Considering how much Anyone Can Whistle flopped in 1964, it is a bold, brave (and some may say hubristic) move on the part of Grey Area Theatre Company to revive the show at the Southwark Playhouse.
the perfect salute to Sondheim and his work
Anyone Can Whistle, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, was the composer’s first attempts at political satire and, since it is one of his early works, it is possible to draw a direct line between this musical and some of his better known and received ones. You can almost feel him being inspired by Hapgood talking about the miracle of being alive, and then writing a song about it. This musical contains the roadmap to his other works, and even so early in his career Sondheim’s musical genius is apparent. There are rich characters that you feel for – even the antagonists – beautiful, soaring melodies, interspersed with the musical equivalent of a sly nudge and a wink, that move into moments that speak to the very heart of human nature, and everything has been written to develop these characters to the full. For example, in So Little To Be Sure Of, the final note of the melody sung by Fay ends on the 6th note of the scale. There’s no natural progression from that point, and the note just hangs suspended. It is not a definitive ending. And that decision, to leave the melody unfinished, speaks volumes about the characters and their relationship - and it is these little minuscule details that make Sondheim (and this musical) one of the greats.
Hiding lessons on conformity and the joy we should take out of life in an unassuming wrapping of a satire on political corruption, this musical is mesmerising to watch. With a town on the verge of bankruptcy, Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Alex Young) and her team of civil servants (Danny Lane, Samuel Clifford and Renan Teodoro) create an initiative in order to bring tourism and money into the town. In an attempt to help her patients, Nurse Fay Apple (Chrystine Simone) takes the Cookies (mental patients from the Cookie Jar) to bathe in the miraculous waters, but the Cookies escape and mix with the tourists.
Young is astounding. Loud, obnoxious and sly (but in a fun way) she creates the ultimate character in Cora, as if she took her inspiration from the very worst of female politicians and then multiplied what they were doing by 1000. A larger-than-life presence on the stage to the point where we couldn’t help but watch her every move, Young shows us every side of Cora from the corrupt in Me and My Town to the vulnerable in A Parade in Town, that evokes pity for a character who shows us very early on that she deserves none. The give-and-take of her interactions with Lane took a show that was already a satire as far as the ridiculous and their scenes were some of the best of the night.
Simone has a powerful voice, to the point where it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role and she uses every ounce of her talent to hold us emotionally hostage. If there was anyone who said that they were not crying when she sang the titular Anyone Can Whistle or With So Little to Be Sure Of, it would be safe to say that they were most definitely lying. Simone has an easy chemistry with Jordan Broatch (J. Bowden Hapgood) that makes the pair easy to root for and gives us an example of people who grow because of each other, not for each other.
From their entrance in Simple, Broatch chooses chaos and runs with it. Appearing like a manic pixie, they throw the entire musical off-kilter. It would be hard to choose a single moment where Broatch shines because in every song and scene, they – like Young – demand our attention. Broatch’s earnestness is endearing and heartbreaking all at once, and they capture the essence of the professional idealist. In fact, they make the craziest character appear the sanest.
Anyone Can Whistle is about challenging the status quo, and so it is no wonder the theatre establishment were not amused at the young creatives poking fun at them. It is an old musical for a new generation not willing to bend to the old ways ‘because that’s how things were done’, and want more from their representatives and life. This musical is perfect for anyone who wants to laugh, cry and become inspired (or learn to whistle), and is the perfect salute to Sondheim and his work.