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Anything Goes

Anything Goes

By Kelli Allred


“Times have changed and we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock”
(All play quotes are from Anything Goes, 1.8).

Every enduring play has an exciting and varied history, and Anything Goes is no exception. Written in the early 1930s, Anything Goes originally ran for 420 performances in New York’s newly-built Alvin Theatre. Ethel Merman created the role of Reno Sweeney, the loud and lusty female lead, in the original production, making her a Broadway and film star. In 1962 Anything Goes was revived off Broadway and ran for 239 performances, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Hal Linden starred as Billy Crocker in that production. Linden went on to enjoy a successful career in theatre and television.
In late 1987 Patti LuPone—fresh from her Broadway appearances as Eva Peron in Evita—starred as Reno Sweeney in a newly-revised version of Anything Goes, which ran at New York’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre for eleven months. The most recent Broadway revival was staged at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in April 2011 and ran until July 2012, starring Sutton Foster and Joel Grey.

How does Anything Goes—written eighty years ago for a world vastly different from today’s –continue to speak to and entertain contemporary audiences around the world? It begins with the music and lyrics, which sprang from the inventive and playful genius of Cole Porter (1891–1964). Porter is one of only a handful of composer/lyricists to have written both music and lyrics, but he’s in formidable company with George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers. In a recent article by George Eells, “naughtiness” and “unblushing romance” describe Porter’s lyrics in Anything Goes. “[Porter] is best known for the cleverness, double entendres, and sexual suggestiveness . . . and for melodies that pulse with a Latin or tropical beat” (“Porter, Cole,” Reader’s Companion to American History, 1991 [History Study Center, 1 Jan 2013]).

The love triangle in Anything Goes may have been the inspiration for that of Titanic, in which a rich girl is forced to marry a rich man in order to save her family’s fortune, only to fall instead for a penniless gambler. It may not be mere coincidence that there is card playing in the hull of the ship in both stories! The 2011 revival of Anything Goes included a quartet of singing sailors and nautical themes among all the major characters. When Reno Sweeney visits the ship’s lounge to sing “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” she does so in full gospel revival style.  Each production of Anything Goes will infuse the show with unique and creative themes, through set design, lighting, instrumentation, makeup and costumes.

 “In older days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now God knows, Anything Goes!”

The financial and sexual themes woven into Anything Goes provide a vehicle for the likes of gangsters, nobility, singers, Brits versus Yanks, rich versus poor, heathens versus evangelists, and disguises versus revelations. By intermission, nearly every character in the show will be exposed as a phoney hiding behind some form of social mask; however, by the final curtain, the audience will have seen most of the characters shed their societal disguises and embrace happiness over wealth.

“The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today
And black’s white today and day’s night today
And most guys today that women prize today
Are just silly gigolos.”

The 1920s found Americans using a new euphemism—“anything goes.” It referred to the new social mores of the Roaring Twenties: rising hemlines on women’s dresses, Prohibition (which created the semi-hidden world of the speakeasy), the peacetime euphoria that followed WWI, the financial security of post-industrial America, and a sense that anything can and probably would be acceptable eventually. How right they were! Entertainment quickly became daring, glorifying the female body in the popular musical theatre revues filled with scantily clad chorus girlsas in Ziegfeld’s Follies.

The Great Depression saw revues pared down, for the sake of expenses, with smaller casts, less lavish sets and costumes, and sturdier storylines. In her book on this topic, Lucy Moore discusses the impact the Depression had on the country. “Families were shattered, the birth rate dropped and marriages were postponed indefinitely. . . . Government leaders experimented with programs to relieve poverty and restore the economy,” which gave Americans hope. “Leisure activities remained popular and provided an escape from the troubles of everyday life . . . and the New Deal programs provided government-subsidized arts programs that gave many Americans the opportunity to experience cultural activities for the first time” (Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties [New York: Overlook Press, 2010]).  

Anything Goes is a musical in two acts set within various locations on an ocean liner. Loosely wrapped in a plotline written by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, Anything Goes has been liberally rewritten in intervals by Howard Lindsay, Russel and Anna Crouse, Timothy Crouse, and John Weidman. In 2013, the Utah Shakespeare Festival will produce the version of Anything Goes that was written for the 1987 revival.

Permission from Tams-Witmark has been given for this popular “Beaumont version,” which differs from the original by virtue of plot revisions, rearranged music, additions and deletions of songs, and a few songs re-assigned to various characters. These changes help to explain why Anything Goes remains one of the most popular musicals among high school and college theatre departments.

Clearly, this is a play/musical that continues to speak of and to audiences through its colorful cast of loveable, duplicitous characters who sing and dance to some of the most romantic and catchy tunes ever to grace the American stage.

“And though I’m not a great romancer
I know that I’m proud to answer when you propose
Anything Goes!”