Broadway Blip: Anyone Can Whistle
Stephen Sondheim: a composer-lyricist revered in the world of musical theatre. Many of his shows have been critical successes and have evolved into audience favorites: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George,Into the Woods, and Passion (to name a few). He’s also had his occasional flops. Arguably, the most notorious of these was his 1964 debacle Anyone Can Whistle, which still boasts a delightful, memorable score despite the fact the show ran a mere nine performances. Songs such as the title song, “Me and My Town,” “Everybody Says Don’t,” “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” “A Parade in Town” and the cut song “There Won’t Be Trumpets” have all had a cult following that keeps Anyone Can Whistle a fascination for any musical theatre and/or Sondheim fan.
The musical takes place in a bankrupt town where the unpopular Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (played by Angela Lansbury in the original production) must find a way to stimulate the local economy. When water seemingly bursts from a rock (it actually bursts from a leaking drain pipe under the rock), Cora advertises the “miracle’ and invites tourists to “come and take the waters (for a modest fee).” Pilgrims from all over come in droves, hoping to bathe in the healing properties of the water. One group, from the local sanitarium known as “The Cookie Jar” arrive with their caregiver Nurse Fay Apple (Lee Remick) in the hopes that their mental issues will be washed away. Fay is a skeptic and seems destined to prove the miracle a fraud. Cora’s toadies do their best to keep her from debunking the town’s money-making sham. The pilgrims from the Cookie Jar begin to mingle with the town folk until the “crazies” can’t be distinguished from the “sane” and one Cookie has completely disappeared into the crowd. A new doctor arrives in the town, J. Bowden Hapgood (Harry Guardino) who charms everyone and tells Cora he can sort out the Cookies from her citizens. Anxious to appear as though she has things under control, Cora is delighted by Hapgood’s entrance. After a drawn-out sequence separating everyone into what is essentially the same category (Group A and Group 1), Hapgood announces that everyone, including the audience, is mad.
We jump to Act Two where Groups A and 1 argue over which group is the sane one. Fay Apple, disguised as the French woman The Lady of Lourdes, arrives and announces herself a miracle expert and sets out to debunk Cora’s leaking drainpipe. Using techniques of seduction and charm, Fay attempts to convince Hapgood to help expose the fraudulent miracle. Hapgood sees her as a cynic, unable to believe in miracles and she longs for the ability to “let go” and “be free.” She admits that she is so stifled that she cannot even whistle.
Groups 1 and A are still marching around the town, singing their own praises. Cora tries to speak to them, but it is clear they have all grown enamored of Hapgood and look to him as their new leader. Cora, dejected and never one to concede, sets about to create a plot to bring down Hapgood and Fay. As the act concludes, Hapgood convinces Fay to destroy the medical records of her Cookies and let them be free, thus freeing her of the burden of their care.
Act 3 commences with Cora and town board toadies plotting against Hapgood, stopping the miracle (temporarily) and attempting to blame the good doctor for its demise. Fay continues to try to get Hapgood to expose the sham miracle, but he refuses to do it, suggesting that it works as a miracle should, giving people hope. Cora, who is threatened with impeachment if she doesn’t round up the missing crazy people, announces that she will round-up any 50 people to meet the quota. Fay, unable to let innocent people be locked-up, agrees to identify the Cookies. At final count, she can only identify 49. The 50thmental patient is still missing. In the end, we find out that Hapgood is the missing Cookie and he and Fay run off together, she finally able to let out a pained, but palpable whistle.