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Sondheim's next show, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), written in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, was his first commercial failure. Mixing elements of satire, social commentary, romance, theatre of the absurd and traditional musical comedy, it had a rather dark point of view that placed it firmly against the tide of most hit musicals of its period. Taking place in a once prosperous, but now impoverished town, the plot concerned the concoction of a fake miracle-water pouring from a rock-to bring fame and tourists to the town and thereby jump-start the economy. The plans concocted by the venal mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper, and her cohorts on the town council are thwarted by Fay Apple, the head nurse of the Cookie Jar-the local insane asylum-who wishes to expose the miracle as a fake by having her cookies "take" the supposedly healing waters. When their condition does not change, it will be clear that the water does not have the curative powers that are being claimed. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a stranger in town, J. Bowden Hapgood, who is mistaken for the new assistant to the head of the asylum but who is, in fact, merely a new Cookie (as the patients in the Cookie Jar are known). He arrives at a moment of crisis, when Fay has managed to get the Cookies to mix together with the residents and the tourists and no one can tell who is who. Hapgood, because he is believed to be a psychiatrist, is given the task of resolving the situation, and divides them into two groups, Group One and Group A, but refuses to say which group is sane and which is not. Hapgood and Fay soon become romantically involved, and join together to fight Cora and her cronies.

In this show, we return to the theme of a conflict between communities. At first, we see the residents of the town on one side and the Cookies on the other. Then we see Group One and Group A in confllict with each other as to which is group is better. Both groups, however, are enamored of Hapgood, whom they see as a sort of parent-leader figure who will make them feel secure. When Cora, who is treated by the authors in largely satirical terms, sees this, it brings back the feeling she expressed in her opening number, the first lines of which of were "Everyone hates me-yes, yes," and the final lines of which were "Love me, love my town!" She had briefly felt loved when the miracle was a success. Now she again she expresses her desire for recognition in the song "A Parade in Town":

Did you hear? Did you see?
Was a parade in town?
Were there drums without me?
Was a parade in town?
'Cause I'm dressed at last, at my best, and my banners are high
Tell me, while I was getting ready
Did a parade go by?

This song was apparently added when Angela Lansbury, who was playing Cora, expressed the desire for a song that would make Cora into something more than a cartoon. The theme of imprisonment is central to the show: the Cookies are prisoners in the asylum. Near the end of the show, Cora and her cronies will attempt to capture anyone they can and pretend that they are cookies, and they bring on a large animal cage in which to put their prisoners. And Fay is a character who feels imprisoned herself, unable to release her real feelings. As noted above, Sondheim's shows often feature a central character who has trouble getting in touch with or admitting to his feelings, but usually it is a man. Here it is Fay, who expresses her difficulty in the title song, one of Sondheim's most famously personal:

What's hard is simple,
What's natural comes hard,
Maybe you could show me
How to let go,
Lower my guard
Learn to be free,
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.

Fay's inability to whistle, presented as a metaphor for her inability to express her feelings, is perhaps the first and most direct statement of this central theme in Sondheim's work. And Fay's problem is clearly exacerbated by her perception of the world as a place of moral uncertainty, a feeling shared by Hapgood, which is evoked in the very title of Hapgood and Fay's final love song: "With so Little to Be Sure Of." This uncertainty has earlier in the show led Fay to express to us, in a song titled "There Won't Be Trumpets," a desire similar to that expressed by the chorus of the show, as discussed above: the longing for a hero to save the day, to make the world a place that is secure. Sondheim's first version of the song was titled "A Hero Is Coming."

The show received wildly mixed reviews, both raves and pans. With its unusual mixture of extremely dark satire, zany comedy and romance, it was clearly too complex for the average Broadway theatregoer (and critic). It is arguable that much of it was not clearly thought through, and that the extremely mixed critical response was perhaps a true reflection of the quality of the show. However, because the raves appeared mostly in the less influential newspapers, and none of the leading actors were at that time major musical-comedy stars, the show closed more quickly than the critical response might have led one to expect. This was not deserved. Sondheim, however, was not ignored by the critics this time, some of whom recognized the brilliance of the extremely experimental score. And even those who didn't like it certainly noticed it, with its dissonance, it purposely disconcerting elements and its use of pastiche of traditional musical-comedy idioms to convey venality and dishonesty. However, the negative critics failed to realize that some of the lyrical, romantic music for Fay and Hapgood, whose on-again, off-again romance was ultimately at the center of the show, was very moving and beautiful. If the show was too complex for the critics, and perhaps too unfocused to actually be considered an artistic success, Sondheim's score has long been recognized as a milestone in his career.

