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date: 14 April 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Stephen Sondheim and his critics usually ascribe the failure of Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim’s most revered flop, to the volatile social and political context in the United States, claiming that it was ahead of its time. This chapter argues, in contrast, that it is very much of its time and that no other musical of the period epitomizes the social and cultural contradictions of the mid-1960s as vividly as Whistle. Attempting to bring the kind of theatrical and political provocation that was flourishing Off-Off-Broadway to Broadway audiences unfamiliar with experimental idioms, Whistle represents a determined hybrid: part satire, part romance, part musical comedy, part Broadway razzle-dazzle, part political polemic. It is also symptomatic of the contradictions inherent in the dominant political philosophy of the 1960s, liberal individualism, in its opposition to standardization and conformism and its inclination toward an arrogant egocentrism. That Whistle had to wait decades to find an audience is a tribute less to Sondheim’s prescience than to his ascendency since the 1970s as his generation’s preeminent architect of experimental music theatre.

Keywords: Anyone Can Whistle, sociopolitical satire, mid-1960s, Broadway, musical comedy, Off-Off-Broadway, experimental theater, liberal individualism

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