Among the countless flop musicals in Broadway history, while the most notorious is probably “Carrie,” the most audacious may be “Anyone Can Whistle,” Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ cheeky and freewheeling 1964 musical satire, which will receive a rare, one-night-only, Broadway-caliber concert revival on Thursday night at Carnegie Hall presented by MasterVoices.
The cast will include Vanessa Williams (who appeared on Broadway in the revue “Sondheim on Sondheim”), Santino Fontana (“Tootsie”), Elizabeth Stanley (“Jagged Little Pill”), and Joanna Gleason (“Into the Woods”), (“The Scarlet Pimpernel”), who will be joined by the MasterVoices chorus and a full orchestra.
Sondheim gave permission to MasterVoices (which has previously presented concert adaptations of rare musicals by George and Ira Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and Gilbert and Sullivan) to perform “Anyone Can Whistle” before his death in November at age 91. “He was excited that we were performing the piece, and I’m so sorry he didn’t live to see it,” said artistic director Ted Sperling, who will conduct and direct the performance.
As it happens, this is not the first time that “Anyone Can Whistle” has been heard at Carnegie Hall. In 1995, it was performed in concert as a benefit for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis with Bernadette Peters, Madeline Kahn, and Angela Lansbury (who also starred in the original Broadway production).
The musical occupies a unique space in the Sondheim canon. By 1964, Sondheim had already written the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and both music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” all genuine hits. “Anyone Can Whistle,” which lasted just nine performances, looked ahead to the experimental and conceptual works that would make Sondheim into the most revered and consequential figure in musical theater history beginning in 1970 with “Company.”
“It is a remarkable piece of musical theatre, director Scott Miller wrote in his book “Rebels with Applause,” “remarkable for its ambitions, its brazen buckling of convention, its considerable charm, and the fact that it was the first Sondheim show that really gave us a glimpse of his later work.”
Originally titled “The Natives Are Restless,” “Anyone Can Whistle” uses looney circumstances (involving a desperate community with a corrupt mayor, a fake miracle staged to attract tourists, a sexually-repressed nurse, an oddball psychiatrist, and residents of a local asylum) in order to question social norms and sanity.
“The piece was written by young authors during the mid-1960s,” said Sperling. “This was a time of great cultural debate in our country, and the piece is quite clearly responding to the Red Scare, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and the breaking apart of the conformity of the Eisenhower era. There are many, many points of connection between this show and our current moment. Today, culture wars are separating us into two very partisan groups again, and this show holds a mirror up to ask, really?”
Unlike many Sondheim works that are regularly revived on Broadway and elsewhere, “Anyone Can Whistle” is probably too bizarre, jumbled (awkwardly adding in a romantic subplot), and problematic to achieve mainstream acceptance and justify a full-scale new production. However, it does have many magnificent songs, including hot-blooded pastiche numbers, emotionally revealing solos, and an intricate 13-minute musical sequence about deciding who is and is not crazy – which makes it ideal for presenting in a concert format.
Thurs. at 7 p.m. at Carnegie Hall, East 57th St. and 7th Ave., carnegiehall.org.