Pegasus Players

In his essay “On Theater Lyrics,” songwriter Stephen Sondheim recalls how his partnership with playwright Arthur Laurents was launched: “I was at an opening night party, and I saw one familiar face, Arthur Laurents, and I went over to make small talk with him. I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m about to begin a musical of Romeo and Juliet with Leonard Bernstein and Jerry Robbins.’ I asked, ‘Who’s doing the lyrics?’–just idly, because I didn’t think of myself as a lyric writer, I thought of myself as a song writer, I was composing all the time. Arthur literally smote his forehead (I think it’s the only time I have ever seen anybody literally smite his forehead). He said, ‘I never thought of you and I liked your lyrics very much. I didn’t like your music very much, but I did like your lyrics a lot.’ (Arthur is nothing if not frank.)”

Thus began a creative collaboration that produced two legendary hits (West Side Story and Gypsy, the latter with music by Jule Styne), one so-so success (Do I Hear a Waltz? with music by Richard Rodgers), and one outright bomb: Anyone Can Whistle, for which Sondheim provided the music as well as the lyrics. With a cast headed by Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, Anyone Can Whistle ran a pitiful nine performances in 1964. The reason was not Sondheim’s music, which survived the Broadway production in an original-cast recording that became a cult item in the 1960s and then won a whole new following in the 1970s.

Sondheim attributes the Broadway failure of Anyone Can Whistle to a lack of creative “abrasion,” i.e., to collaborators not willing to challenge Laurents and Sondheim on their choices. Victoria Bussert, director of Pegasus Players’ current revival of the work, believes that the original show was hampered by bad design. I think they’re both right. The musical’s three acts of political satire cum goofy love story don’t quite add up; there are times when the intentional illogic of the script and score becomes frustratingly incomprehensible. But as Bussert’s staging of Anyone Can Whistle proves, insightful direction and design can emphasize the work’s virtues with such intensity that the mistakes don’t matter.

Set in a mythical American small town (like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahagonny, which seems to have been an influence), Anyone Can Whistle tells of a plot hatched by the town’s corrupt leaders to replenish the civic coffers with a phony “miracle” rock that spews forth life-giving waters. Fay Apple, a nurse at the local insane asylum (or “cookie jar,” as it’s called here), sets out to expose the hoax by bringing her “cookies” to partake of the water; when the mad folk aren’t healed en masse, she reasons, it will prove the waters are a fraud. Popping up to assist Apple in her mission is one J. Bowden Hapgood: first thought to be the cookie jar’s new doctor, he eventually turns out to be just its latest cookie. Hapgood soon decides it’s less important to expose the fake miracle than to create a real miracle by bringing love and madness into the heart of the repressed, ultrarational Apple.

With its insistently whimsical tone and its theme of the value of madness in an insane and self-destructive world, Anyone Can Whistle is very much a product of its time–the post Kennedy-assassination 1960s, when America started careening into what seemed to be a crazy cultural free-for-all. The show evokes echoes of absurdist movies like A Thousand Clowns and King of Hearts, music like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, TV shows like The Prisoner, and ballets like the Joffrey’s antiwar spectacle Clowns, as well as older works like The Wizard of Oz and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. All of this could be too much to take if not balanced with a deeper and darker vision. That’s just what director Bussert and her superb creative team bring to it. Instead of the dated pop/op look that less astute directors might choose, Bussert and set designer Russ Borski have developed an angular, off-kilter visual approach that’s simultaneously futuristic and quaint–recalling such films as the silent classic Metropolis and the recent Richard Burton version of 1984, as well as the eerily entrancing fantasies of Walt Disney in his great early period. (The second-act cityscape, with its line of cartoonishly skewed houses, borrows directly from Disney’s Pinocchio.) Borski’s sets are effectively complemented by Jeffrey Kelly and John Nasca’s high-tech costumes and especially by Peter Gottlieb’s unceasingly inventive lighting scheme, a succession of brilliant visual flourishes. For extra good effect there’s a series of film sequences, shot by Tom Palazzolo and Allen Ross, which are superbly integrated into the stage action,

With the design adding a dimension of seriousness to offset the script’s potential coyness, the actors are free to explore the strong emotions underneath the story’s surface. Colette Hawley is riveting as Nurse Apple, struggling with her inner bonds while pursuing her political mission with a zealot’s determination; she’s also a great belter, as she proves in her gutsy rendition of the shows title song. Anne Kanengeiser is a vampy but not campy monster as the town’s scheming, fierce but flighty Mayor Hooper, snarling at her cabinet one moment (“My desk is littered with bills! Pay them!”) and playing to the townspeople with Jolsonesque passion the next. (Any resemblance to Jane Byrne is probably coincidental, but that makes it all the more fun.) Larry Yando is ingratiatingly quirky as the miracle worker Hapgood, and displays a smooth baritone in such numbers as “With So Little to Be Sure Of” (one of the best love songs in Sondheim’s canon). Best of all, these strong lead performances blend seamlessly with the large and talented ensemble. Janet Louer’s choreography and Jeff Lewis’s musical direction are precision-perfect; Lewis has been greatly aided by the new orchestrations of Ken Gist and the additional ballet music composed by Dan Sticco and arranged by Bill Duncan. This is a stunning artistic achievement that also has plenty of audience appeal as it mines the original material for gleaming gems of wit and beauty.

I first met Michael Rasfeld in 1971, when he was running sound and lights for the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe at the old Kingston Mines Theater. Inspired by Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York, Godzilla was pursuing a pansexual, crazy-quilt, magic-minded, fantasy-based style of theater, with one foot in the classics and the other kicking down the doors of tradition as hard and as humorously as possible. It was a launching pad for several of Chicago’s most distinctive talents, including the actor J. Pat Miller, whose death from AIDS I wrote about in this newspaper four years ago.

Now Mike Rasfeld is gone too. He died March 18 at the age of 38. His death seemed shockingly sudden–he succumbed to pneumonia just a couple of weeks after entering a hospital–but in fact he’d been staving off the effects of AIDS for several months.

Over the years since he opened Acme recording studio, in 1971, Mike had become an important link among various facets of the performing arts in Chicago, to whose grass-roots cultural life he was dedicated with a quiet and loving perseverance. Acme, located in a storefront in west Lakeview, proved that a carefully run, neighborhood-based operation could function with a low overhead and high creativity.

Acme’s client list is as eclectic as Mike’s sensibility. A partial list includes international stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Bellson, and Jack Bruce, as well as local artists. Such theaters as Goodman, Victory Gardens, Organic, and Second City (whose house sound system Mike designed) utilized Acme’s services. So did such musicians as bluesmen James Cotton and Erwin Helfer, folkie Jim Post, hard rockers Poison Squirrel, Painter Band, and the C*nts, and country rockers Jump ‘n the Saddle Band (whose hit single “The Curly Shuffle” Mike coproduced and released on his own Acme Records label). Mike’s last project was a jazz record by veteran Second City music director Fred Kaz. In every case, Mike and his crew of family and friends provided a personal as well as professional touch; Acme evolved from recording studio to creative clearinghouse, a perfect place for networking or just hanging out.

With Mike’s brother Jim now at the helm, Acme will continue its good work. So will the people whom Mike Rasfeld nurtured with his friendship and artistry. But that can only partly compensate for the deep loss his passing represents to his friends and his city.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.