John Yap and JAY Records give Stephen Sondheim (and the world) a great gift.

By: Nov. 25, 2020


"Did you sing on a recording of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE for Jay Records?" That was me, last week, talking to cabaret/concert singer and Broadway World Award nominee Catherine Porter.

"You want to laugh? I recorded my part in 1997! It was so long ago that I needed to be reminded by the Producer, John Yap, that I actually did it because I had completely forgotten!"

Catherine might not have needed reminding, had the album that she recorded in 1997 ever been released... but it wasn't. Mr. Yap and JAY Records had gone to great lengths and expense to go into Abby Studios with three of the UK's biggest stars to record the first-ever complete recording of a Broadway musical hailed as a legendary flop. Then, that recording sat, unreleased and unheard, for over two decades. Next week, on December 4th, the album will be given to the light, in celebration of Stephen Sondheim's ninetieth birthday.

First of all, how is possible that Stephen Sondheim is ninety? The man hailed as the greatest modern-day musical theater composer seems ageless to this writer, but all year long people have been celebrating (mostly online) his birthday, so ... ninety it is. Secondly, how blissful is it to have a full recording of this musical be released, just weeks before Donald Trump will leave Washington, the White House, and (hopefully) the political arena (hopefully) forever? The themes of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE are remarkably relevant in today's world, so much so that Keith Merrill's wonderful liner notes hold nothing back in their comparisons - including an entire page of scathing comparisons of dialogue from the play to Trump's own rhetoric, alongside photos and satirical comic renderings. So, with the release of the CD landing between Mr. Sondheim's birthday on March 22nd and Mr. Trump's closing date of January 20th, not to mention right before the December holidays, it's pretty clear that ANYONE CAN WHISTLE is the perfect gift in the year 2020 - for anyone.

And what a gift it is.

There was a time when Broadway record albums had to be truncated, in order to fit all the material onto the limited space provided by the vinyl. Many musical theater aficionados suffered for years, wondering about the musical materials on Anyone Can Whistle (don't get me started on Follies) - and even though there was a concert recording in 1995, listening to this studio cast recording, with all the incidental music and some dialogue from the play, is a real pleasure. Anyone Can Whistle has been a mystery to many over the years, and unless a person has read a copy of the script or was lucky enough to catch the ENCORES! staging with Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy, and Raul Esparza, this will be their first opportunity to hear the additional music and dialogue. In Mr. Yap's more than experienced care, the recording is first-class from start to finish; the mixing/mastering of the singers with the National Symphony Orchestra couldn't possibly have been better achieved out of the hands of Sophie Marchant. That's a heckuva big orchestra and an enormous cast of singing actors, but Marchant's skill keeps the levels supremely and effectively even - a factor of extreme importance when complicated, intricate, and intelligent lyrics are at risk. Listeners will not miss one single word, thank goodness - words that will sound better than they ever have before, thanks to the music upon which they soar (the "Simple" track is just spectacular). In all aspects artistic and technical, it's one of the best studio cast recordings this writer has ever heard.

Now, about the actors playing the roles - wow. That could actually be the whole review of the performances on the cd - wow. In 1997, when this album was recorded, Maria Friedman was an established star on The West End, and Julia McKenzie was on her way to legend status in the business; and though John Barrowman's greatest success (in TV's TORCHWOOD) was a few years away, he was acknowledged to be one of the main male actors in musical theater. It could be said that this recording was made in the actors' "heyday" but the fact of the matter is that this trio has been one of three big stars for a long time and that their "heyday" has lasted for decades. But, boy, do they sound good on this twenty year old recording. Maria Friedman has had a long relationship with the work of Stephen Sondheim (her 2006 Sondheim show at The Carlyle remains an unforgettable highlight for this nightclub-goer) and Julia McKenzie is to Sondheim on The West End as Bernadette Peters is to Sondheim on Broadway. When casting these two roles, John Yap had no other choice but to go with these two actresses - and if their American accents are just a little too hard to sound entirely natural, it is easily forgiven because, as singing actors, their performances here honor Mr. Sondheim and all of the fans who will devour every moment. For his part, Mr. Barrowman goes toe to toe with the dueling divas of Anyone Can Whistle and emerges triumphant, having captured, with ease and aplomb, a character so delicious that it may as well have been written for him. This is a glamorous threesome and the twenty-three-year wait to welcome them to one's cast album collection proves entirely worthwhile - the "Come Play Wiz Me" track is a confection perfection, and even though this writer never thought anyone could ever match the simple beauty and welcome heartbreak of Lee Remick's performance of the title track, it would be a lie of omission to not confess that Maria Friedman got some serious tear flow out of me.

Whether a fan of this musical (we all know someone who doesn't get it) or a lover of Sondheim or even just a musical theater person, this is one of the essential recordings. It is a treat and it is a treasure, and, frankly, so is John Yap. The man has spent years giving the fans and the industry great recordings that have become an important part of the musical theater experience, but there is something special about Anyone Can Whistle that goes beyond the quality of his other works. In the same way that the 1985 live Follies recording was an immediate special event in the lives of show queens and Sondheimphiles, Anyone Can Whistle will be considered that kind of special. Maybe it's the long wait for it to come into the light, maybe it's the timing in which it did, maybe it's the exceptional quality of the recording - the reason doesn't matter: all that matters is that people recognize just how special it is, and celebrate it.

Anyone Can Whistle on JAY Records will be released on December 4th, 2020 on all streaming platforms and on the JAY Records website HERE



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