It is always a pleasure to sit amongst the Toronto theatre community, and Sunday night at the Anyone Can Whistle musical concert at the Diesel Playhouse was no exception. The audience was perfectly radiant and included some of the city’s most renowned performers, along with students so recently out of theatre school, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had brought their headshots/resumes in their backpacks. The cast of the concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s most beloved flop was strikingly similar to its audience. Blythe Wilson, famed for her seasons at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals gave a beautiful performance as Fay Apple, an uptight, yet brazen nurse at the local Cookie Jar for the Socially “Pressured”. Her renditions of “Anyone Can Whistle”, “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and “See What It Gets You” tore through the theatre like bolts of energy. Kate Hennig was delightful as Cora Hoover-Hooper infusing the mayoress with a perfect mixture of sassy cruelty. Adam Brazier’s J. Bowden Hapgood was delightfully charming, Jonathan Monro and his gorgeous voice shone as the defrocked preacher Treasurer Cooley and the choreography by Sam Strasfeld was so lively and perfectly suited, I wished that he had blocked the entire show. Richard Ouzounian’s narrator was sheepish, but lacked the presence and charm that overflowed from the others onstage. He recited Arthur Laurent’s book like one trying to remember his grocery list. The ensemble was made up of eight remarkably young and talented performers whose energy radiated from the stage, into the audience, and back out again. The orchestra was simply to die for. In short, Anyone Can Whistle had all the makings of a lovely night at the theatre. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. There is a song in the Second Act called “Everybody Says Don’t” which refers to the courage it takes to speak out against injustice and authority, and since I firmly believe that it is the young theatre-makers who will inherit the Toronto shaped by those men in power today, I feel it is my duty as a person who cares to ask the pertinent questions.
I was initially struck by the way this show was marketed. Why had Arkady Spivak and Richard Ouzounian decided to do a concert version of this show? If they wanted to stage Anyone Can Whistle, why not just stage it? Is this one step into the process of doing a fully staged version of the show? If so, why was there no mention of this in the programme? Is it a benefit concert like the one for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis staged at Carnegie Hall in 1995? I looked to Ouzounian’s Director’s Note for answers and was not surprised with what I found. I read about how 14 year old Richard became enchanted with Anyone Can Whistle in 1964 and after speaking about the show’s brief run he writes, “it’s nearly 44 years later, but the time has finally come to share my feelings with you.” Has it been Ouzounian’s dream to direct Anyone Can Whistle and to cast himself as the Narrator for 44 years? Was he concerned that the socio-political climate of the world today would not be sympathetic to the show’s messages of corruption within the government and its web of hypocrisy?
At its most basic, Ouzounian’s desire to share Anyone Can Whistle with Canadian theatre audiences is wonderful. The show has only been revived a handful of times and I agree that it is an important show that can become a major musical theatre event in the lives of its audience. That said, it strikes me that Ouzounian would choose to mount a concert version for two performances in Barrie and one in Toronto, with direction that lacked any semblance of clear concept and left a large portion of the audience unable to follow the convoluted story. Surely taking a risk and investing in a longer running, fully blocked version of the show, with a director who makes clear, deliberate creative choices, would be more conducive to Ouzounian’s goals of sharing this musical with the people of Toronto. Or is this not the ultimate goal?
Like in Anyone Can Whistle at times I feel as though I am a “cookie” in a Jar, watching helplessly as those in positions of power in this city create illusions to justify and conceal their personal agendas. Richard Ouzounian is The Star’s theatre critic and it cannot be denied that his opinions on actors, theatre companies, directors and performance choices influence and affect the success and failure of theatre in Toronto. Why, then, am I not dazzled by his acting skill and directing choices? Why do I fail to see even the semblance of skill and choice? Who has given this man such clout within this community and why? Ouzounian has said that I think he is a bad person, which could not be further from the truth. I even see a glimmer of myself in the 14 year old Broadway geek he depicts in his Director’s Note. At the same time, I have questions. I am still idealistic enough to believe in fairness and balance and a theatre community that prizes talent over politics. Perhaps it is naïve to believe such a community could exist, but, as Sondheim himself wrote, “I insist on miracles, if you do them, miracles, nothing to them… I say don’t- don’t be afraid.”