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Anyone Can Whistle

Marcus Aurelius said "The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." Anyone Can Whistle, an absurdist social satire about insanity and conformity (among a dozen other things) is probably the bravest show Stephen Sondheim wrote, at least until Assassins. It was also a spectacular flop when it first hit Broadway in 1964, running only nine performances before closing.

After writing lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, Sondheim had made his Broadway debut as a composer in 1962 with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but it was with Anyone Can Whistle two years later that the world saw the first glimpse of Sondheim's rebel genius. The show had a book by Arthur Laurents, who had written the book for West Side Story, but the plot was too unconventional and wickedly satiric to find an audience while elsewhere on Broadway people could see shows like Hello, Dolly, more pleasant, easier to understand shows. Anyone Can Whistle played only nine performances.

Sondheim's score for Whistle was a quirky blend of the kind of dissonant, electrifying music he used more confidently in Company (1970) and his later shows, plus a deft takeoff of traditional show tunes to point up the insincerity and shallowness of some of the characters. Unfortunately, since it made fun of the people in the audience, as well as the kind of show tunes they most enjoyed, the show met with more hostility than excitement. The New York Times began its review with the statement "There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it's unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit." John Chapman, in the Daily News, called the first act "joyously daffy" but didn't much like the rest. John McClain, in the Journal-American actually praised it and reported that the opening night audience liked the show so much that they cheered in the midst of several numbers. Norman Nadel, in the World Telegram & Sun, called the show "spectacularly original," "breathtaking," and "ingenious." But nothing can make up for a bad review in the Times. It closed a week later.

Yet because of a cast album recorded after the show had already closed, Anyone Can Whistle became a cult favorite over the years. Sondheim has admitted it has serious flaws, despite its considerable charm and humor. The show tells the story of a town that's gone bankrupt because its only industry is manufacturing something that never wears out. In order to revive her town Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper and her town council fake a miracle -- water flowing from a rock -- to attract tourists. When patients at the local mental hospital, the Cookie Jar, escape and mix with the townspeople and tourists, chaos ensues. Somehow, Sondheim and Arthur Laurents managed to shoehorn a love story in as well, between J. Bowden Hapgood, a psychiatrist who isn't really a psychiatrist, and Fay Apple, a nurse at the Cookie Jar who disguises herself as a miracle verifier sent from Lourdes. In addition to the outrageous subject matter and sharp (though hardly subtle) social commentary, the three-act show also included a ground-breaking, thirteen-minute integrated musical sequence that ended the first act. Whistle was not just breaking the rules of traditional musical comedy, it was thumbing its nose at them -- and, unfortunately, also at its audience.

It didn't help that the show's competition on Broadway that year included more traditional, crowd pleasing musicals like Hello, Dolly, Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, and others. With a delicious sense of irony, Sondheim rewrote history in one scene of his 1981 show biz musical Merrily We Roll Along. The central character, a Broadway composer named Frank Shepard, gets his first hit show on Broadway in 1964. As he and his friends celebrate their success in the theatre lobby with the song "It's a Hit," his producer sings, "Folks, it's Funny Girl, Fiddler, and Dolly combined!" Anyone Can Whistle was vindicated, if only fictionally. Yet in the ultimate twist of fate, Merrily We Roll Along only ran sixteen performances.

Show Data

Original Broadway Production Info:

Opened April 4, 1964
Closed April 11, 1964
Ran 9 Performances
Theatre Majestic Theatre
Music Stephen Sondheim
Lyrics Stephen Sondheim
Book Arthur Laurents
Producers Kermit Bloomgarden
  Diana Krasny
Director Arthur Laurents
Dance/Musical Staging Herbert Ross
Scene Designer William & Jean Eckart
Costumes Designer Theoni V. Aldredge
Lighting Designer Jules Fisher
Dance Music Arranger Betty Walberg
Musical Direction Herbert Greene
Vocal Arrangements Herbert Greene
Orchestrations Don Walker

Musical Numbers:

  1. Overture
  2. I'm Like the Bluebird
  3. Me and My Town
  4. Miracle Song
  5. Simple
  6. A-1 March
  7. Come Play Wiz Me
  8. Anyone Can Whistle
  9. A Parade in Town
  10. Everybody Says Don't
  11. I've Got You to Lean On
  12. See What It Gets You
  13. The Cookie Chase
  14. With So Little to Be Sure Of
  15. Finale

Cut Songs:

  1. The Lame, the Halt, and the Blind
  2. The Natives are Restless
  3. A Hero is Coming
  4. There Won't Be Trumpets
  5. There's Always a Woman

Original Broadway Cast:

Sandwich Man Jeff Killion
Baby Joan Jeanne Tanzy
Mrs. Schroeder Peg Murray
Treasurer Cooly Arnold Soboloff
Chief Magruder James Frawley
Comptroller Schub Gabriel Dell
Cora Hoover Hooper Angela Lansbury
The Boys Sterling Clark
  Harvey Evans
  Larry Roquemore
  Tucker Smith
Fay Apple Lee Remick
J. Bowden Hapgood Harry Guardino
Dr. Detmold Don Doherty
George Larry Roquemore
June Janet Hayes
John Harvey Evans
Martin Lester Wilson
Old Lady Eleonore Treiber
Telegraph Boy Alan Johnson
Osgood Georgia Creighton
Ensemble Susan Borree
  Georgia Creighton
  Janet Hayes
  Bettye Jenkins
  Patricia Kelly
  Barbara Lang
  Paula Lloyd
  Barbara Monte
  Odette Phillips
  Hanne-Marie Reiner
  Eleonore Treiber
  Sterling Clark
  Eugene Edwards
  Harvey Evans
  Dick Ensslen
  Loren Hightower
  Alan Johnson
  Jeff Killion
  Jack Murray
  William Reilly
  Larry Roquemore
  Tucker Smith
  Don Stewart
  Lester Wilson


  1. Original Cast Recording, 1964 (Columbia CK 2480)
  2. Live Concert Recording, 1995 (Columbia CK 67224)


Secondary performance rights handled by Music Theatre International

Discuss this show in's community forum: Finishing the Chat... ››



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