By Peter Filichia
We can’t let 2014 got by without acknowledging that the year marks the eightieth anniversary of Anything Goes.
I’m a little late to the party, for the Cole Porter shipboard classic actually debuted on Nov. 21, 1934. It’s lucky it didn’t have to postpone until 1935, for its original Guy Bolton-P.G. Wodehouse script was found wanting. Lest the two ol’ pros be embarrassed, the official (albeit false) story given to the press was that their script couldn’t be used because it involved a shipwreck — and with the S.S. Morro Castle going down on Sept. 8 off the coast of Asbury Park, New Jersey and losing 137 lives, it was no time for a shipwreck musical. New writers would have to be found, for Bolton and Wodehouse, it was said, had already sailed for Europe.
Really? With a show going into rehearsal? I smell a ship rat.
But it gave the new team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse quite the jumpstart; before they retired twenty-eight years later, they’d given Broadway its longest-ever-running play (Life with Father) and its fourth-longest-running musical (The Sound of Music).
Because 1934 was a bit less than a decade before the start of the original cast album era, the best that the country got then were pop recordings of Anything Goes’ hit songs.
They’re still standards. “I Get a Kick out of You” has celebrity evangelist Reno Sweeney and her on-again-off-again beau Billy Crocker admit their attraction before “You’re the Top” allows them to display their mutual admiration. (The latter contained a lyric that today would not be interpreted as a compliment: “You’re Mickey Mouse!”)
“All Through the Night” is Billy’s proclamation of love for Hope Harcourt, whom he’s also considering as a mate. The idea behind it is one of Porter’s most clever: Billy says he’d rather be asleep because that way he can “be” with his beloved for eight straight hours of dreaming.
“Blow, Gabriel, Blow” is part of Reno’s (shall-we-say) “religious service” to those traveling on the luxury ocean liner. It’s a barnburner, as is, of course, “Anything Goes.”
Mary Martin went into the recording studio in 1950, did all of the above as solos save for “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” where a chorus supported her. She then rested while the chorus sang “There’ll Always Be a Lady Fair,” Porter’s oh-so-genteel look at gobs who had gobs of women in every port. It’s a far cry from the lusty way that Rodgers and Hammerstein tackled the same subject fifteen years later in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.”
Not that Porter was usually demure. “Good authors, too, who once knew better words now only use four-letter words writing prose,” he wrote in his title song. But Martin sings that they’re writing “three-letter words.” If she means “sex,” fine, but can you think of any others?
And in typical American fashion, the lyric that mentions “cocaine” in “I Get a Kick out of You” is retained. For that matter, Martin wasn’t above adopting a now politically incorrect accent for the verse of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” as if she were about to sing what used to be called “a Negro spiritual.”
Aside from an overture and finale, that was it for Martin’s recording, for eight selections were about all a ten-inch record could contain. It’s an excellent recording as pop albums go; while Martin would never have been a natural for Reno, her creamy voice makes for some easy listening.
Later, when twelve-inch “long-playing records” were the norm, Anything Goes finally got a fuller recording when a revival surfaced off-Broadway in 1962.
Make that a revisal, for Anything Goes was one of the first classic musicals to reappear on a New York stage with extra songs thrown in and previous ones extracted. No one much complained, for the six songs added were terrific.
Three weren’t especially well-known. “Let’s Misbehave,” refitted so that Reno could encourage Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (her stuffy British fiancé) to become more romantic, was a song Porter had originally written for his 1928 musical Paris. It didn’t survive the out-of-town tryout, but “Heaven Hop” did. Now it and “Let’s Step Out” (originally from Fifty Million Frenchmen) would go to Bonnie, the girlfriend to Moonface Martin, Public Enemy Number Thirteen.
The other three songs were well-known: “It’s De-Lovely” (from Red, Hot and Blue!) another Billy-and-Hope courting number; “Friendship” (from Du Barry Was a Lady) in which Reno, Billy and Moonface proclaim just that; and “Take Me Back to Manhattan” (from The New Yorkers), which has Reno and her bevy of beauties speak of their homesickness when they’re about to land in England.
Well, that one was a little shoehorned in, wouldn’t you say? After a long ocean voyage, any traveler can’t wait to get off the boat and see the sights. What you don’t want to do is immediately return on another equally long ocean voyage without having experienced anything.
Of course, we don’t realize that just from listening to this revival off-Broadway cast album, which is a honey. Eileen Rodgers manages to make Reno not only extraordinarily brassy, but expertly tender, too, in her five cuts. Hal Linden, a dozen years away from the household-name status that TV’s Barney Miller would give him, is a super-suave Billy. Barbara Lang, soon to be Daisy Gamble in a national tour of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, is a charming Hope. Mickey Deems – who later in the year would join Broadway’s Little Me (“Did you scream, father?” he’d ask the Scroogish Mr. Pinchley) – has the right pseudo-elegance in giving his “Be Like the Bluebird,” a latter-day version of William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.”
Most fun of all is Margery Grey as Bonnie. Here’s one of musical theater’s unique voices – pungent, clear and forceful. To paraphrase the advertising campaign from Carrie, “There’s never been a musical theater voice like hers.”
The album was released on Epic Records, which was a subsidiary of Columbia, then the leader in the field of original cast albums. So why didn’t the parent company do this disc? As Jerry Herman wrote in La Cage aux Folles, “Who knows? Who knows? Who knows?” Anything Goes would be the second Epic cast album (behind The Littlest Revue) and the last one on the label. But maybe Columbia assigned it to that division because the powers-that-be knew it that this would be an epic album.
Sound like hyperbole? No, this Anything Goes is truly one of musical theater’s most influential cast albums. The show wasn’t getting all that many stock and amateur productions until this album brought it back into the public consciousness. It’s a rare high school and community theater that hasn’t since attempted the shipboard show, and here’s betting this recording is one reason the director chose to do it.
And who knows how much it spurred Broadway’s first-ever revisal of Anything Goes in 1987? It’s one of the few revivals that got four nominations for its performers: Patti LuPone (Reno) and Howard McGillin (Billy) in the leads, Bill McCutcheon (Moonface) and Anthony Heald (Sir Evelyn) in the supporting roles. And the show’s one winner was … no, not LuPone, ideal for the part though she was; she succumbed to Joanna Gleason in Into the Woods. McCutcheon won; listen for his nifty W.C. Fields imitation in “Friendship.”
Yes, new bookwriters Timothy Crouse and John Weidman (the respective sons of writers Russel and Jerome), kept that one. But most of the songs they added belonged to Anything Goes in the first place – not to mention a couple of verses for “Public Enemy Number One” (celebrating Moonface) that didn’t make the 1962 recording.
“There’s No Cure Like Travel,” a chorus number, was restored as the show’s second song. Ditto the two that had originally concluded the show: Sir Evelyn’s semi-raunchy “The Gypsy in Me” rippingly sung by Heald, was followed by “Buddie, Beware” in the spot that “Let’s Step Out” stepped into in 1962. It’s sung by Moonface’s moll, but here she’s called Erma rather than Bonnie. Linda Hart does it to perfection.
And then there was “Easy to Love.” Oh, I can see film buffs shaking their heads and saying “No, ‘Easy to Love’ comes from Porter’s 1936 film Born to Dance.” True, but it landed there after it was dropped as a Billy-to-Hope song in Anything Goes. Cole Porter wasn’t above taking one unused song and putting it somewhere else. Hell, anything goes.