Anything Does Go in “Anything Goes,” a Spectacular Musical about the 1930s

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Anything Goes
Stephen Sondheim Theater
146 W. 43rd Street
New York, N.Y.

In the middle of the 1930s, following a business downturn after the 1929 stock market crash, the cruise industry rebounded.  Large, fast, opulent ocean liners sailed the seven seas and producer Vinton Freedley lived on one of them.  He did not stay on the ship because he wanted a life on the ocean or was an amateur navigator.  He had discovered that ships traveled in international waters and that as a permanent passenger he did not have to pay any income tax.  While eating his seven-course dinners, playing shuffleboard and reading his latest book lounging in a deck chair, he came up with an idea for a musical—an ocean liner that is hit with a fire.

Several months later, the Morro Castle caught fire and burned off New Jersey.  137 died.  Freedley immediately changed his plot, scrapped his fire and invented lovebirds for his show.

His musical was difficult to put together, even with songs by the immortal Cole Porter.  Frustrated at a meeting, one irate producer asked how the show could be organized in time for the opening.  Another producer, just as frazzled, threw up his hands and said, “from now on with this show, anything goes.”

The line stuck.  The show was named Anything Goes, as was the title song.  It opened in 1934 with a book by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse, Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, and became a smash hit.

It has been revived in New York several times and is now being staged yet again at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, this time starring Sutton Foster and Joel Grey.  It is an even better show than the original, a sensational musical, probably the best musical of the year in New York, a play you will remember for ten years, and the odds-on favorite to capture a bucket full—er, lifesaver full—of Tony awards.

The plot of Anything Goes is simple.  A stock broker’s assistant sneaks on board a lavish cruise ship, the S.S. American, to rekindle his love for a society debutante, betrothed to another man.  He is aided by Reno Sweeney (played with pizzazz by Ms. Foster), the brassy, beautiful night club singer who works on the ship.  Sneaking aboard also is Joel Grey as a cantankerous gangster, Moonface Martin.  They bump into a rich Wall Street broker, the debutante’s mom and a ship full of fabulous singers and dancers.

The show is low on plot, high on music and rich in history.  The 1930s was the heyday of cruising throughout the world, before jet airplanes could get you from New York to England in just five hours.  New York and Southampton, England, were the two busiest cruise ports.  Travelers could book passage on hundreds of ships.  You were almost certain to spot a celebrity on board, surrounded by admirers in the dining rooms or posing for photos while standing against the rail.  Titans of industry and sports stars joined celebrities, bankers and politicians in the cruise ship world.  England had several fleets, as did America.  The Empress of Japan ocean liner offered long, luxurious cruises through the Pacific with dozens of exotic islands as ports of call.  Cruise ships earned so much publicity that large dance marathons were held on their decks.  Newspapers regularly assigned reporters to meet cruise ships as they entered the harbor to interview celebrities on board and snap a thousand photos.  Cruising was so popular, and profitable, that when he came to power, one of Adolf Hitler’s first decisions was to promote cruise travel out of north German ports.  He also showcased the Bremen as a world class ship. Posters for the Bremen, and other ships, today are collectors’ items.  The fleets of ships, all with different classes of travel at different costs, not only created a huge niche in the travel industry, but became the setting for countless Broadway plays and movies.

Anything Goes was one of those plays in 1934. The musical starts when the Wall Street assistant meets Reno, who sings Porter’s gorgeous I Get a Kick Out of You in a night club.  The Wall Streeter, Billy Crocker, woos his debutante, Hope Harcourt, who clings to her fiancée, oddball British nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.

Crocker pursues his love, but she is scheduled to marry the Brit.  What to do?

One hilarious moment is when all on board, angry that they have no movie stars on the ship, believe that Crocker is actually a famous gangster.  He is immediately honored as a celebrity; people have their photos taken with him and he signs autographs.

Cole Porter’s legendary music is fabulous. The show has Porter classics such as De-Lovely, I Get a Kick Out of You, You’re the Top, Friendship, Blow Gabriel Blow and Anything Goes.  The title song closes the first act and is a loud and rousing anthem.  It is long on toe-tapping music, rich in choreography and loaded with talented performers.  Audiences will go crazy during it.

This is the multi-talented Sutton Foster’s show; she owns every minute of it.  She breathes new life into Reno Sweeney, one of theater’s great heroines.  She is not only a marvelous singer and dancer, but lingers on her lyrics—“I get a kick from co–ca–ine–e…” and wows audience with her facial expressions.  Foster seems to be everywhere and leads the cast in Anything Goes and in Blow Gabriel Blow.

She gets much help from Joel Grey, a veteran of Broadway shows and longtime movie star.  Grey is a wonderful old Moonface, singing off key, mumbling, smirking, raising his eyebrows, telling bad jokes and delighting the audience.

The entire cast is gifted. Colin Donnell, as Billy Crocker, is superb as he woos Hope, pretends he is the gangster and then, with Moonface, is tossed into the brig on the ship.  Adam Godley, as Lord Evelyn, unfolds as the show progresses, from an eccentric nobleman to a dancing fool.  John McMartin is funny as an aging Yale Man, celebrating himself and his beloved Alma Mater.

Kathleen Marshall does a fine job directing the play.  She venerates its 1934 qualities, but makes it remarkably fresh.  It could be set on any cruise liner today and today, of course, the cruise business is even bigger than it was in the 1930s.  She is even better as the show’s choreographer.  She uses the entire stage for her big numbers, isolates performers on small sets for intimate ones and somehow brings everybody together quite frequently for boisterous, loud and thrilling dance numbers.

The sets for the show, from night clubs to brigs to piers, by Derek McLane, are colorful and impressive.  You watch the show and think you actually are on a cruise ship.  The costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz, are flashy, colorful and very seaworthy.

Anything Goes brings a chapter of seagoing history to life.  It is also a tried and true Broadway hit, with great acting and memorable Cole Porter music.  It is a solid revival of a solid hit and should be sailing down Broadway, and the pages of history, for quite a long time.

Anchors aweigh!

PRODUCTION: Producers: Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director. Set: Derek McLane, Costumes: Marti Pakledinaz, Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski, Sound: Brian Ronan

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