Anyone Can Whistle
11 February 2017
‘Anyone Can Whistle’, yes. Anyone Can Write A Musical, no. This one has a magnificent score by Stephen Sondheim, which in every note and every syllable anticipates the genius that was to flourish in ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’, ‘Company’, ‘Follies’, ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, ‘Sweeney Todd’ and more. It also has a book by Arthur Laurents that in absolutely no conceivable way, in this world or the next, reminds you that it is the work of the same author who produced the books for ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Gypsy’. The score is so well written that it persuades you – if all you hear are the songs – that this has to be a good show; it must be: the songs are so well characterised, so beautifully drawn, so lovingly phrased, so tuneful and witty and elegantly crafted, that the show to which they belong must, ipso facto, also be as great. The fact that it has never enjoyed any success must be because it has been merely misunderstood by audiences and critics; right from the outset, the same audiences and critics who, at its disastrous – and only – showing on Broadway in 1964, within a mere nine days of its opening (and 12 agonised previews) ensured its closure. On the basis of the songs, you assume that there must be another explanation. Well, no. Absolutely not. The script is seriously damaged and – in all fairness – should be excised from the score and someone else given a chance of writing something – almost anything – that would do a better job of complementing Sondheim’s delicious songs than the completely inept libretto that Laurents inflicted on him.
The Union Theatre, unfortunately, is not empowered to undertake such a mission. They must offer us the same script that sank this show the first time around, all those years ago. And they do a faithful job of it. Director Phil Willmott gives us the bracing energy of Laurents’ maniacal, abbreviated drama, in all its relentlessness, and in fact attempts to make a virtue out of its sheer drive. The cast charges around and around and around, up and down the stairs, holding up arms and hands like extras in a demented Hans Richter movie. The opening number, as is her wont – splendidly musically staged by Holly Hughes, does work wonderfully well: the placardistic tone of the show is caught perfectly, and we launch ourselves into the tale feeling the most confident about the show that will be permitted to in the entire evening – but that is only because we have yet to hear more than a couple of lines of Mr Laurents’ script. Soon enough, we will learn better.
Penn O’Cara dresses the cast in an almost uniform way, with stand-out features in the costume of the ghastly rulers of this demesne, especially the Mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper (perhaps a conflation of Cora Pearl, President Herbert Hoover, and columnist Hedda Hopper?), who in the ample person of Felicity Duncan also rather resembles the ‘hostess with the mostess’, Elsa Maxwell. Ms Duncan sings the Mayoress’ many cabaret songs with tidy fidelity, but perhaps we could have used more ‘belt’. The first impersonator of this role, Angela Lansbury, worried about the character’s lack of warmth, and Sondheim does really only provide any for her through the shape of his beautiful musical lines. (Laurents’ script provides none whatsoever: he seems to have hated this character, along with all of the others.)
There are some ‘young lovers’ in the show – would you believe it? – and they fare slightly better, getting the one human moment in the entire two-hour roll around its sumptuous quilt of misanthropy and bitter, bitter satire: ‘With So Little To Be Sure Of’ is a masterpiece of compassion and delicacy – an oasis of calm, quietness, simplicity and honesty in a work that seems dedicated to professing itself a stranger to such things. Meanwhile, elsewhere there is little for Sondheim to do but serve up cocktails of the same smart-alec East Village clever fun–poking at the great and self-important of his age.
Interestingly, for a songwriter who is often accused of lacking heart, here he is the one humane partner in the writing team: if for nothing else, this show should be seen to bear witness to just how much heart he demonstrates, even in the face of this callous, one-dimensional story. Anyway, Rachel Delooze’s professional Nurse Apple and Oliver Stanley’s geek Hapgood do what they can to breathe the breath of life into their pasteboard and string characters. And when they sing, they are in an entirely different show: Sondheim’s show. And it’s wonderful. And then they have to speak Laurents’ dialogue, and they utterly fail to convince.
There is a great big ensemble, and their music is super: MD Richard Baker does a terrific job in keeping the endless time signature and tempo changes sounding fluent, pointing out the richness of the score and drawing highly attractive performances from the company. I’m sure the score is no more difficult to dance to than, say, ‘The Rite of Spring’, and luckily the cast are at their best when exuberantly throwing themselves into Hughes’ athletic explosions, reminders also of the red blood that flows through human veins. But the script doesn’t allow them to become anything more than a backcloth for the (usually nasty-minded) principals, which is a great pity with such a big company.
Well, there it is, for better or worse. We are told it is a ‘timely’ reminder of the corrupting effect of power, of self-seeking politicians, of there being a need to tell this story, with its echoes of ‘Of Thee, I Sing’ (which has an infinitely better script), and any number of more successful works. Well, perhaps. But it didn’t bring down the walls of LBJericho in 1964, and I don’t think it’s going to make any Trump Towers tremble today. The musical performances will please people who like brilliantly written songs, and they will fire the imagination of anyone who hears them to imagine another, better, story to tell around them. One day, we may get that. Not yet.
Until 11 March 2017