Anyone Can Whistle
July 31, 2021 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Stephen Sondheim's 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle [Wikipedia] was a genuine flop. It's rarely produced, and the original production was never filmed. But in 1995, a concert version was mounted at Carnegie Hall as an AIDS fundraiser, starring Bernadette Peters, Madeline Kahn, and Scott Bakula. Presented in glorious single-camera VHSovision, that performance is on YouTube. [2h9m] Here is a half-hour lecture on the background of the show. [Vimeo] Here is the Broadway libretto [PDF] if you want to follow along.

The Broadway production included extended dance sequences, was presented in three acts, and is a social commentary about politics, manipulation, and the nature of sanity.

You might also enjoy this single camera audience bootleg of the 2010 Encores! concert performance at New York City Center [2h31m]. It's a bit more of a performance than a readers' theater, and includes Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster, and Raul Esparza.
posted by hippybear (14 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The only staged production I can find online is another audience bootleg, from 2005 Ravina Festival, and featuring Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, and Michael Cerveris. Act One, Act Two.
posted by hippybear at 11:20 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]

That Encores performance was thrilling to see in person. I wish they had released a concert album.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:34 AM on July 31

I never realized this was a flop! I've never seen it but it has some classics. I like this version of There Won't Be Trumpets by Sutton Foster from the (early COVID days) Sondheim birthday concert.

Interesting that this was only his second Broadway show as both a composer and lyricist. His first was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was a smash. I guess it was Sondheim's version of a sophomore slump.
posted by lunasol at 12:51 PM on July 31

I'm growing suspicious that, every time I look at metafilter, I'm silently transported to an alternative universe with important and interesting history that didn't exist in the universe I last lived in. Neat!
posted by eotvos at 1:54 PM on July 31 [4 favorites]

Oh, hippybear, I am SO excited to see this!

I wish there were regular, properly filmed releases of ALL the shows. Sondheim's work is such a staggering achievement, and I wish I could really, closely watch all the shows, and compare different versions. (As it is, I've been phenomenally lucky; I've gotten to see live performances of A Little Night Music and a really excellent Sweeney Todd and Assassins and Company, and I have the official DVDs of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George.)

Thank you so much for posting this - this is so, so great. (BERNADETTE! MADELINE KAHN!)

posted by kristi at 2:47 PM on July 31

Anyone Can Whistle

Bacall: "You know how to whistle, don't you?"
Bogart: *whistles*
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:25 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

Upcoming production in Skokie
posted by DanSachs at 4:36 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

a really excellent Sweeney Todd and Assassins and Company

As much as I love Sondheim, that sounds like a truly exhausting evening of theater.
posted by hippybear at 4:46 PM on July 31 [4 favorites]

Too bad actors don’t get paid for bootlegs.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:47 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

I was trying to figure out why this was a failure. Mostly because I started losing track of the plot about halfway through act 1. Then I read the Wikipedia and uh...yeah, that gets more and more complicated and I'm not sure what's going on there either.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:05 PM on July 31

The big musical number at the end of act one, Simple, is pretty amazing.
posted by hippybear at 7:10 PM on July 31

I live in London, so I've been lucky enough to see live productions of all Sondheim's shows over the past 20 years - all bar the first act of The Frogs, anyway, which I missed because the Tube failed to get me there on time.

One of my favourite memories of these productions came during Sweeney Todd at the Trafalgar Theatre. The actor playing Sweeney came out on stage just before the play began, fully costumed and very much in character. Sweeping his open razor menacingly back and forth across the audience, he explained that, if anyone present was foolish enough to let their cellphone ring while the play was in progress, he'd be straight down there to open their throat for them. He then closed the razor up, slipped it back into his jacket pocket and gave us one last little warning glower before strolling back into the wings.

Audience cellphones were quite a common nuisance in London theatres then, but we didn't hear a peep from the damn things that night. You've never seen a better-behaved audience in your life.

Finally, if you ever get a chance to read Sondheim's two books discussing his craft, don't pass it up. They're full of insights about his writing and anecdotes from various productions, which any fan of his work will find fascinating.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:15 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]

Too bad actors don’t get paid for bootlegs.

I could be wrong, but I have serious doubts that a significant number of the people who watch theater bootlegs are people who have the means and opportunity to buy a ticket but choose to sit at home and watch shaky, grainy footage after the production has closed instead.

The best Sweeney Todd I ever saw was a college production in a small 3/4 round theater. They had real meat pies onstage so you could smell them from anywhere in the house.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:50 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]

Just found this: Why Did “Anyone Can Whistle” Flop? Angela Lansbury mentions literally being choked by the throat and "I didn't sing for a year" after it closed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:04 PM on August 4

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