I can boast of being one of the very few who saw ANYONE CAN WHISTLE during its extremely brief Broadway run in 1964. The show was too experimental, too absurdist for Broadway at the time (it probably still is). It was Stephen Sondheim's second Broadway score (after A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) with a book by Arthur Laurents, who had written the books for the two best musicals of the 1950s, GYPSY ad WEST SIDE STORY. The casting for the original production was quite odd. Angela Lansbury had never done a Broadway musical. I don't recall whether she had even been in anything on Broadway. She was better known for playing movie mothers and villains, most notably in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. She was a revelation. Beautiful Lee Remick certainly had never done a musical. She was lovely, but too low key. And leading man Harry Guardino had no business being in a musical.
Over the years, the score of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE has become classic. A cast album was made and musical aficionados know the show mostly from the album. No one in their right mind attempts to revive it.
How to recount the story. The setting is a town in the 1930s. Whatever money the town had has been ransacked by its corrupt mayor and her cronies. The only institution that seems to be thriving is the local mental institution. When the inmates get loose, it is extremely difficult to tell who is crazy and who is sane, particularly when an inmate is pretending to be a psychiatrist. It all doesn't make much sense, but the score is a gem with some of Sondheim's loveliest ballads (the title song and "With So Little To Be Sure Of") and some great, showy numbers for the nasty mayoress.
A London company, Primavera, has been crazy enough to revive ANYONE CAN WHISTLE in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, a basement venue near Piccadilly Circus known for cabaret and small musicals. The stage is postage stamp size, but the inventive group manages to make the show work. The ensemble play the instruments (piano, drums, violin, cello, oboe, trumpet) as well as sing and dance. The set is minimal (no room for much else, the costumes are very low budget. However, the leads are top notch. Issy van Randwyck may not be Angela Lansbury (much less camp) but she sings well and has fun with the part. As the inmate turned psychiatrist and his love interest, David Ricardo-Pearce, the divo of London low budget musicals, and Rosalie Craig are fine, better than the originals.
The show still doesn't make a lot of sense and the director Tom Littler's decision to make it an allegory of fascism made it a bit too serious. Nonetheless, the performance offered fine renditions of the Sondheim songs. The run at the Jermyn Street has sold out. Probably more people have seen it in this sall space than saw it during its Broadway run. Perhaps the show will transfer to a larger venue.
ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Tom Littler. Jermyn Street Theatre, March 27, 2010.