping theater as theater — alive, performed? Unlikely, I know.
But when everybody says “don’t,” I say “do.”