Muhlenberg Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of Sondheim’s ‘Anyone Can Whistle’

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allentown, PA – Stephen Sondheim’s rarely produced musical comedy “Anyone Can Whistle” will get a Fiftieth Anniversary production at the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance Department, Oct. 24 – Nov. 2. An absurdist satire about insanity, conformity, miracles, and local government, the 1964 musical is also a great love story, according to director Beth Schachter, and has become a cult classic among musical theater fans.

“The music is quite lovely,” says Schachter, a member of the theater faculty at Muhlenberg, and the chair of the Theatre & Dance Department. “The humor is also very enjoyable. The show is witty in a way that many musicals are not.

“Anyone Can Whistle” plays on the stage of the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts. Tickets and information are available at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre and 484-664-3333.

The show tells the story of a bankrupt town with a corrupt mayoress, in which the only business still thriving is Dr. Detmold’s Sanitarium for the Socially Pressured — known locally as The Cookie Jar. The town needs a miracle — which is precisely what it gets when a local girl licks a rock and water gushes out. Bingo! A modern-day Lourdes, with the tourist trade to boot. (The miracle was staged by the mayor’s cronies, of course.)

Things get even more complicated when the Cookie Jar patients get mixed up with the pilgrims, and no one can tell who’s crazy and who isn’t — not that it was entirely clear to begin with.

The show satirizes issues and attitudes that are still very much germane 50 years later, Schachter says: issues of gender norms and gender equality, questions of individuality and conformity, social protest and civil disobedience.

“The show argues for standing up for change and not waiting for the people in charge to change things for you,” she says. “That’s something that appeals to me, as the people of Hong Kong flood the streets with their umbrellas in support of democracy.”

Schachter says the show offers a particularly sophisticated and compelling depiction of women, with two powerful female characters in Fay, a nurse who works at the Cookie Jar, and Cora, the town’s mayor.

“The show is interested in women, in their desires, ambitions, and wishes,” she says, “which is part of the reason I like it so much.”

Senior Samantha Simon, from Hawthorne, N.J., plays the central role of Cora — a villain of the piece, but a complicated character nevertheless. Simon appeared last fall as Rosa Bud in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

“Samantha is having a terrific time playing this hilarious villainess,” Schachter says. “She is a powerful presence on stage. She really takes over.”

Sondheim wrote “Anyone Can Whistle” very early in his career as a composer. He had contributed lyrics to the hits “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” but had only written the score for one Broadway show, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The show closed after nine performances, but went on to become a cult favorite among musical theater fans, particularly Sondheim-philes. The show offers a preview of the complex melodies and innovative structures that characterize the composer’s later shows.

“‘Whistle’ marks the beginning of Sondheim’s distinctive voice and style,” Schachter says. “He develops that style much further in his mature work, but it’s fascinating to see this early expression of his talents as a composer.”

Tim Averill designs the scenery, which has “a zany, cartoony, fairy-tale feel to it,” Schachter says. “We were inspired by the set of ‘Laugh-In,’ with its bright colors and crazy angles.” The choreography, by Lynn Wiener, is similarly outlandish, highlighted by a comic ballet in which the ballerinas play deputies in an epic chase scene — on pointe.

“It’s a total hoot,” Schachter says. “But it’s a hoot with something to say, and what it has to say is still interesting and relevant 50 years later. It has been a revelation for me.”

Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theater program in the top twelve in the nation for seven years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.

Performances of “Anyone Can Whistle” are Oct. 24 – Nov. 2. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, with an additional 2 p.m. show on Saturday, Oct. 25. Regular admission tickets are $22. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8. Group and season subscription rates are available.

Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

Sondheim’s “Merrily” At Muhlenberg‏

Merrily We Roll Along‘ takes audiences backwards through a life in the arts

Wistful and innovative, Sondheim musical opens Oct. 28 at Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance

Allentown, Pa. (Oct. 17, 2011) — When “Merrily We Roll Along,” the wistful 1981 musical by Stephen Sondheim, opens Oct. 28 at Muhlenberg College, it will take audiences on a journey through time, as many musicals do. The difference is that “Merrily’s” audiences will be journeying backwards, following a group of artists from the end of their long friendship, at the beginning off the show, to their first moments together, at the show’s end.

