Keeping Score: Anything Goes

Jason Carr
Thursday, March 28, 2024

Orchestrator Jason Carr explores how in the ocean liner-set musical comedy Anything Goes, Cole Porter refined his unique voice to lift theatregoers’ spirits during the Great Depression

Kerry Ellis (centre) and ensemble (photography: Marc Brenner)
Kerry Ellis (centre) and ensemble (photography: Marc Brenner)

Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Broadway took a big hit. In the 1930-31 season, 83 per cent of shows were financial failures. So, it’s extraordinary, writing from this age, where most new shows go through several workshops before being green-lit, to see how apparently cavalierly 1930s shows were created, even in difficult times.

In 1933, producer Vinton Freedley, while hiding in the Caribbean from New York creditors, conceived the idea of a musical comedy set on a London-bound cruise ship. He decided that the men to write the book were Guy Bolton (living in London) and PG Wodehouse (living in France), and the songs would be by globe-trotting Cole Porter. To star, he wanted the comedy team of William Gaxton and Victor Moore (fresh from the Gershwins’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Thee I Sing) and stand-out singer of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, Ethel Merman; a sensation, but yet to actually star in a show.

A real-life disaster aboard the SS Morro Castle, in which around 137 people died, forced Freedley to abandon the Bolton-Wodehouse scenario which featured an on-board bomb scare, and to quickly hire local men Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse to write an essentially new script to fit the already-in-construction sets – a script largely unfinished when the show went into rehearsal in 1934. (This was their first collaboration in a long partnership which would climax in The Sound of Music.)

Porter, despite the advantages of wealth and talent, had been slow to establish himself alongside contemporaries Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart. With Anything Goes, he hit his stride, establishing a tone forever recognisable as Porter-esque. He also found a muse in Merman and would write four more shows for her.

Unusually, Anything Goes eschews an opening chorus and, even more daringly in an age when the beau monde liked to arrive late at a show to make an entrance, Porter placed ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ first up, so high society had to arrive on time, or risk missing the hit song.

Notice how the internal rhyme ‘Mere alcohol / doesn’t thrill me at all’ expands into a triple rhyme ‘I’m sure that if / I took even one sniff / That would bore me ter-rif-ic’ly too’, before blossoming extravagantly into ‘Flying too high / With some guy / In the sky / Is my i-dea of nothing to do’.

The score also includes the standards ‘All Through the Night’ and ‘You’re the Top’, as well as the title song, but the lesser-known numbers are delightful too: ‘There’s No Cure Like Travel/Bon Voyage’ with its contrapuntal melodies in 2/4 and 6/8, and the witty ‘Public Enemy Number One’ is a joyous homage to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Nobody writing a 1930s musical comedy thought they were writing for posterity, and Porter loved to stuff his lyrics with ultra-topical references which are now meaningless to a general audience. In ‘You’re the Top’, Reno Sweeney tells Billy Crocker: ‘You’re the eyes of Irene Bordoni’; ‘You’re a Coolidge dollar’; ‘You’re a Bendel bonnet’ – a what now?

At this point, I’m sure many of you are shouting, ‘But what about “Friendship” and “It’s De-Lovely”?’ Well, revivals have tended to include Porter standards from other shows, often replacing lesser-known originals. The 1987 Broadway ‘revisal’, which includes these two songs, has now become the standard text, the new book (co-written by Crouse’s son Timothy) sensibly streamlining the show for modern sensibilities, as well as restoring ‘Easy to Love’, originally cut as it was too taxing for Gaxton.

Porter’s 1948 Kiss Me, Kate is often seen as his greatest ‘book’ show, but his unique flavour belongs to an earlier age when America abandoned Prohibition and clung to joy as it clawed its way out of the Great Depression.

Jason Carr’s listening recommendation

Anything Goes –1989 Cast Album

Kim Criswell, Jack Gilford, Cris Groenendaal, Frederica von Stade; LSO / John McGlinn

EMI Records

Though there are recordings of Merman, and from the delightful London cast album of 1935, this is still the era before the making of an Original Cast Album became common practice. There are numerous recordings of the 1987 version, including those starring Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige and Sutton Foster — all good. I’d probably choose the National Theatre version with Sally Ann Triplett. But I have no hesitation in sending you to John McGlinn’s 1989 restoration of the original 1934 version. Kim Criswell sings triumphantly and tenderly, and the orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Hans Spialek, played by the LSO, sparkle like the finest champagne.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today