Sondheim fans can Whistle about new recording

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Sondheim fans can Whistle about new recording

November 30, 2020

By Todd Sussman

Who needs trumpets? After 23 years in the vaults, the Anyone Can Whistle complete recording has finally been released. It’s a birthday present for composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim… and a Christmas gift for his fans. In our in-depth interview, Producer John Yap talks about working with the legendary Sondheim and takes us inside the creation of this long-awaited album.

Todd Sussman You had a front row seat working with Stephen Sondheim in 1997 to capture this first complete recording of Anyone Can Whistle for posterity. In revisiting his 1964 musical, what was his contribution?

John Yap I had worked with Steve on a few recordings of his works before we embarked on Anyone Can Whistle. So, when I broached the idea of the first complete recording of the original Broadway three-act musical, Steve was immediately receptive and supportive of the idea. At the time, I had just worked with writer-director Arthur Laurents on another cast album of a show (Nick and Nora) that he was involved in, and so, like Steve, Arthur was immediately supportive and agreeable.

The most significant contribution from Steve and Arthur was Arthur’s agreement to record the part of the Narrator for this new release. They specially adapted the show’s dialogue to a “recording” script so that we had a coherent story line and plot for the listeners. Steve’s agreement to work with Maria Friedman (in the lead role of Fay) on her songs was another significant contribution. A note of just one word from Steve gave her everything she needed to give the best performance possible, emotionally. It is a great privilege to have the master share insights on his songs. Steve and Arthur couldn’t have been more helpful. I am grateful they gave their fullest cooperation for the whole undertaking.

Stephen Sondheim & John Yap

Todd You’ve collaborated with Sondheim on other expanded recordings of his Broadway scores. What did you learn from working with him?

John Steve has always been very generous and giving to me. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would end up working with Broadway’s greatest living composer.

I collaborated with Steve on the original London casts of Into the Woods and Pacific Overtures (complete recording), the premiere recording of the revised version of Merrily We Roll Along (complete recording, Leicester Haymarket Theatre production) and my All Stars studio cast of A Little Night Music. In addition, I recorded the tribute concert at the Barbican in London, Sondheim Tonight.

When I worked with Steve on our first project together, the original London cast of Into the Woods in 1990, I was very apprehensive. It is a known fact that long, detailed comments and notes from Steve on recordings are legendary. However, much to my surprise, when Steve listened to the initial edits and mix of the recording at my home, he had very little to say. He loved the Digital Dolby Surround Sound that I gave to the recording, especially the surround sound effects of the giants approaching, stomping footsteps from the rear speakers. It was an experiment for me to record in this system. I was very relieved when he liked the sound.

When I produced the complete recording of the revised Merrily We Roll Along (currently being published and hired out by MTI), I was just as nervous. Both Steve and George Furth [book] entrusted me with the preservation of this new version for posterity. Once again, I was relieved when both Steve and George gave their approval after they heard the finished mix. 

By the time I came to the complete recording of Pacific Overtures, the English National Opera production, Steve trusted me totally. When he came to my home to listen to the finished mixes, his only suggestion was to shorten the Japanese drums intro by four beats! Otherwise, he loved the recording. I also received a very appreciative letter from John Weidman [book], who loved the fact that all his dialogue was recorded for posterity.

When I decided to record the All Stars studio cast of A Little Night Music, Steve just gave me the green light with no pre-conditions. He was most impressed that I managed to convince Elisabeth Welch to sing the role of Madame Armfeldt because he told me (later confirmed by Elisabeth with letters from Steve) they had tried many times to get her to sing “Liaisons” in one of the many Sondheim galas. They failed to convince her every time. Even after recording about five albums with Elisabeth by that time, I too had some difficulties convincing her, but I persevered and, miraculously, succeeded in the end. By the time we recorded Anyone Can Whistle, I had total freedom to record as I saw fit. Both Steve and Arthur just left me alone. They only got involved when I needed assistance or information from them.

