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Muhlenberg celebrates 50th anniversary of Sondheim's 'Anyone Can Whistle'

Cult classic musical to play Oct. 24 – Nov. 2 on Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance mainstage

Friday, October 17, 2014 08:59 AM

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 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 or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.