Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Ahead of His Time

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Ahead of His Time

Article excerpt

Eric Schaeffer "whistles" for an evening at Signature

After 19 years and 18 Stephen Sondheim musical productions, Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and its artistic director, Eric Schaeffer finally got around to Anyone Can Whistle, the fare on Oct. 6, 2008, for Signature's second annual Great American Musicals Concert, benefiting a number of the company's outreach programs. (Funny Girl launched the series in 2007.) For the occasion, even though Signature today boasts a new twocomplex facility after years in a scruffy onetime auto body repair shop, it staged the event in a concert hall in an arts center on a nearby college campus. The result: three times the attendance that might have been shoehorned into its actual home. It was an enticing evening for nearly 700 people.

Anyone Can Whistle, historically, is Sondheim's lost waif of a show that lived for just nine performances (not counting previews) on Broadway. Critics and authences in 1964 just didn't get it. ("There is no law against saying something in a musical," Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times, "but it's unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit.") Its story revolves around a town corrupted by politicians and a get-rich- quick scheme to concoct a miracle, with a domineering mayor, an insane asylum called "The Cookie Jar" and overflowing with 49 inmates, and a romantic pair: a mental patient posing as a psychiatrist and a nurse at the asylum. It didn't work, even though it featured an evocative, some would say visionary, score, Sondheim's way with lyrics, the presence of the incandescent film actress Lee Remick as a romantic lead and the launch of Angela Lansbury on her dynamic musical theatre career.

Asked to explain why he reached deep into the composer's bag of tricks, Schaeffer says, "It just felt like it was the right time to do it, with its quirkiness and the analogy of people corrupting a town. It's kind of pertinent to today. Once again, it just goes to show that Sondheim always writes ahead of his time."

Anyone Can Whistle has never had a major revival in New York or anywhere else; mostly, it's been staged by small companies or as a benefit concert. with songs such as "A Parade in Town," "With So Little to Be Sure Of," "Everybody Says Don't," "There Won't Be Trumpets" and the title song, it stands tall, musically speaking, alongside many of Sondheim's more familiar, oftrevived pieces. …

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