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a complete Anyone Can Whistle
... and more Sondheim on a singer's EP
Reviews by Rob Lester

To borrow a couple of titles from the Stephen Sondheim score to Anyone Can Whistle, there won't be trumpets or a parade in town to herald the arrival of the splendid full recording of its songs and instrumental material, with some dialogue, but it deserves cheers. And there's a smaller dose of the master songwriter's work (five tracks), from other scores, with vocalist Travis Moser.


CD | iTunes

Patience is rewarded! Anyone who loves Anyone Can Whistle has a very rewarding listening experience in store—with much more of the score to exult in. Those who've known about this project, and were longing for the long lag between its making and its availability to end, can relax and relish the revelations. JAY Records has been shipping pre-orders through its website in advance of the official December 4 release date, so may I say that Stephen Sondheim songs from other scores no longer need to tease or placate: "No More" need we think "Wait," "Sooner or Later," and "Something's Coming" (or, for the true scholars, "Have You Been Waiting Long?" from his pre-professional days).

With this deluxe 2-CD set arriving near the end of this year when Mr. Sondheim turned 90, a little historical perspective and nostalgia seem apropos. In April 1964 came the Broadway opening of Anyone Can Whistle, during the same week that many were busy whistling the tunes of a group called The Beatles, who held all of the Billboard chart's top five slots. The unconventional musical (previous titles: The Natives Are Restless and Side Show) was soon to be represented in record stores, too, getting a truncated cast album despite a run of only nine post-preview performances. There were later stage productions and concert presentations, including one at Carnegie Hall in 1995 that was preserved on CD. Two years after that, intent on making a new and full version with material not included on the others, JAY Records' producer John Yap and company (including West End stars Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie and John Barrowman—all with Sondheim credits—in the leads) gathered at London's famous Abbey Road Studios recording studio to do exactly that. After years of anticipation, it's time for celebration.

The songs and excerpts of dialogue (some underscored) display sturdy characterizations. The casually curious and the committed completists will find much to deepen appreciation of this satirical piece. Its legendary songwriter consulted on this project, and gave it his appreciative endorsement. And the musical's bookwriter and original director, Arthur Laurents (who died in 2011), is heard doing a modest amount of narration—a nice touch.

In the protagonist portrayals, none falls into the trap of going overboard with glib, obvious choices. So, although she projects the requisite vulnerability for the title song, Maria Friedman as the inhibited Fay is no wimp. On several tracks she exhibits backbone and defiance. Her "There Won't Be Trumpets," cut from the original show in previews, is on assured display here, as is Fay's assertive monologue preceding it. John Barrowman is a less leering or intimidating force as the interrogating Hapgood than one might expect, but the payoff is a warmer, kinder presence for his interactions with Fay. Julia McKenzie doesn't settle for making the selfish, corrupt mayor a cartoonish villain. She's ferocious, juicy of voice, wearing arrogance with abandon, while still gleefully at home with the snappy pastiched razzle-dazzle.

Lending fine support and sass as the mayor's integrity-challenged political partners are Bill Nolte, Ian Burford, and Stuart Pendred. There's a large group of solid theatre singers as the town's citizens, although in the sections mocking mob mentality and authority figures sowing intentional confusion, the disciplined, grand ensemble sound sometimes sacrifices fervor and frenzy in favor of chorale-like precision. Mayhem may not ensue to the max, but you won't be exhausted or find a muddle in which you might otherwise miss catching crucial words. There's plenty of wonderful wackiness on display, especially in the farcical, kinetic "Cookie Chase" tour de force and ballet. While we can only imagine the choreography that won the show its only Tony Award nomination, the orchestra on these long and sensational sequences becomes the star of the show.

There is plenty of dance music, as well as many other instrumental tracks in differing tempi and moods that explore and expand melodies of key songs. The National Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Owen Edwards is sumptuous and bursts with energy; in the mix, it's never relegated to taking a backseat as mere backdrop to the singing. The original Don Walker orchestrations sound crisp and it's a treat to hear how even the smallest morsels of a melody, with the just-right choice of instrumentation, accent the action while revisiting phrases and reinforcing attitudes and tensions.

The booklet gives a detailed synopsis of the plot's shenanigans and chicanery and offers an eerily persuasive "life imitates art" thesis, pointing out similarities to troubling Trump era realities and claims. This triumphant presentation of Anyone Can Whistle makes a strong case for the show's relevance and radiance in whatever decade the delicious ambitious piece may be experienced.



mp3 | iTunes

On his new EP, New York City-based singer Travis Moser mostly tends to take his Stephen Sondheim selections super-seriously, sometimes even somberly. Nothing is tossed off casually. He's a decidedly earnest fellow, whether he's emoting from the position of seeing love and good times coming or, alas, going (as in "Good Thing Going" with its wistfulness and hindsight). Taking a page from an imagined "Trust The Material" handbook (subtitled "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"), he and his sole accompanist, the attentive and non-flashy pianist Drew Wutke, present their repertoire respectfully, honoring the original blueprints in tone, tempo, and basic accompaniment figures.

Purists may praise the decision to not embellish or radically reimagine ballads, opining that the bare bones of the master songwriter's work offer what seems meatier than most musical fare. The stripped-down approach certainly returns our focus to the craftsmanship and reminds us that creative decoration need not always be the priority. It's not the agenda for So Many People: The Sondheim Sessions. Vocal attack can be somewhat uneven, and Travis Moser's voice has a pronounced vibrato that takes hold in some slow lines' sustained and higher notes. I find him more effective when that is kept in check.

The brief "Nothing to Lose" from the Dick Tracy film is disarming, a refreshing choice from the Sondheim canon in that it is not very typically tackled by vocalists. Likewise, the ardent "So Many People" isn't approached by so many people in the world of Sondheim covers. This open-hearted number was written in the 1950s for Saturday Night, the shelved musical that got its belated unveiling decades later. In that show, it's a duet begun by a character named Helen and concerns her ideal man; Travis keeps the lyric's uses of the word "man" and the original male pronouns.

The set includes two of the showstoppers from the score of Follies written originally for strong, older female characters—we don't as often hear them paraded by male voices. To the credit of the Moser/Wutke duo, they work pretty well. "Broadway Baby," thankfully, allows for some looser moments and playfulness amid this otherwise pensive collection. Interestingly, the most effective rendition (and the most surprising, if heard after all the others) is the survivor's anthem, "I'm Still Here." Conventional wisdom would suggest that this long number with its lyric's many references tied specifically to names from America's long-ago decades, from the point of view of a toughened female performer past her prime, would present too many hurdles to sound convincing. But the drive and guts come through and it builds forcefully.

Intensity can pay off—and it often pays to pay attention to the intensely rich work of Stephen Sondheim.

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