Then, in 1965, Sondheim returned to writing lyrics only, to Richard Rodgers's music, for Do I Hear a Waltz? The book was, once again, by Laurents: an adaptation of his play The Time of the Cuckoo. This was a show on which Sondheim agreed to work only with great reluctance. This stemmed from his feeling that the play was not good source material for a musical because the main character was, in his words, "a lady who, metaphorically, can't sing." Also, needless to say, he had no wish to return to writing lyrics to someone else's music. Sondheim, however, had been a protégé of Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein, before he died, expressed to Sondheim his hope that Sondheim would agree to be Rodgers's lyricist if he was asked by Rodgers. Feeling some compulsion to fulfill Hammerstein's request, and with additional pressure being exerted on him by Laurents and Rodgers's daughter Mary, a close friend of Sondheim's, he agreed. Predictably, the show, though not a disaster, was not very successful critically or commercially. Worse, however, it was in general an extremely negative working experience for just about everyone involved. There was constant disagreement between Rodgers on one side and Sondheim and Laurents on the other. Rodgers felt that Sondheim and Laurents were ganging up against him. Afraid, perhaps, that his own talent was on the wane, he became extremely defensive, a feeling apparently worsened by his knowledge that Sondheim had to be "persuaded" to work on the show. Sondheim and Laurents were also resentful because Rodgers was the producer, so he was the ultimate decision-maker when they were disagreements. Under such circumstances, some directors would be able to bring everyone together, but John Dexter was hardly the person to do this, busy as he was alienating much of the cast, especially the women, whose names he reputedly never bothered to learn, simply addressing most of them as "Miss."

Intriguingly, though, perhaps because it was material essentially created by Laurents, we see a central figure who, as suggested by Sondheim's quoted statement above, is in some ways similar to Fay Apple: Leona Samish, an unmarried woman in her thirties or forties who is on vacation in Venice. While in Venice, Leona stays in a pensione run by a sophisticated, middle-aged Italian woman. Also staying there are two married couples, both of whom are also American.

Leona is a rather defensive, articulate woman who has some trouble expressing her real feelings. She meets a charming middle-aged Venetian man who courts her. Leona is distressed to find out that he's married. He explains that in Italy, with divorce not an option for most people, he and his wife live separately. Leona is attracted to him, but in the end her defensive reactions and unwillingness to trust him push him away, but she does seem to learn from her experiences. In the interactions of the various characters, we see a Henry James-like theme of innocent Americans abroad, unsettled by the sophisticated, worldly Europeans. As with Fay, Leona is a precursor of the male characters who often are the central characters of the later shows: articulate, bright, but scared to reveal their vulnerability and need, pushing people away out of fear.

After Do I Hear a Waltz?, no new work was heard from Sondheim for five years, except for an hour-long television musical (45 minutes after commercials), Evening Primrose, written in collaboration with James Goldman. Despite its short length, it may be considered a central work. Based on a story by John Collier, it is the story of Charles, a poet who feels he and his work are unappreciated. He decides to hide out from the world by living in a department store, planning to come out only at night, when the store is deserted. He finds that that there is a society of people already living there, doing precisely that. They have a servant, Ella, who was separated from her mother at the store years 13 years before, when she was 6. Charles and Ella fall in love, and she wishes to escape with him, but the "night people," as the group calls itself, have their own sinister way of dealing with people who try to escape or to reveal their presence. They call the "dark men," another group of night people, who live at a mortuary. The dark men come with surgical instruments, and when they leave, the person who tried to escape is a new mannequin at the store. In the end, Charles and Ella do attempt to escape. The last we see of them, they are mannequins, dressed as a wedding couple, in the store's window. Sondheim's score consists of only four songs and a brief instrumental piece. The songs are all sung by either Charles or Ella.

Perhaps because the material seems to have been chosen by Sondheim-Goldman suggested that they adapt something by Collier, and Sondheim was drawn to the "macabre quality" of Evening Primrose - it is filled with the motifs to which he seems to be drawn. In Charles, we see the Sondheim figure who feels rejected and unappreciated by the world, and who, in turn, decides to reject the world himself. His attempt to create a new home for himself is thwarted by his discovery of the community of "night people," all of whom have also run away from the world and voluntarily imprisoned themselves. He is forced to become part of their group. Ella is perhaps the single most explicit instance in Sondheim's work of a young woman who is being kept prisoner (after essentially being abandoned by her mother) and who longs to escape and experience the world. The final song in the score is called "Take Me to the World." Charles responds to her plea by trying to teach her that the world "is mean and ugly" and urging her to "Stay here with me." This is astonishingly close to the "Stay With Me" sequence in Into the Woods 21 years later, with Charles as the Witch and Ella as Rapunzel. At the end, in the final, extremely creepy image, Charles and Ella are imprisoned forever inside the mannequins, singing "Take Me to the World," unheard by all but us.

For all the creepiness - the "macabre quality" that Goldman identified as the element that attracted Sondheim to the material-the score is primarily lyrical and romantic. The best song in the score is probably Ella's "I Remember," which has become one of Sondheim's most recorded songs. In the lyric, she remembers the things she experienced in the outside world, when she was a child, and that she hasn't seen since; for example, sky, snow, ice and ponds. Now she can now only remember these things by comparing them to the items she knows from the store. For instance, she remembers that sky was as "blue as ink " and that ice was:

Like vinyl on the streets
Cold as silver, white as sheets.

The music is alternately mournful and excited, as Ella goes back and forth between excitement at what she remembers and the knowledge that she may die without ever seeing any of it again. This song is also a good example of the kind of collaboration that is common in musicals, for the lyric is based on a speech that Goldman wrote for the girl, a speech that he had apparently written with the intention that it would be musicalized by Sondheim. Meanwhile, Sondheim was also working with Goldman on a musical that was then titled The Girls Upstairs.

Continue: Part 2 - A Hero Arrives

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