Sunday, April 12, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Sondheim Flop “Anyone Can Whistle” Made as Cast Recording)

April 12, 1964—Would-be wunderkind Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy Anyone Can Whistle had closed the day before following an ignominious run of only nine performances, but the composer was about to receive a lesson that others, such as Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry, would shortly learn, too: For the true diehard fan, failure only makes the heart grow fonder.

On the morning after the closing, Columbia Records honcho Goddard Lieberson—the godfather of the original-cast recording concept that formed such an indelible part of the late flowering of the Broadway musical—made the call: the cast and all relevant personnel of Anyone Can Whistle would be called together to put on vinyl the songs from the first certified flop of Sondheim’s career. In the process, Lieberson would ensure that the show—and, even more so, the songs—would not die.

Nowadays, the Broadway original-cast album feels like a labor of love, a moss-laden artifact not just of the pre-digital era but even of pre-Beatles pop music. It took Theatermania critic/blogger Peter Filichia, speaking at an after-show lecture at the Roundabout Theatre Company a few years ago, to bring to the forefront of my consciousness the fact that such recordings once meant serious dollars.

For that, we have Lieberson to thank. He took a format that had been around, in one form or another, since 1890 and brought it to new artistic and lucrative heights, even underwriting the entire production cost of My Fair Lady, making back his company’s investment many times over.

I’d argue that we also have Lieberson to thank for Sondheim’s current reputation as the Broadway genius decades ahead of his time. If Lieberson hadn’t preserved Sondheim’s shows in some form (just as he did with such other flops as Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella), the only evidence of the potential value of the work would have been indistinct memory—a very inexact means of assessing worth.

Sondheim stands to the Broadway musical in something of the same relation as Beethoven to classical music: as the culmination of one era and link to the next. Just as Beethoven capped the Classical Era of Haydn and Mozart while, in turn, paving the way for Schubert, Schumann and other Romantics, so Sondheim’s intellectual brilliance made him a natural successor to mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter, while strongly influencing the likes of Rent’s Jonathan Larson.

It’s hard to remember now that Sondheim is the Grand Old Man of Musical Theater, but the mid-Sixties represented a decided hip-check to his creative ambitions. Acclaimed for dazzling lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, he had stepped out on his own, as lyricist and composer, for the successful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He hoped to build on that success with his latest project.

"I talk with the authority of failure—Ernest (Hemingway) with the authority of success," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook. Sondheim was about to learn how interchangeable could be these two “authorities.”

Putting It Together: Sondheim’s Experience With Cast Albums

Over the years, original-cast albums have provided some of the more indelible moments of the capacious Sondheim legend, especially when he worked with longtime cast-album producer Thomas Z. Shepard:

* In October 1970, D.A. Pennebaker’s one-hour documentary Company: The Making of the Original Cast Album (released on DVD a few years ago) captured a pair of situations bursting with as much ruefulness as Sondheim’s groundbreaking relationships-driven musical: not only Dean Jones returning, for one last time, to a show whose angst reminded him all too much of his own recent divorce, but also Elaine Stritch fumbling take after take of her showstopping “Ladies Who Lunch” number until, screaming, she breaks off—only to nail it immediately the next morning, after the rest of the cast has gone home.

* The recording of Sondheim’s 1971 show Follies could not accommodate all the music unless issued on a then-cost-prohibitive two-LP set, so some songs were abridged and others deleted entirely. It would take the 1985 Follies in Concert and 1998 “New Jersey” version (both all-star CDs that I own) to give listeners a taste of what had been lost.

* Two years later, Lieberson stepped in, after assistant Clive Davis had been forced out of Columbia, to shepherd A Little Night Music and a few other favorite projects. But he didn’t have much time left, dying in 1977.

But the situation with Anyone Can Whistle was the most dire. As Sondheim and writer-director Arthur Laurents tossed about the idea for a musical, it might have looked daring, but not profoundly so, and certainly not without precedent.

True, it was an original book by Laurents, not based on prior source material, like the smashes of the past two decades by Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe, and the premise—a desperate mayor propping up tourism in her town as a source of Lourdes-like healing powers, only to have matters complicated by members of the local insane asylum—had the potential to rile up the more spiritually inclined.

But religious and political satire had been tried in musicals before, notably in Finian’s Rainbow and Candide, and the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had broached themes involving insanity and conformity just within the past year. And so what if Angela Lansbury, Harry Guardino and Lee Remick were untested in anchoring Broadway musicals?

The Aural Survival of a Cult Failure

It didn’t work out the way the friends planned. With this production, as with numerous others over the years, the rule held true: if The New York Times critic hates it, the show is dead on arrival. Somewhat more positive reviews simply couldn’t undo the damage.

The failure of Anyone Can Whistle had a couple of consequences for Sondheim’s career. The first was deleterious: It temporarily blew him off the course he set for himself as creator of words and music. Instead, he agreed to collaborate with Hammerstein’s old partner, Rodgers, in Do I Hear a Waltz?

The project did neither man any good. Sondheim chafed about his confinement to lyrics again, while Rodgers, a martinet, even once went out of his way to humiliate his junior partner in front of cast and crew.

The other consequence concerned the true meaning of success. Though sometimes financially successful, none of Sondheim’s subsequent shows had the staying power of South Pacific, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, or The Phantom of the Opera, for instance. In fact, Anyone Can Whistle was even overshadowed the year it opened by three other, more conventional shows: Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hello, Dolly. (Please see my prior post for a discussion of the remarkable similarities between Dolly Gallagher Levi and Dick Cheney.)

For Sondheim, because the gap between success and failure was not so large, he was able to survive with the credibility of someone who had dared to be different. Seventeen years later, he had enough perspective on the failure of Anyone Can Whistle to send it up in Merrily We Roll Along. Midway through the latter show—1964, the year of Anyone’s aborted run—the two composers at the heart of this musical are told by producer Joe Josephson (played by Jason Alexander, still with hair) "Folks, it's Funny Girl, Fiddler, and Dolly combined!"

But with Sondheim, there’s an irony lurking somewhere—and so it proved. Merrily We Roll Along closed after only 16 performances, fractured Sondheim’s longtime partnership with producer Hal Prince—and then, in no small part due to the original-cast recording, lived to be rediscovered by future Sondheim diehards, including this New Jersey blogger. (Who, be it noted, also has the CD for the revival of Anyone Can Whistle, a 1995 benefit concert live at Carnegie Hall starring Bernadette Peters, Scott Bakula, Madeleine Kahn, and, as narrator, Lansbury.)

It’s a radically different world out there for the original-cast recording. Even with the technology of the CD allowed for more minutes from shows to be put out there, tastes in popular music had changed, and—except for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sondheim—most recordings never even repaid their investment. Who knows what the advent of the iPod is doing for the form now? Maybe we’ll have to huddle in performing-arts libraries, listening to prime examples of a great American art form, from technology growing more obsolete by the day.

No comments: