Anyone Can Whistle (2001)

Book by Arthur Laurents
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
June 14-30, 2001
ArtLoft Theatre, St. Louis

Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper – Lisa Karpowicz
J. Bowden Hapgood – Troy Schnider
Nurse Fay Apple – Chelsea Phillips
Comptroller Schub – Michael Brightman
Treasurer Cooley – Paul Coffman
Chief of Police Magruder – Christopher Clark
Cora’s Bodyguard – Greg Coleman
Mrs. Schroeder – Cindy Duggan
Baby Joan Schroeder – Jeannie Skala
Dr. Detmold – Terry Meddows
Townspeople/Cookies – Kiné Brown, Greg Coleman, Cindy Duggan, Justin Heinrich, Alison Helmer, Tamara Kelly, Terry Meddows, Uchenna Ogu, Jeannine Skala

Director – Scott Miller
Choreographer – JT Ricroft
Lighting Designer – Tim Lord
Set Supervisor – Christopher Clark
Miracle Rock & Puppet Design – Todd Schaefer
Costume Designer – Russell J. Bettlach
Hair Design – Ren Binder
Box Office Manager – Steve Dohrmann
Graphic Designer – Kris Wright
Photography – Robert Stevens

Piano – Neal Richardson
Trumpet – Carl Nelson
Percussion – Adam Kopff

“Instead of bringing serious matters to the foreground, as he often does, director Scott Miller went all out for entertainment and let the issues emerge from a framework of farce. The resulting show offered much to enjoy on the surface without obscuring the depth.” – Gerry Kowarksy, The Sondheim Review

“The best reason to see Anyone Can Whistle, the appealing mess of a show that New Line Theatre is staging at the ArtLoft is simple. You’re not likely to get another chance. . . Still, anything by Stephen Sondheim has an element of fascination, thanks to his enormous influence on modern musical theatre. New Line’s artistic director Scott Miller, who has staged a number of Sondheim shows, directs this one with verve and intelligence. . . Miller and choreographer JT Ricroft make the most of the ArtLoft’s flexible space.” – Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“It’s a chance to see what the young Sondheim was capable of doing. There are a few excellent songs and some imaginative staging by Miller, and some of the comedy, led by Michael Brightman as Comptroller Schub, is delightful.” – Joe Pollack, KWMU-FM

“[Director Scott] Miller and choreographer JT Ricroft stage the musical numbers with brio – nicely adapting to the ArtLoft’s shallow stage and making intriguing use of aisle space.” – Cliff Froehlich, The Riverfront Times

When Anyone Can Whistle opened in 1964, it was so bizarre in its style, so savage in its satire, so outrageous in its social commentary that it ran only nine performances. It attacked the commercialization of religion, which still persists today, the gender and racial stereotypes that go unchallenged still today, and the blatant corruption and profiteering of politicians, which is worse today than ever. In short, it attacked the way its audiences lived their lives. No wonder it closed in a week. Musicals didn’t do that in 1964.

But the truth is those lives deserved attack, and our lives today deserve the attack even more. How is it that we condone the fact that religious titans Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jesse Jackson are millionaires and live in mansions? What would Jesus or Gandhi have said about that? How do we condone the outrageous black stereotypes that still pervade television and movies? What would Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. have said about the over-sexed, drugged-out, brainless comedies full of negative stereotypes that African American writers and actors are churning out week after week? How do we condone the fact that the president of the United States, a card carrying member of the oil industry, wants to drill in the Arctic National Preserve, so he and his friends can make money? Is he all that different from Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper?

Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents address these outrages by shining the harsh light of satire on them, exaggerating them and making the insanity and insidiousness of these practices crystal clear to us all. Cora’s fake miracle gets us thinking about Dubya and his oil buddies. The black woman Martha’s stereotypical “black” dialect and her musical references to Porgy and Bess make us recognize how readily we accept black stereotypes in everyday life – still today – without even realizing it. June and John’s gender bending shows us how silly and out-dated gender roles are in our society and how far we haven’t come since the 1950s. Fay’s sex-only-by-disguise points up the hypocrisy and hang-ups Americans have over sexuality. The Cookies themselves show us how quickly we label any deviation from the norm as a sickness or disability of some sort.

Yes, this show may offend you a little, but if that’s the only way to get us all thinking about what’s wrong with our culture, then so be it. Our world is a mess and if we can laugh tonight at how ridiculous we all are, maybe tomorrow morning we can start making changes. Anyone Can Whistle creates a strange relationship between the observers and the observed. You sit watching the kooky inhabitants of Cora’s town but Anyone Can Whistle is also watching us, noticing every prejudice, every injustice, every ridiculous and selfish move we make in our everyday lives. And at the end of Act I, we’re forced to ask the literal question: who’s watching whom?

So why is the show called Anyone Can Whistle? I think it’s because this show is about the choices we make every day, about whether we do what we’re told or just go on our merry way, living life in our own quirky fashion. Whistling is a symbol of freedom, abandon, fun, and stubborn nonconformity. Most people don’t chase after those things. But anyone can.


Like several other shows we’ve done, Anyone Can Whistle scared the shit out of me until the second week of the run, when our audiences finally started laughing their heads off. But I’ve become a fear junkie – if it doesn’t terrify me, if it doesn’t challenge me, if it doesn’t ask things of me that have never been asked before, it isn’t really fun. I didn’t know if my ideas for Whistle would work and if audiences and reviewers would understand and embrace my take on this very bizarre absurdist musical. That first week of performances, I honestly thought I might be the only person on earth who thought this show was really funny. I asked for ridiculous, over-sized, manic performances, and the actors trusted me and gave me those performances. The audiences barely laughed that first week, but the actors still trusted me. We got mixed reviews, but they still trusted me. They trusted me and I trusted the material and that’s the only way to do theatre.

Anyone Can Whistle represents everything New Line Theatre is about – rule-busting, aggressively screwing with audience expectations, refusing to do what’s been done before, tackling difficult material that scares everybody else, demanding that audiences think and participate in the experience of live theatre. And the truth is that even if all our audiences had greeted our show with only mild chuckles – or even outright hostility – I still would have been proud of us. This show was good and the hell with anybody who says differently. They haven’t taken the time to really see all the treasure that is there, and it’s their loss. And not only was the show good, it’s also important. As I said in my program notes, maybe if we can see how ridiculous our world is, we’ll be motivated to make it better. Theatre is not just about entertainment; it’s about coming together as a community to discuss the things that need discussing. If we can’t make a difference, if we can’t make people think, if we can’t change the world, why are we wasting our time?
– Scott Miller, director

When Scott cast me in Anyone Can Whistle, I must admit to having been both excited and disappointed. I was disappointed because I had hoped to snag the leading role of Hapgood. It was a reality shock to me that I had to face the fact that at 36, I was probably too old now to play the “ingénue” roles, such as Hapgood; but felt surely I was not ready to begin playing the older, character roles; the roles I refer to as “The Mr. Mooney” roles. The shock of being cast came because I really didn't think I would get cast in any role! Although I gave what I thought was a good audition, I had some conflicts with the rehearsal schedule, and felt that it would prevent my being cast in such a large role as Comptroller Schub. But cast I was. And what a phenomenal role it turned out to be for me. I didn't know that I had it in me to play this guy the way I played him. I had a blast! Looking back, I would have never even considered playing Hapgood if I had known what fun it could be to be Mr. Mooney! I learned a great deal from doing this show, but what I learned the most is that the largest role is not always the best role!
– Michael Brightman, “Comptroller Schub”

I really never thought I would write a piece like this about a professional theatre director. Contrary to popular belief, working with professionals doesn’t always mean you get a professional environment. It was for this reason I took a very long hiatus from musical theater after doing a full summer run of Oklahoma! in Florida. I was burned out, empty, and felt that the creative atmosphere of theatre was gone. The creative process, which I had embraced during my undergraduate studies, was displaced by budgets, production schedules, and directors who espoused logic but failed to convey art in their productions, much less protect their actors. I was also tired of this kind of direction from almost every single director I worked with: “If I’m not telling you that you’re doing anything wrong, you’re doing okay.” Who really wants to be just okay?

This brings me to Scott Miller. A mutual friend encouraged me to give New Line Theatre a go. I walked into the audition and proceeded to sing a song that didn’t sound too hard on the ears, and performed my greatest acting coup ever by convincing Scott and JT that I was a comedic actor. The fools! What separated the New Line experience for me was it felt like a return to my undergraduate years. It felt safe to experiment, play, and try different things night after night. If we went too far, Scott was there to catch us. If we weren’t going far enough, he would encourage us to go further.

I will carry two memories away from the show. The first memory is when the audience seemed to have finally gotten the show and they were responding with smiles and loud guffaws. It proved that the critics were wrong and somehow a lot of people in the past missed the genius of Sondheim and Laurents in this piece. What is the second memory? Scott Miller trying to find ways to get me in trouble by wondering out loud which female cast member was in my sights for that night.
– Paul Coffman, “Treasurer Cooley”

“What the hell have I gotten myself into!” Those were the first words I mumbled to myself as I was leaving the first read-through of Anyone Can Whistle. I could not believe that a director could read that script and still want to so passionately perform it in front of a viewing audience.
When I got home I read the script again, discussed it with my family and my friends, still not getting an answer that satisfied me as to why I should continue with this production. Finally, I got the courage to e-mail Scott about it. (Some courage, e-mail.) I had no idea what his reaction would be; after all, this was my first production with New Line. But this play sparked such a fire in me, I had to say something.

The next day I checked my e-mail. There it was, the response. I was so nervous to open it because I thought, he's going to think of me as a trouble maker and kick me out of the show. So, I opened it.

The message started off with some background knowledge about the play, which I already knew from reading the information I had received at the read-through. As I continued to read on, I got to the last couple of lines which read, “Theatre is not always meant to be comfortable. Sometimes it is uncomfortable and that is why we do it, to challenge ourselves as well as the audience.” After reading that, I had no doubt in my mind that I would do the show.

The funny thing about this situation was that I knew that about theatre. I have even done a “heated” play before about the struggle in Ireland during the World Wars. That did not affect me like Whistle. Then I thought about it. Whistle was directly making fun of all the racial stereotypes that were placed on us back then in the 60s that we still have yet to overcome today.

Once I got past that, I really began to play with the script as far as character choices were concerned. I will admit that I was still nervous about the show. Every rehearsal Scott would say, “I reeeeally need you guys to go to the extreme. Nothing can be too much for this show. Don't focus on the offensiveness; I know it is offensive; just play past it and accept it.” When Scott said that, I began to trust him because he trusted Sondheim, and that was all I needed to worry about.

When that show opened, we did not at all know how that audience would respond to the show. Scott was even a little nervous, but once we opened, I think all of a sudden it just clicked for everyone. It was so AWESOME!!! From the characters, to the pace, to the lines, to the music! Don't get me wrong; I felt good about it in rehearsal, but the audience really made the difference, especially in this show. I am glad that I stuck with it.
-- Tamara L. Kelly


  1. I love reading the recollections from my fellow cast mates. I was so excited to work with New Line. I was at a point in my life where I was slowly, but surely, coming out of the closet as a gay man and accepting what it meant for me to be so. Being involved with Anyone Can Whistle was a chance for me to really express who I was in a controversial setting.

    I had believed, into my early 20's, that being gay was a mental malformity that could be challenged, psychologized, and even cured. Anyone Can Whistle was a testimony to the "craziness" of not accepting ones self, buying into a majorities views, and reaching past that struggle to find empathy and compassion for all mankind set in a zany world where no one knows who's "sane" or "insane".

    I loved my time in rehearsals. The cast was an extraordinary group of people and I learned so much about myself during the process. I would drive almost an HOUR, ONE WAY, just to goto rehearsals. I was so dedicated to the process because the process was changing the very fabric of who I was. And I LOVED it!

    The show meant a lot to me. It was the mark of a new life for me. A life of leaving behind the old dogmas, that I had learned in my VERY religious upbringing, and move forward to discover what I REALLY believed. What better place to do that then with a Sondheim show that struck MAJOR controversy when it was first played on a stage?

    Thank you to Scott Miller for casting me. Thank you to the cast for being an extraordinary, and diverse, group of people who, literally, changed my life. And...thanks to ME...for having the courage to step out of my comfort zone and be involved in such a production. I say we do a revival of the show? Who's in?

    Greg Coleman
    Cora's Bodygaurd

    1. Wow--amazing words, Greg! Everything you say about Anyone Can Whistle rings true with me . I am stoked at finally doing ACW in 2020!