Because I know that everyone will be focused on Stephen Sondheim’s legendary successes, I want to look at one of the composer and lyricist’s earlier flops, just to prove that it can happen to anyone, even the man who brought us Gypsy, a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and West Side Story, to name but a few. Sondheim died at 91 years old, on Black Friday.
In 1964, Sondheim teamed with Arthur Laurents, to bring Anyone Can Whistle to Broadway. It starred Lee Remick and, in her musical stage debut, the incomparable Angela Lansbury also starred. At least when Sondheim’s play bombed, it did so with exceedingly talented people going down with it.
Anyone Can Whistle takes place in a fictional town on the verge of decline. To raise money, the corrupt mayor, Cora Cooper embraces a fake miracle (water flowing from a rock, that is actually rigged with a water pump) in order to lure tourists. But Mayor Cooper (Lansbury) is duped herself when a stranger arrives in town who is mistaken for a psychiatrist, but is actually more suited to be a psychiatric patient.
The New York Times‘ Howard Taubman wrote, If Anyone Can Whistle didn’t know it was in difficulties, it should have listened to itself. It starts virtually in full cry and keeps shouting at the top of its voice most of the evening.”
The Associated Press presented another critic complaining because the play threw in everything but the kitchen sink, noting a side plot about the H-bomb. “Laurent has simply crowded too many twists and targets for mockery into the affair” and “A leaden first act is a grievous handicap.”
Sondheim’s songs couldn’t salvage the disaster and when one considers that Remick had never sung before taking the part and didn’t even think she could, it’s no wonder. She recalled, “When I heard it was going to have a lot of singer-type music, I said, ‘I love you all for thinking of me, but goodbye.'”
During one of the play’s few performances, a dancer, Tucker Smith, was supposed to jump from the stage to the top of a piano in the orchestra pit, for a routine. Smith missed the piano, landed on a hapless saxophonist and put the man in the hospital. To add insult to injury, the saxophone was dented in the collision.
The play did get one rave review. Columnist Bill Slocum reported that at intermission, “This middle-aged lady rushed up to another gal, a blond of uncertain vintage, who had gone heavily to flesh, mink and diamonds. The middle-aged lady asked, “How do you like it?”
“The blonde gushed back, ‘It’s marvelous. I never in my life saw anything as good. It’s just perfect.’ With that, the blonde jumped in a cab and went home, ignoring the rest of a performance she thought was so wonderful.”
The play closed after just 9 days. Lansbury reflected, “We were all non-singers, but we had a ball. We did the album on Sunday morning, the day after the Saturday we closed. We were all exhausted and depressed.”
Not one of the songs from the play was memorable, but not even Sondheim could get blood from a turnip — or water from a rock.
I’ve been smiling today, thinking of Sondheim’s funnier gems, including the raucous, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” and the sardonic, “Remember?” But what’s on repeat right now is my favorite of his:
Ah, well, everyday a little death
Every day a little death
In the parlor, in the bed
In the lips and in the eyes
In the curtains, in the silver
In the buttons, in the bread
In the murmurs, in the gestures
In the pauses, in the sighs
Every day a little sting
Every day a little dies
In the heart and in the head
In the looks and in the lies
Every move and every breath
And you hardly feel a thing
Brings a perfect little death
-A Little Night Music