By Stanford Friedman
The 100+ member volunteer chorus known as MasterVoices has a storied past. They are our country’s first interracial and interfaith chorus. They sang at the opening of the United Nations, and under the baton of such maestros as Toscanini, Bernstein and Mehta. Their mission, to “revive neglected masterpieces, energize the traditional repertoire through innovative collaborations, and commission new works on timely topics,” is reflected in some 80 years of diverse performances. To celebrate this anniversary, the group, led by conductor and artistic director Ted Sperling, gathered at Carnegie Hall on Thursday for a one-night-only benefit concert staging of Stephen Sondheim’s 1964 cult favorite, Anyone Can Whistle. And they brought along a few friends.
Broadway stars Vanessa Williams, Santino Fontana, Elizabeth Stanley, Douglas Sills and Joanna Gleason, along with Michael Mulheren and Eddie Cooper, 6 dancers, 20 musicians and 40 chorus members were all on hand to breathe new life into this early Sondheim work. With its convoluted book but rousing musical numbers the original Broadway production ran only 9 performances, panned by The Times and up against stiff competition from the likes of Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl. Now, in this calm before the Broadway storm – over a dozen shows are scheduled to open in April – this stellar event was an enthralling harbinger of spring.
The show’s message, that propagating a big lie can turn a population against itself, is disturbingly on point. But in the world of musical theater there is nothing that a love interest, a few upbeat numbers and a ballad or two cannot solve. Thus the powerhouse performances, blessed with choral backup and the acoustic bliss of Carnegie Hall, dissolved any hint of political discord and turned the focus squarely on the music.
The last time I saw Stanley perform was on a computer, in an online mid-pandemic celebration of Sondheim’s 90th birthday. Her rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” performed in her home, was searing. Now, belting out show-stopping versions of “There Won’t be Trumpets” and “See What it Gets You” in a sold-out concert hall, the joy was palpable. Williams was also in top form, singing and dancing her way through her role as “mayoress” of a broke and drought stricken town whose only surviving business is a sanitarium for the “socially pressured,” “To the North, to the South, Only hoof-and-mouth,” she bemoaned in the lively opening number, “Me and My Town.” Santino, meanwhile, as the wooing and wylie J. Bowden Hapgood, nailed the evening’s catchiest tune, “Everybody Says Don’t.” Gleason, who apparently has discovered the cure for aging, served as narrator with her quietly perfect comic timing.
One of the delights of listening to early Sondheim is the familiarity of notes and cadences that will turn up in his later shows. One could hear strains of Assassins when Williams sang the faux religious “Miracle Song,” and the Williams and Stanley duet, “There’s Always a Woman,” had the same playful bite and recitative of “A Weekend in the Country” from A Little Night Music. It was a pleasing reminder of the way that music can be timeless, across so many single nights like this one.
Anyone Can Whistle – Book by Arthur Laurents; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
WITH: Vanessa Williams as CORA HOOVER HOOPER, Santino Fontana as J. BOWDEN HAPGOOD, Elizabeth Stanley as FAY APPLE, Douglas Sills as COMPTROLLER SCHUB, Eddie Cooper as TREASURER COOLEY, Michael Mulheren as POLICE CHIEF MAGRUDER, and Joanna Gleason as the NARRATOR.
MasterVoices, Ted Sperling, Artistic Director and Conductor; Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter; Lighting design by Aaron Tacy; Sound design by Marc Salzberg; Costumes coordinated by Tracy Christensen. Performed at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, March 10, 2022, 7:00 pm.