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background and analysis by Scott Miller


            In November 1934, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes hit Broadway like a freight train, starring the powerhouse trio of Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, and the hilariously stoic, trembly-voiced comedian Victor Moore. It wasn’t Porter’s first show – he had already written scores for See America First (1916), Within the Quota (1923), Paris (1928), Wake Up and Dream (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), Gay Divorce (1932), and Nymph Errant (1933) – but Anything Goes was his best. Nearly every song in the show would become an American standard, and the show’s success and popularity would never diminish.

Critic John Mason Brown said, “If it stays for the most part within the time honored limits of these [musical comedy] conventions, it does so only to make clear why it is that time has honored them.”

But not everything about the show was conventional. The musical comedy had begun thirty years earlier by consciously rejecting tales of rich folks and royalty, in favor of stories of common people, average working Joes and Janes. As one of the only gentiles writing Broadway scores at the time, as a native of Peru, Indiana, as the heir to a considerable fortune, and as a relatively open gay man, Porter wasn’t interested in immigrants or in common people. He had spent time in Paris alongside Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein. So Porter wrote his musical comedies about smart, glamorous, rich, sophisticated, sexual people. His lyrics were dripping with French phrases, sex jokes, references to high society names, new brand names, exclusive night clubs, trans-Atlantic cruises, and time spent in Paris.

            Originally, the show was called Hard to Get, then Bon Voyage, written mainly by Guy Bolton, with jokes by P.G. Wodehouse (pronounced WOOD-house), and it told a wacky tale of a trans-Atlantic crossing aboard a luxury liner, a wedding to be stopped, a disgruntled screenwriter concocting wacky disruptions (including a fake bomb), various romantic obstacles, and of course, mismatched lovers. (The first script was not about a shipwreck as some history books claim.)

The first composer Freedley envisioned for the project was Jerome Kern, but Kern worked only with Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II at that time. He also considered George Gershwin, who was enmeshed in the creation of Porgy and Bess. Next on Freedley’s list was Cole Porter, who recently had had a big hit with Gay Divorce. Porter set to work.

But then the real life shipwreck of the Morro Castle, killing 132 people, hit the headlines two days before the show went into rehearsal, and producer Vinton Freedley decided making a musical comedy about a fake bomb on board a luxury liner was no longer a good idea. So Freedley introduced the director, Howard Lindsey, to the columnist and press agent Russell Crouse and asked them to write a new book. (Lindsey and Crouse would go on to become one of the most successful playwriting teams in American theatre.) So the new bookwriters fashioned a new story around Porter’s now completed score, reportedly retaining less than a dozen lines from the earlier version, this time about safer romantic hijinks aboard a luxury liner. The ship setting had to remain since sets were already built. In this new version, the steamship S.S. American (as a proxy for America itself) functions like Shakespeare’s woods, a place with no rules, where people find out who they really are and “correct” the mistakes they’ve made in the world of the City, where lovers de-couple and re-couple.

The roguish hero Billy Crocker was named for a college buddy of Porter’s at Yale, who helped finance some of Porter’s early shows. Moonface Martin, aka Reverend Dr. Moon, was originally named Moon Face Mooney, but during the Boston tryout, an ominous message was personally delivered to the theatre from an eccentric mobster in New Jersey who was not pleased to share his name with a musical comedy character.

Anything Goes ran 420 performances, the fourth longest run of the decade, and 261 performances in London in 1935. A film version was made in 1936 with Merman and Bing Crosby that used six of Porter’s songs and six new songs by other writers. A shortened TV version was aired on NBC in 1954 with Merman, Frank Sinatra, and Bert Lahr, with some of the original score and other Porter songs added. A 1956 film version was made that had nothing to do with the show except the title and a few songs.

It was revived off Broadway in 1962 with a revised script by Guy Bolton, moving the entire story onto the ship (cutting the opening bar scene), as well as cutting a couple songs and adding several others from other Porter scores. It ran 239 performances. Then it hit London again in 1969 but ran only 15 performances. The show returned to Broadway in 1987 for an impressive 804 performances, and London once more in 1989. The 1987 version sported a new script by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse, based on the original and including more of the original score, including some cut songs. It was revived again in London in 2002, directed by Trevor Nunn, and the show returned to Broadway in 2011 in a version very close to the 1987 version.

The New York Times called it “a thundering good show,” and “hilarious and dynamic entertainment.” The New York World-Telegram called it “a triumph,” and said, “You just must see it.” The Boston Post wrote, “It opened fast, it raced along; in liveliness and beauty, wit and humor, it weaved a spell of genuine enjoyment that far exceeds anything the stage has given us in many a season.”

Porter invented a new kind of show tune – the list song. He had already written a couple list songs, most notably “Let’s Do It,” the famous song unmistakably about sexual intercourse that had brought him his first fame. But “You’re the Top,” raised the list song to an art form. No one would ever do it as well as Porter, but because of him, it became a staple of musical comedy for years to come. Even as recently as Rent’s “La Vie Bohème” in 1996, the list song lives on.