Rueful and nostalgic, the show explores the lure of show business and the price of success, says director James Peck, chair of the college’s Theatre & Dance Department. Also, he says, the importance of having a network of friends to remaining grounded and connected to what matters.

“It’s a cautionary tale about how not to screw up your life in the arts,” Peck says. “It’s inspiring and heartbreaking, and it contains some of Sondheim’s most irresistible songs.”

The second production in the department’s 2011-12 mainstage season, “Merrily We Roll Along” plays Oct. 28 through Nov. 6 in the college’s Baker Center for the Arts. Because of the college’s Family Weekend programs, tickets will be scarce for Oct. 28-30.

“Merrily” features music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth, Sondheim’s collaborator on the earlier hit musical “Company.” The show’s musical score received rave reviews, and features the Broadway standards “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Our Time.”

The show tells the story of composer and film producer Franklin Shepard and his two closest friends, playwright Charley Kringas, Shepard’s lifelong collaborator, and novelist Mary Flynn. The trio begin their careers full of idealism and ambition–and they find success, but not necessarily fulfillment. The play moves backwards through their personal and professional milestones–starting with a disastrous opening-night party for Shepard’s uninspired new movie, and journeying back to a rooftop at dawn, at the start of a friendship and a career.

“The play is about being a middle-aged person, and the struggles of staying true to your vision,” Peck says. “It’s also about being a very young person, just starting out in the world, with a certain vision of yourself and of the kind of artist you’ll turn out to be.

“I’m in one stage of that journey, and I remember the other,” he says. “And my cast are still very much at the beginning of that journey, looking forward to their careers. And that’s the heartbreak, in a way. Some young artists will of course go on to have splendid careers, and some will be disappointed, but certainly none will have exactly the careers they envision for themselves. That vision can be hard to let go of, and looking back, can be hard to come to terms with.”

Choreographer Jeremy Arnold, a senior dance major at Muhlenberg, says that the play resonates especially strongly for him as a young artist.

“It’s very much about the choices we make in our lives,” Arnold says. “And it’s very applicable to where we are as students. I can identify with the characters as an artist about to start my career.”

Senior Andrew Clark concurs. In his portrayal of Charley Kringas, he says he has found himself thinking about his own decisions, and wondering what effects they might have down the road.

“Every decision we make resonates out like ripples in a pond,” Clark says. “We are shown how things resonate with and affect others without our being aware of it. This show is very sad, but there is an inherent sense of hope in our production because, like our characters at the end, we’re all so young.”

“Merrily’s” backwards-running structure is also reflected in its musical score, according to musical director Ken Butler. Shepard composes a musical theme early in his life that becomes the basis for several later compositions, and Butler says that sharp-eared patrons will hear that theme develop backwards as the play progresses.

“The glory of the reversal is when the audiences has those ‘a-ha’ moments,” Butler says. “It’s a process of excavation, and it’s always a jolt.”

The Sunday, Nov. 6 performance at 2 p.m. will feature Open Captioning for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing and Audio Description for patrons who are blind or visually impaired. Tickets are available at a reduced rate to patrons who require these services. To purchase tickets for OC or AD services at the Nov. 6 performance, contact Jess Bien at boxoffice@muhlenberg.edu or 484-664-3087.

Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department is the top-rated college performance program in the country, according to the Princeton Review‘s 2012 survey report. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa, offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance.

“Merrily We Roll Along” runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 6. Opening-weekend performances are: Friday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 29, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.  The second week of performances are Wednesday through Saturday, Nov. 2-5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $20; patrons 17 and under, $8; students, faculty and staff of all LVAIC colleges, $7. For groups of 15 or more, tickets are $15. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew Street, Allentown.

Tickets and information: 484-664-3333 or http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre