“We need a new plot line!” declares Cora Hoover Hooper (Donna Murphy). And who can blame her? She’s trapped in the middle of Anyone Can Whistle, the legendary 1964 Arthur Laurents–Stephen Sondheim flop that tells a story as wayward as some of its mental-case characters. The moneyed, man-hungry mayoress of a once-booming town that has become a post-industrial economic disaster, Cora sports with her three crooked cronies and her four backup boys while everything in her town has sunk into fiscal hell. Only exception: the local mental institution, which its head nurse, Fay Apple (Sutton Foster), primly euphemizes as “the Cookie Jar.”
When Cora’s crooks try to drum up tourism by rigging a fake miracle—a rock that magically spouts water—Fay marches her 49 “cookies” in among the customers thirsting for a healing sip. Fearing that 49 non-cures might make rotten publicity, Cora’s sharpest sidekick, Comptroller Schub (Edward Hibbert), halts the line. When Fay refuses to pick out the cookies among the white-bread tourists, Cora recruits a new arrival, Hapgood (Raúl Esparza), whom everyone assumes is the asylum’s new resident doctor, to break the impasse. Hapgood swiftly turns the whole town into a temporary madhouse, after which matters take quite a lot of sorting out before normal misery is restored, the cookies go back into their Jar, and Hapgood gets the Apple.
By turns confused, contradictory, cutesy, capricious, and cloddishly earnest, Whistle may be the most maddening musical ever created. I saw the next-to-last performance of its original production, and remember its first-act finale, which ended with the cast, in replica theater seats, laughing and pointing at the audience, leaving theatergoers utterly dumbfounded. It had the same effect on some during last week’s Encores! concert revival at City Center: A fair number walked out at the intermission. Little did they know that the show’s five great songs are all piled in what follows.
Granted, Whistle‘s elements barely fit together: The dialogue’s tone lurches from wisecrack to sermon; the musical numbers balloon or shrink like Alice munching alternate sides of a Wonderland mushroom. There’s no discernible narrative arc; you’re never sure whether the story’s about political corruption, the evils of capitalism, or the pressure to conform. The cultural targets of the show’s random-fire spoofing include Kay Thompson vocal arrangements, foreign-movie subtitles, and modern-dance spirituality. And it all climaxes in a roundup of escaped lunatics, carried on choreographically to a parody of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer.
No wonder 1964 audiences were dumbstruck. Though not systematic enough to be called a declaration of independence, Whistle sounded a battle cry of freedom for the Broadway musical, which had gotten altogether too comfy in the Rodgers and Hammerstein mode, by then shrunk to a formula: Take a touching story, reduce it to a simple sequence of scenes, alternate a sentimental couple with a comedy couple, find someplace to stick in a ballet, and send the crowds home happy. The pattern is discernible in Whistle, the way a human face is discernible in a cubist portrait; everything’s turned inside out. The first act’s two huge, brilliantly composed musical sequences, plus the giant ballet that winds things up, hardly leave room for conventional showtunes; Sondheim, astonishingly, managed to squeeze in those five first-rate ones, plus a few lesser delights, anyhow.
Ironically, the boldness with which Laurents and Sondheim seized this freedom from the musical’s business-as-usual was virtually trampled in the world’s rush to a newer sort of freedom with more mass appeal: the free-form rock-concert mode of musical in which anything went and nothing much mattered. Hair, Evita, The Wiz, Cats, and those pop-rock megaliths based on the 10-best reading lists came along and kidnapped the world’s idea of music theater. Sondheim’s later musicals, fulfilling the mad promise of Whistle with sharper wit and more somber depth, all had to struggle for survival before being acclaimed, in retrospect, as works of genius.
The Encores! performance, staged by Casey Nicholaw, granted Whistle as much acclaim as this odd creation is ever likely to get within the confines of a concert. Rob Berman’s musicians gave Don Walker’s brass-rich orchestrations a lovely bronze sheen; Esparza and Foster sang richly; Murphy, though blowing lyrics in every direction, seemed to be having the time of her life, while making sure you went with her for it. I find Nicholaw’s dance vocabulary limited, but his dancers articulated it handsomely.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Public Theater) demonstrates that freedom per se is no big deal for musicals. A mock-rock show, way too busy jeering at easy targets to convey anything factual, let alone meaningful, about our seventh president (Benjamin Walker), Bloody is the musical that thinks with its dick, the organ that alternates with his pistol as this Jackson’s verbal weapon of choice. Always eagerly attitudinizing, the show talks, or rather mostly yells, out of both sides of its mouth, explaining that Jackson was a populist hero kicking butt among the pissy Federalist elite, but also a proto-Nazi scumhead who massacred Indians. Moral: For good historical creds, pick the p.c. butts to kick. Duh.
Michael Friedman’s songs, more variegated than Alex Timbers’s glib script, periodically add a little depth to the oversimplifying. And Timbers’s direction, consistently subtler than his writing, keeps his cast strongly grounded in their roles. Walker, lanky and preppy, makes an un-presidential but effective MC; Lucas Near-Verbrugghe does some inventive clowning as the “preternaturally obese” Martin Van Buren; and Michael Crane, as Black Hawk, establishes a stern, quiet presence that, in a better show, might really have been worth something.
So might the performances in The Addams Family (Lunt-Fontanne), where everybody works incredibly hard, though to painfully little effect. A couple of Andrew Lippa’s songs, including the improbably Latin opening number, may survive, and a few of the book’s more antique gags will undoubtedly long outlive it. But two-plus hours of hearing these creepy creatures blather about the joys of love, in purest Hallmark terms? Please. Even Nathan Lane’s resourcefulness, Kevin Chamberlin’s moonstruck charm, and Carolee Carmello’s giddy vocal display can’t reanimate this inert monstrosity.