Some Stephen Sondheim flops – Assassins, Merrily We Roll Along – received such admiration on revival that they became core repertory. However, London’s first Sondheim musical since the composer’s death in November is a show that not only got away but stayed there: Anyone Can Whistle, pulled after nine Broadway performances in 1964, remains an elusive curiosity. A measure of the mess it became is that the best song, There Won’t Be Trumpets, imagining how a Messiah may arrive, was cut in New York to save time, but, after becoming a cabaret standard, restored to the score.
Sondheim’s second professional musical as both composer and lyricist (after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and his first not based on an existing literary text, Anyone Can Whistle is an absurdist political satire set in dramatist Arthur Laurents’ imaginary town bankrupted by corrupt Mayor Cora, whose gormless entourage conjure a fake miracle of water pouring from a rock. The fillip from pilgrims brings visitors including shrink Dr Hapgood (later referenced as a Stoppard title character), and Fay, a nurse who may have come from Lourdes to assess a rival shrine.
The plot is absurd both as a theatrical genre and pejoratively, although with some serious intent: there are four references to Ibsen plays and, in reflections on the risk of putting faith in leaders, glimpses of the recent JFK assassination and the demagogic presidential run of Republican senator Barry Goldwater in the premiere year. The songs are most interesting for tryouts of rhyming and rhythm that Sondheim will later perfect.
Simple, a 13-minute sequence of song, dialogue and action featuring a dozen performers, anticipates mature bravura montages in Pacific Overtures and Sunday in the Park With George.
Somehow accomplishing Simple and other busy songs on a thin strip of stage, Georgie Rankcom’s production brilliantly gives the show new contexts. Psychedelic costumes (Cory Shipp) suggest how it anticipated (if satirically) “hippy” musicals of the next decade such as Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin.
And, most transformationally, a local “lunatic asylum” (in the vernacular of then) becomes, through a young cast, four of whom identify in the programme as non-binary, explicitly a place where society confines those who won’t conform.
Jordan Broatch, in their professional debut, is a blazingly engaging Hapgood, and Chrystine Symone gives soaring performances of the title number and Trumpets, making us glad Sondheim saw sense over that song’s excision, while Alex Young’s Mayor, adept at physical and vocal comedy, nails truths about political liars.