Todd You produced the new Anyone Can Whistle 2-CD set. What does a producer produce?

John Record producers work with the authors and musical directors to determine the final material from the show to be recorded. In the studio, producers work closely with the engineers to ensure that everything needed to create great cast albums is recorded and committed to the “tapes”—hard drives nowadays. Producers also give the actors notes, to elicit their best performances and interpretations. Performances for recordings are very different from performances on the stage. Some producers make the mistake of just having the actors recreate their stage work. Without the visual actions, facial expressions and context, such recordings often sound flat and lifeless. Producers must listen for such failings and help the actors adjust their performances to compensate.

The same applies to the orchestra. Producers must ensure the orchestrations are clearly realized. Orchestrations are part of the essence, emotions, and drama within the scores. They are not there just to be heard in the background.

Different producers have their own particular ways of recording and preferences for the finished sound. Personally, I do not condone setting the microphones up close to the actors and using compressions to control the sound levels. I always opt for natural sounds, dynamics, and balances of both the actors’ voices and orchestra. I strive to eliminate the “microphone” for my recordings, so the listener is not aware of the microphone being there.

For my studio cast recordings, it is my responsibility to find the right voices and personalities. I love doing this. It allows me to indulge in my fantasy of dream casting.

Todd This recording was kept locked in the vaults for 23 years! Why?

John It was simply due to a lack of time. During the last 23 years, I was very busy producing and releasing new original cast albums, including complete studio cast recordings of One Touch of Venus, Guys & Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, My Fair Lady, The King and I, and many other scores. I proudly refer to myself as a British Chinese living in London and keeping the classic American musicals alive with major, complete recordings of the original versions.

I also have about 12 complete recordings of classic musicals in the vaults, waiting for me to find the time to prepare them for release. Now, thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown, I was able to finish editing and mixing Anyone Can Whistle. With the current, unprecedented tsunami of political and social upheaval in the USA in 2020, Anyone Can Whistle is now a contemporary, relevant political satire and not a 1960’s flop.

Todd Sondheim and Laurents were surely ahead of their time with this material.

John In all the years since 1964, there has never been the striking similarity between the plot of Anyone Can Whistle and the political and social unrest in the United States, until 2020.  In 1964, the plot of the musical seemed too fantastical and unbelievable. It is only in 2020 that lines from the show – “the theatres are dark,” “lock them up,” “into the cages” and “women and children first” – sound uncannily familiar and frighteningly true. Even after the recent presidential election, Cora’s words – “I do not resign for one minute. You are fired. You are all fired! Guard the White House! You’re finished! I’m taking over!” – ring true. It is almost as if fate held back the release until 2020, so the musical is more relevant than ever.

John Yap with Julia McKenzie (L) and Maria Friedman

Todd How was the stellar cast chosen for this CD set?

John The two leading ladies were very easy and obvious to cast. Julia McKenzie and Maria Friedman of the West End both excel in their interpretations of Sondheim. When I suggested them for the roles of Cora and Fay, Steve agreed immediately.

My very good friend, the late Janet Glass, the agent for the then relatively unknown John Barrowman, convinced me to give John the chance to record Hapgood. I agreed. As luck would have it, at around the same time, Steve was in London and saw John in a musical, The Fix, and coincidentally, also wanted him for Hapgood. Steve was very pleased when I told him that I already had John Barrowman down for Hapgood.

John Barrowman

The rest of the cast was made up of leading West End actors. As a testimony to the love and respect they have for Sondheim and Anyone Can Whistle, these actors had no qualms whatsoever being part of the company/chorus. That is why the company/chorus on this recording sounds so exceptional, vital, and committed. They were not performing as chorus members but as individual characters of the town.