            Lost on modern audiences are the sharp satirical barbs Anything Goes aimed at what was in 1934 a new cultural phenomenon in America, “café society.” In Neal Gabler’s book, Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, he writes:

Exactly where and when it originated would always be in some dispute. One observer dated it from the late 1890s, when a former champagne agent named Henry Lehr induced Mrs. Astor, a regent even among New York’s so-called Four Hundred social titans, to attend a dinner at Sherry’s restaurant. Until then high society’s denizens had dined and entertained exclusively in their homes, and the next morning a society reporter expressed his shock: “I never dreamt it would be given me to gaze on the face of an Astor in a public dining room!”

            The more generally accepted version was that of Maury Paul, who wrote the society column for Hearst’s American under the nom de plume Cholly Knickerbocker. As Paul told it, he was sitting in the Ritz on a brisk February night in 1919 and observing the socialites when he mused to himself, “This place! Society isn't staying home and entertaining anymore. Society is going out to dinner, out to night life, and letting down the barriers.” The next morning Paul dubbed this phenomenon “café society,”' and the name stuck. Exactly what café society was was not easy to determine and became even more difficult as time went on. It wasn't just that high society had gone public. Café society included people whom the Old Guard of high society would never have countenanced privately or publicly. Rather, it seemed to have been born during Prohibition from a combination of Walter Winchell’s showy Broadway crowd and a restless group of young socialites who were, in one observer's words, “vaulting the barriers of Newport and Fifth Avenue in search of adventure beyond,” with the speakeasies as the catalysts. Certainly the Broadway-society axis constituted an unmistakable new social formation; and in the thirties, when people talked about “café society,” this incongruous mix is what they meant.

And that is what Cole Porter loved writing about.

The characters in Anything Goes included Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer, who’s friends (or more?) with Billy Crocker, a Wall Street broker, who’s in love with Hope Harcourt, a debutante, who’s engaged to Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, a British aristocrat, who’s taken a fancy to Reno. Instead of a romantic triangle, we have a romantic square. Also on board is Moonface Martin, Public Enemy Number Thirteen, and his captured partner’s girlfriend Bonnie.

Reno Sweeney was based on two real-life celebrities, the Prohibition Era speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan (notice the very similar names), and the famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Strangely enough, Texas Guinan did consider switching to evangelism after the end of Prohibition. Gabler writes:

But out in California, notorious speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan had an inspiration. Attracted by the peculiar combination of show business and piety – a combination within Texas herself – she got the idea to make a film based on the popular Los Angeles evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Since McPherson was touring in New York at the time, Texas received permission to appear in McPherson’s temple and wound up enjoying it so much, that she dropped the idea of the movie. Instead, the very image of twenties indulgence decided to become an evangelist herself. Besides, she reasoned, the money was good…

Religious references pop up throughout the show, usually revealing religious or moral hypocrisy. Reno is a former evangelist, now nightclub singer; her backup singers are called her “fallen angels;” there’s a bishop who gets arrested early on, leaving his two Christian converts to fend for themselves; Moonface becomes the Reverend Moon; “Public Enemy Number One” is a parody of a hymn (worshipping celebrity rather than God); “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” is essentially a revival meeting that sounds like a sex act, complete with phony confessions and repentance. Early in the show, Reno comically merges her two sides when she says to the hard-drinking Mr. Whitney, “Come, let us lead them beside distilled waters.” Religion, meet Speakeasy.

The show’s creators focused on two themes above all, which sharply skewered American pop culture: the turning of religion into show business, and the turning of criminals into celebrities. At its core, Anything Goes is a comic but pointed exploration of amorality and moral irony. The characters we like the most, our “heroes” (Reno, Moonface, Billy) are the least “decent;” and the most decent character (Sir Evelyn) is the antagonist (sort of). John Waters would be right at home here.

Reno stands in for America in the aftermath of the repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s – going from moral purity (as an evangelist) under Prohibition to moral sin (as a nightclub singer) after the repeal. Her big song “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” slyly, ironically suggests that America should “repent” for the sin of repealing Prohibition (or is it for the sin of enacting Prohibition?). Moonface’s rise in social status aboard the ship mirrors the way gangsters and rum runners, now wealthy, became respectable members of “high society” after Prohibition was repealed. Certainly the faux hymn “Public Enemy Number One” mocks the public’s love affair with Capone, Bonnie & Clyde, and other famous gangsters, preferring revenge over salvation.

Ultimately, Hope Harcourt (and Anything Goes) chooses love and authentic emotion over money, position, and obligation. America isn’t totally lost.

The romantic marginalization of Sir Evelyn by Hope is an echo of America’s marginalization of Europe after World War I. America was now the Super Power, and we didn’t need Europe anymore. Hope’s mother thinks they need Evelyn (no doubt the Harcourt fortune was decimated by the crash), but Hope doesn’t agree. In fact, in the original production, Evelyn didn’t even get his own song even though he was a secondary lead. Both Hope and the show – and ultimately Sir Evelyn – reject Britain in favor of America.

