A Broadway flop about a small town, a corrupt mayoress and her cronies, a local mental hospital, a plucky nurse and an unlikely hero, the show has lived on via its treasured cast album, a later concert cast album and (less widely known) regional theatre productions.
Fans of theatre musical recognize two, or maybe three, songs from the show — the title tune, "There Won't Be Trumpets" (cut from the 1964 run) and "With So Little to Be Sure Of."
Angry, comic, satiric and somewhat absurdist, it took scattershot aim at government, psychiatry, war, politics, conformity and romantic ideals.
"I was an undergraduate student back in the early '70s and I heard that album," Gilbert told Playbill.com. "When they got to the end of the interrogation scene and everything suddenly got quiet, and Harry Guardino said, 'You are all mad,' and there was this really crazy music, I thought — this is it, this musical was made for me!"
What explains the cult status of the show? "I think all artists experience themselves as sort of misfits in society and they see the world as kind of crazy, even though they know the world around them views them as crazy," Gilbert said. "I think that was the thing that hooked me on it initially. And I've dreamed of being able to stage the show ever since then. Literally. I used to put the LP on and imagine in my head what it would look like. So this is the realization of a 30-year-old dream for me to do it on stage."
Philadelphian Gilbert, who wrote the 1979 musical Assassins, which inspired Sondheim to write his own musical on the same subject, is staging the revised 2003 two-act version of the once-three-act musical. In late 2002, Sondheim and Laurents approved changes for revivals that were presented in early 2003 in Los Angeles and England. For the record, a song called "There's Always a Woman" is not part of this staging, but "There Won't Be Trumpets" will be.
Prince Music Theater — which staged Gilbert and Albert Innaurato's musical, Gemini in 2004 — is producing the concert production. Crista Moore (as Nurse Fay Apple), Jane Summerhays (as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper) and Chuck Wagner (as Dr. Hapgood) headline the staging, which represents the entire show (libretto, too) rather than just the songs. Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury and Harry Guardino originated the respective roles.
"It came at a point in my professional life when I was just awakening to the artistic possibilities of the musical theatre," Gilbert said. "Sondheim's work in general and Anyone Can Whistle in particular really pointed me in a direction that I've followed for the last 30 years."
Opening is Jan. 29.
The production includes a cast of 19, including Jim Bergwall (Controller Schub), Doug Anderson (Treasurer Cooley), Charles McCloskey (Chief of Police Magruder), Todd Waddington (Narrator/Dr. Detmold et al.), Joilet Harris (Cookies' Nurse), Brett Abernathy, Sharon Alexander, Billy Bustamante, Amanda Harper, Matt Hultgren, Melissa Kolczynski, Jarrod Lentz, Kathryn Lyles, Nancie Sanderson, Robert Tucker and Copeland Woodruff.
Anyone Can Whistle is "a multi-themed musical set in the fictional town of Hooperville," a bankrupt town trying to pull itself from ruins, where the only solvent institution is the local mental hospital, known as The Cookie Jar, according to the Prince, the resident Philly troupe devoted exclusively to musicals. This marks the first Sondheim show at the theatre named for longtime Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince.
In the show, the corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Jane Summerhays) and her council develop a scheme to stage a miracle in order to drum up business and tourists. When mental-asylum nurse Faye Apple (Moore) and the suspect psychiatrist J. Bowden Hapgood (Wagner) realize the council's scheme, they try and expose them for the charlatans they are, only to discover that the insane are not just in the asylum, but all around them.
"In the end, it's the rare triumph of the few over the many, and how individual integrity can be maintained in a conformist — albeit nutty — society," according to Prince Theater notes.
The orchestra of 20 will feature an accordion and a string section made up of only cellos.
Anyone Can Whistle was revived in a starry concert benefit that was recorded in 1995. Madeline Kahn played Cora, Bernadette Peters was Faye. Laurents worked on a revision of the show that played London in early 2003 and made its U.S. debut around the same time, in a tiny Los Angeles production that starred Ruth Williamson. It's that version that's licensed.
Tickets range $24-$52. Performances play Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 PM, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and matinees Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
For more information, call Prince Music Theater at (215) 569-9700 or visit www.princemusictheater.org.
The February 2003 staging in L.A. was billed as the "U.S. premiere of the first sanctioned revision of the original 1964 Broadway musical, approved by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim," and offered a newly organized two-act script (rather than the original three) that was also used in London production of the show that opened in January 2003 under the direction of Laurents.
According to his website, www.chasgilbert.com, "composer, lyricist and dramatist Charles Gilbert is a writer, director, composer and educator who specializes in the musical theatre. Currently associate professor and head of the musical theatre program at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Gilbert has worked with National Music Theater Network, Prince Music Theater (formerly the American Music Theater Festival), Gretna Theater, Delaware Theater Company, Opera Delaware, Covered Bridge Theater and other professional theatres as director or musical director for a variety of musical productions.
"Among his credits as a writer and composer is the 1979 musical Assassins, source of the idea for the Stephen Sondheim musical which premiered in New York in 1991.
His musical B.G.D.F. was seen in New York in 1983 in a showcase starring Gregg Edelman. His children's musical, A Is for Anything, commissioned by the Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education, has been performed nearly a hundred times for thousands of children in Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware, and was selected as a finalist in the Buxton Quest for New Musicals in 1992. His cabaret revue, Watch The Birdie, was performed at Don't Tell Mama in New York and The Actors Center in Philadelphia in 1993, and a revised version was presented at the Philadelphia Arts Banks and the Douglas Fairbanks Theater in 1998."
Gilbert holds an MFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon University and is a former member of the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.