There is one Broadway actor among the cast, and he is exceptional in the role of Schub: Bill Nolte. I have worked with Bill on several off-Broadway original cast and studio cast recordings. I made a note to cast him whenever a suitable role for his talents turned up. During the 1997 session, the original British actor I hired as Schub was not able to complete his performance. Sixteen years later, I replaced him with Bill. He stepped in to record all Schub’s dialogue and songs, in a New York studio 3,500 miles away from London’s world-famous Abbey Road Studios, where we recorded the album. Bill and I diligently recorded and replaced all the dialogue, scene by scene, and the songs. His performance is so perfect and seamless that no one would have noticed it was recorded at a different time had I not mentioned it here.

Maria Friedman

Todd What are some of the highlights you recall in working with this cast and seeing the recording come to life?

John It was a great thrill working with Julia McKenzie again. We had worked together before on Into the Woods. What better material than this very special new recording to renew our collaboration. I had produced several recordings with both Maria Friedman and John Barrowman prior to this one, so it was almost like a Friends reunion. We had great fun and a constructive time exploring the essence and personalities of the characters and their songs. The character Fay was a bit trickier to pin down, so we sought Sondheim’s assistance, and he very gracefully agreed to work with Maria on her songs and interpretations when he was in London. He came into the studio, and it was a revelation watching Sondheim work. Just a word here and a word there from him made all the difference. For a man who is known for his words, he was very sparse with them in the studio, but the few words he gave worked miracles.

When we were rehearsing around the piano, we came across sections of the songs and music we had not heard before on either of the two existing recordings [1964 original Broadway cast and 1995 Carnegie Hall concert album]. As a result, we knew we were involved in something exciting and special. But we did not really know how exciting and special it was until the National Symphony Orchestra arrived. When the orchestra started to play, we knew we were about to create something extraordinary. I could not contain my excitement and awe!  Indeed, Sondheim agrees in his endorsement of the CD: “The brilliance of this recording gives the show more energy and sparkle than it’s ever had. It made me proud of it.”

Todd Were there any challenges?

John Yes, there were lots of instances where all the intricate and complicated strands of the words, music, emotions, and dramatic elements had to be stitched together for various characters and situations. Many times we had to pause in the middle of the recording sessions to discuss in great length and make decisions on the paths we wanted to take before we resumed recording. It was time-consuming and costly, but it was all worth it. For example, Maria’s interpretation of the title song is surprisingly different from Lee Remick’s and Bernadette Peters’. Maria’s internal, emotional rendition sets the song apart from previous versions.   

Todd Is there a particular song that stood out for you that wasn’t on the original 1964 cast album?

John It was not so much a song that stood out, but rather, the absence of the context of the songs on the 1964 original Broadway cast album. The pathos and the emotional resonance of songs such as “Anyone Can Whistle” and “With So Little to Be Sure Of” are only brought out by the inclusion of the little scenes and dialogue before and within the songs in this complete recording. The Broadway cast and concert albums – by omitting those little scenes and dialogue – did not convey the inherent pathos, emotion, and drama of these songs.

Maria Friedman, John Owen Edwards, John Yap, Stephen Sondheim

Todd “There Won’t Be Trumpets” was omitted from the 1964 LP but added to the 1988 re-issue on CD, sung by Lee Remick. I fell in love with Barbra Streisand’s version (paired with “A Quiet Thing”), recorded in 1974 but held for release until 1991. This song has a history of being held back. 

John Yes, and I am just as ill-informed as to the reason why it was omitted as the next person. There are some rumors suggesting that Lee Remick could not get a handle on the way to sing that song or something like that. Whether it is true or not, it remains a rumor. Regarding Barbra’s version, I agree with you. It is wonderful.    

Todd The new CD booklet states, “Interesting fact: An unknown Barbra Streisand was originally sought for the role of the heroine, Fay Apple, but instead accepted Funny Girl.” Where did that information come from?

John I think that lovers of Anyone Can Whistle have known about this for years. Keith Merrill, who wrote the new liner notes, researched and discovered that bit of information. It is obviously true because Sondheim proofread the liner notes and added the word “unknown” to the “interesting fact.”

Todd This new CD set is such a beautiful product with its 16-page booklet. Are CDs fading out for good to be replaced by streaming?