The show’s plot turns on such an odd love story – Reno loves Billy who loves Hope, but Reno ends up with Hope’s fiancé Sir Evelyn, who is subliminally set up as gay (he has a woman’s name and tells Moonface he has “hot pants” for him). Not your standard musical comedy plot. Is Evelyn a comic stand-in for the gay but married Cole Porter? The subliminally gay sidekick was a staple of the Astaire-Rogers movies, though here the character has been considerably fleshed out, and gets a wife by the end.

If Reno ends up with Evelyn, does that make her a drag queen in some sense, or as played by Merman, a lesbian? Could Reno and the Angels all be lesbians? Or does Reno’s cut song, “Kate the Great” suggest that it will be an “open marriage”? We can guess Hope starts off with Evelyn because he’s non-threatening sexually, especially after her hot night with Billy. It’s like A Little Night Music, in which the characters start with the wrong partners and have to reshuffle before the evening is over. This weird mismatching may be easier to understand in the revivals, with “Let’s Misbehave” added in the 60s and “Gypsy In Me” added in the 80s, explicitly giving Evelyn a hetero sex drive.

The script was stronger than many 20s and 30s musical comedies, but what made this show click was the amazing Porter score. “You’re the Top” isn’t just a great list song, it’s a satire of America’s preoccupation with fame, celebrities, and brand names, a theme explored more fully in Act II. It’s also really well-crafted musically. Those partial-measure instrumentals after the title phrase each time give the characters time to think of the next clever joke – Billy and Reno are competing at being funny, and Porter’s music gives them thinking time, so we can believe that this song is spontaneous, that they are that clever!

Billy and Hope both sing “All Through the Night,” but almost entirely separate, not together; their union is not real yet, it’s in the future, so they can’t musically “couple” by harmonizing yet. Then again, they do sing the last two lines together (in octaves), so there’s still hope for them. In the original 1934 production, neither of them sang the last verse, which went to the men’s chorus. The song’s harmonic progression is fascinating, winding its way through various tonalities, until the home key is almost lost – like Billy and Hope’s love! And almost the entire melody is in half-steps, slowly descending chromatically, working against the hopeful/dreamy lyric, until the end of the main phrase suddenly leaps up with optimism. It’s a beautiful sound picture.

Several songs were written for Anything Goes but cut (though fewer than for most Porter scores), including ‘Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby,” “Waltz Down the Aisle,” and others. “Easy to Love,” was replaced by “All Through the Night” because William Gaxton couldn’t sing “Easy to Love.” During out-of-town tryouts, they also cut “There’s No Cure Like Travel,” “What a Joy to Be Young,” and “Buddie Beware,” which was replaced by a reprise of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Porter also wrote a song called “Kate the Great,” but Merman refused to sing it because it was too dirty. She objected to one line in particular: “She made the maid who made the room.” Was Merman afraid of subliminally referencing her own gay real life?

            Though Anything Goes trafficked in smart social satire, it was as horny as it was clever. Sex pervades the whole show (“Blow, Gabriel, Blow”…?), and it is made more explicit in “Let’s Misbehave.” But that title isn’t as random as it sounds to us today. “Misbehavior” presented as fun rather than as sin was something fairly new in 1934. Samuel Schmalhausen, a popularizer of Sigmund Freud’s work, wrote in his 1928 book Why We Misbehave:

Static morality has been repudiated in favor of dynamic experience. Fear yields its sovereignty reluctantly to fun. Passion’s coming of age heralds the dawn of a new orientation in the life of the sexes. We may sum up the quintessence of the sexual revolution by saying that the center of gravity has shifted from procreation to recreation.

Schmalhausen extolled the virtue of playful sex:

Sexual love as happy recreation is the clean new ideal of a younger generation sick of duplicity and moral sham and marital insincerity and general erotic emptiness. Sex as recreation is the most exquisite conception of lovers who have learned to look with frank delighted eyes upon the wonder in their own stirred bodies.

A year later in 1929, James Thurber and E. B. White wrote the book Is Sex Necessary? In which they argued:

During the past yean, two factors in our civilization have been greatly overemphasized. One is aviation, the other is sex. Looked at calmly, neither diversion is entitled to the space it has been accorded. Each has been deliberately promoted. In the case of aviation, persons interested in the sport saw that the problem was to simplify it and make it seem safer. With sex, the opposite was true. Everybody was fitted for it, but there was alack of general interest. The problem in this case was to make sex seem more complex and dangerous. This task was taken up by sociologists, analysts, gynecologists, psychologists and authors; they approached it with a good deal of scientific knowledge and an immense zeal. They joined forces and made the whole matter of sex complicated beyond the wildest dreams of our fathers. The country became flooded with books. Sex, which had hitherto been a physical expression, became largely mental. The whole order of things changed. To prepare for marriage, young girls no longer assembled a hope chest – they read books on abnormal psychology. If they finally did marry they found themselves with a large number of sex books on hand, but almost no pretty underwear.

Let’s misbehave!


Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.