Stephen Sondheim has a pretty amazing track record – one flop in sixty years. OK, so Merrily We Roll Along bombed on its first outing but, after much tinkering, rose from the ashes to win the Olivier for best musical in 2000 and (thank you Wikipedia) the most 5 star reviews ever for its 2012 West End revival.
Not so Anyone Can Whistle. Despite several attempts to breath life into the corpse at everywhere from London’s tiny Bridewell Theatre to Carnegie Hall, it remains firmly deceased.
Maybe because it’s a bit weird. In 1964, hot on the heels of a genuine 100% boffo Broadway smash (you, know, the one with the really long title, Plautus and Zero Mostel – what’s not to like?), Mr Sondheim and his collaborators decided the world was ready for a show about a bankrupt town, a fake doctor and the escaped inmates of a sanatorium. It wasn’t.
The cliché is that famous musical flops invariably have great scores let down by dodgy books, inexperienced directors or self-obsessed leading actors but life is rarely that simple. This one had a good(ish) score with some great songs. It has the second most famous ‘cut’ song in musical theatre history (The Man I Love wins hands down – not least because it was cut from virtually everything the Gershwins wrote in the 20’s whereas There Won’t Be Trumpets didn’t pop up anywhere in the out of town tryouts of Company or Follies). The title song is something of a minor standard; Me My Town and A Parade in Town are classic Broadway Everything’s-Coming-Up-Roses-so-Don’t-Rain-On-My-Parade-Before-It-Passes-By diva egomania moments (and set Angela Lansbury up nicely to play Mame a couple of years later) and With So Little To Be Sure Of is a gorgeous (and inexplicably underperformed) ballad.
To say that Everybody Says Don’t is as good as anything Sondheim ever wrote may be an exaggeration but it’s bloody good. It’s also got all the elements that people love/hate about him. It has internal rhymes (“when they say that, then Lady that’s a sign, nine times out of ten…” – I thank you), it revels in being really clever but it packs an emotional punch as well (unless you’re one of those tragic simpletons who believe that songs can’t do those thing simultaneously).
It’s also hard to sing – so I thought I’d do it really fast just to add to the merriment. Which also makes it really fun to play although, as Geoff can attest, no bass player should be asked to do it more than three times a day.
All Geoff’s arrangements are wonderful but this one in particular demonstrates how much arrangements that don’t draw attention to themselves still enhance a song (like good lighting in the theatre – sometimes you notice it but the best stuff just makes you notice the acting more). We could have just done it as fast as I could count it in and impressed everyone with our dexterity and my breath control. We could have done clever things with the time signature but we didn’t. But listen out for the horn parts. They are a whole new superstructure laid on top of the infrastructure of an already great tune that make it something new – even though you may not notice what makes it sound different from the versions you’ve heard before.
Or maybe it works just because we did it really fast…