Anyone Can Whistle

Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Book: Arthur Laurents

Anyone Can Whistle opened on Broadway in April of 1964 and closed after only nine performances. However, the show refuses to die, retaining a cult following to this day. In many ways, it was a sacrificial lamb, challenging preconceptions of what musical theatre should be and paving the way for Sondheim's future experimentation.

A surrealistic satire, Anyone Can Whistle proclaims the sanity of madness as well as the virtue of nonconformity. The mayoress, played by Angela Lansbury in the original production, is constantly escorted by four dancing chorus boys who provide plenty of glitter to cover up the lack of sincerity in her patronizing addresses to the townspeople. And in the "Cookie Chase", a stylized ballet sequence, the sane citizens attempt to capture forty-nine mad people. In fact, a large portion of the action is conveyed through dance, far more than in any subsequent Sondheim musical.

In Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim and Laurents create a fantastical world of symbols and prototypes in which the townspeople wear the painted faces and wigs of circus clowns and scenery morphs at the whim of the players. Perhaps the end of Act I best summarizes the style and content of the play. In a manner reminiscent of Peter Brook's production of Marat/Sade (Although Anyone Can Whistle preceded that production by four months!), the lights go almost black leaving only an eerie glow from the footlights. Two groups of players, a potpourri of the mad and the sane, rush across the stage chanting wildly, building to a frenzy. Then the lights fade to black, lingering for a moment on Hapgood who turns directly to the audience and pronounces with a smile, "You are all mad." At that moment the house lights snap on, revealing the entire company onstage, sitting in theatre seats, laughing and applauding grotesquely.

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American Theatre Index

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