John CD sales may be diminishing, but they have not faded out. There will always be collectors. Look at the resurgence of vinyl LPs. Streaming is more for those who want to just listen to the odd song or songs, usually as background music. Those who truly appreciate and seriously love music would never want to listen in the diminished sound quality of streaming or through earbuds. Such formats deliver the worst quality of the recordings. They are compressed and reduced to the smallest sound memories of the mp3. JAY Records will always maintain CDs in its main catalogue, or whatever physical sound formats the future may bring.

Julia McKenzie

To participate in the digital distribution of music, we have released a series of albums with 12 tracks, designed specifically for streaming. For example, out of the 38 tracks on the new Anyone Can Whistle 2-CD set, perhaps a 12-track album will be created specifically for streaming. So, to answer your question, as far as JAY Records is concerned, streaming will never replace the CDs.  

Todd I miss record stores, an integral part of my youth that offered a treasure trove of sights and sounds. In 1978, you founded the famous That’s Entertainment Records/Dress Circle musical theatre specialist shop in London, which transferred to an online operation in 2013. Do you miss the physical store?

John I had the best time of my life when I started the record shop in Drury Lane, originally named That’s Entertainment Records (TER). I was young and full of vision and enthusiasm. I met lots of wonderful customers and the money kept rolling in. The shop was a great success from day one. When we moved from Drury Lane to the Piazza Covent Garden, it was even more fun, exciting and profitable. Then my real destiny came calling, and I started a record label (TER/JAY). Soon after, I sold my shares in the shop to my ex-partner. He changed the name to Dress Circle, because I kept the name TER for my new record label. With the label, I embarked on a completely different type of adventure, fulfillment, and joy. I would not trade that for anything in the world. Do I miss the shop? Yes, I often think of the sunlit, happy youthful days, but my life now is much more fulfilled and complete. I have met, worked with and made friends with some of the most important and greatest talents in musical theatre.

Todd One of the unearthed gems on the new CD set is “The Miracle Song,” depicting a miraculous spring whose waters contain healing powers. Anyone Can Whistle captures people’s hope for a miracle. What miracle would you hope for?

John The miracle that I hope for in my life is that I am able to finish editing and mixing all of the unreleased complete recordings I have in the vaults. There are at least 12 recorded and fully paid for recordings of some great Broadway musicals waiting for me to finish and release. I have an idea as to which of the 12 I am going to work on next, but that will have to wait till next year. I am keeping all of the titles under wraps for now, as people will drive me crazy to release them if I name them here. My focus now is on Anyone Can Whistle, which is my gift to Stephen Sondheim for his 90th birthday, in appreciation of his gifts to the world.

Anyone Can Whistle will be released December 4th, 2020. 
Available at www.Jay, and 


Write to Todd Sussman at

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Todd Sussman

Todd Sussman is a graduate of Columbia University, where he studied journalism and film. A longtime entertainment writer, he is the author of the Blockbuster Video books, The Greatest Movies of All Time, Volumes 1 & 2. He began his writing career as the film critic for The Miami News and soon became the editor of Blockbuster Video Magazine. For his work on the magazine, Todd received an Addy Award for Best In-House Publication, one of several Addy honors he holds. The Walt Disney Company commissioned him to write an interview promoting the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which Todd wrote the questions as well as the answers, in character as the beloved Roger Rabbit). He had the privilege of working as the Liner Notes Editor on the following projects for Barbra Streisand: Encore (her 11th Number One album), Release Me 2 (with various collector editions), and her tour program for The Music…The Mem’ries…The Magic! He also edited the liner notes for: A Capitol Christmas - Volumes 1 & 2, Neil Diamond’s Classic Diamonds, Nat King Cole & Friends’ A Sentimental Christmas, and Kristin Chenoweth’s Happiness Is Christmas. Recent cover stories for Cabaret Scenes include Johnny Mathis, Kristin Chenoweth, and Stephen Schwartz.