‘Anything Goes’ at PlayhouseSquare revives Cole Porter’s music along with look, lines of the 1930s
By ANDREA SIMAKIS
Before “Anything Goes,” which is headed to Cleveland this week, set sail for Broadway in 1934, the Cole Porter high-seas extravaganza tested the waters in Boston.
The night of the premiere, writer-director Howard Lindsay and co-writer Russel Crouse reportedly stood outside the theater and begged friends, who’d traveled from New York City to see the new musical, not to buy a ticket.
A few months before, a fire had broken out aboard the SS Morro Castle, a luxury cruise ship en route from Havana to New York, killing 137 passengers and crew. The disaster made headlines around the globe, with jaw-dropping photos of the Morro’s charred hull run aground off the Jersey Shore.
Producer Vinton Freedley had a problem. Though his fizzy show was packed with Porter gems — “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “The Gypsy in Me” — a major plot point in the comedy staged onboard an ocean liner involved a bomb threat. The real-life tragedy had robbed the scenario of its screwball potential, and Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, who penned the original book, had shoved off for different shores.
Freedley drafted Lindsay and Crouse to salvage the script. They had some three weeks to do a bow-to-stern rewrite, working weekends and pulling all-nighters to make the breakneck deadline. The team that would become known for meticulous craftsmanship on “The Sound of Music” and other hits finished the last scene on the train from NYC to Beantown and feared the rush job would sink the show.
They needn’t have worried.
Audiences loved the tale of penniless debutantes, crooning sailors and evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, “the world’s most sensuous sermonizer,” played by the glorious, foghorn-voiced Ethel Merman.
“What a voyage!” raved Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times, when “Anything Goes” opened at the Alvin Theatre the week before Thanksgiving in 1934. He praised Porter’s “dashing score with impish lyrics,” singling out “You’re the Top” as “one of the most congenial songs” the prolific composer and lyricist had ever written. And Lindsay and Crouse? They were “supermen” for having helped fashion “a thundering good song-and-dance show.”
Over the past seven decades, the fictional SS American has proved to be a yar vessel, spurring a slew of Broadway, off-Broadway and London revivals as well as television and film adaptations.
Some were sublime — the 1987 production at Lincoln Center starring Patti LuPone — while others were busts, bearing little resemblance to the original. (The only similarities in the lackluster 1956 Bing Crosby-Donald O’Connor-Mitzi Gaynor vehicle scripted by Sidney Sheldon were a few of Porter’s clever standards and a boat.)
Then, in 2011, critics popped champagne corks over the newest version of “Anything Goes,” from the Roundabout Theatre Company.
“As cool and intoxicating as a fresh ocean breeze,” read a review in the New York Daily News. “De-lightful,” seconded the New York Post. “This ‘Anything Goes’ exudes the effervescence of a freshly poured gin fizz,” trumpeted Ben Brantley in The New York Times.
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, the feted Broadway revival ran for 521 performances and starred Sutton Foster as the irrepressibly sassy Reno Sweeney and Joel Grey as gangster Moonface Martin, depressed by his low ranking on the FBI’s Most Wanted list as “Public Enemy No. 13.”
The Depression-era pick-me-up nabbed three Tonys, including best-actress hardware for Foster, best choreography for Marshall and the coveted award for best revival of a musical for the not-for-profit Roundabout.
That production, with a new cast aboard, docks in Cleveland Tuesday, the first stop on a multicity tour.