Cole Porter’s 1934 musical, Anything Goes can in many ways be classified as the most remarkable musical to ever surface in the canon of American theatre. For starters, it owns a unique history that separates it from most Broadway musicals. From the Great Depression, to the economic boom in the 1980’s, up through the Great Recession in 2009, Anything Goes has flourished under unique economic times in the United States
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the US economy collapsed into shambles. By 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and had established numerous reemployment programs. Consequently, people who had enough spare cash used theatre as an escape from their problems. When Anything Goes premiered, it was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise low time amongst the rest of the economy. This has remained true throughout the decades since it first premiered.
While many other musicals of this era make you suffer through a dated book to enjoy the musical riches, Anything Goes has a still-hilarious series of comic scenes and shenanigans that have carried the riches of this production to new generations of audience with shrewdly refreshed revivals in 1962, 1987, and most recently in a superb 2011 Broadway revival.
And now Pit & Balcony Theatre is busily preparing their own rendition of this timeless classic for a series of performances that will run October 6-8 & 13-15th, replete with a cast of 25 actors, a nine-piece musical ensemble, and carefully rendered staging under the thoughtful hand of director Michael Wisniewski.
The triangular romantic plot of Anything Goes was originally a collaborative effort by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodhouse, heavily revised by the team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The story concerns madcap antics aboard an ocean liner bound from New York to London that involves a young debutante heiress, Hope Harcourt, who must make a tricky choice between an English demi-aristocrat (Lord Evelyn Oakleigh) and a young American stowaway who is in love with her.
But most of the fun involves a variety of juicy criminal types, including Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin, and Nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, attempting to blend on a ship that values nothing so much as celebrity passengers. In nailing that obsession, Anything Goes most surely was prescient. And for the record, there was no racier musical of the era, which introduced some of Cole Porter’s greatest material, such as the title track, Anything Goes, and I Get a Kick Out of You.
For director Michael Wisniewski, the opportunity to sink his teeth into the rich and delightful textures of such an iconic musical as Anything Goes is as exciting as it is challenging, given that in many ways this was not only a defining play in Porter’s career, but the pinnacle of perfection in terms of what an American musical can achieve.
“Anything Goes is definitely your classic musical,” he reflects. “I always think of it as that chestnut musical that’s been around forever and has really stood the test of time in terms of audience appeal, which is witnessed through its numerous revivals over the years. It took the whole notion of escapism and ran with it.”
The original idea for a musical set on board an ocean liner came from producer Vinton Freedley, who was living on a boat, having left the United States to avoid his creditors. He selected the writing team of P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and the star, Ethel Merman. The first draft of the show was called Crazy Week, which became Hard to Get, and finally Anything Goes.
The original plot involved a bomb threat, a shipwreck, and hijinks on a desert island, but just a few weeks before the show was due to open, a fire on board the passenger ship SS Morro Castle caused the deaths of 138 passengers and crew members. Freedley judged that to proceed with a show on a similar subject would be in dubious taste, and he insisted on changes to the script.
Bolton and Wodehouse were in England at the time and were thus no longer available, so Freedley turned to his director, Howard Lindsay, to write a new book. Lindsay recruited press agent Russel Crouse as his collaborator, beginning a lifelong writing partnership. The roles of Billy Crocker and Moonface Martin were written for the well-known comedy team William Gaxton and Victor Moore, and Gaxton's talent for assuming various disguises was featured in the libretto.
Since its 1934 debut at the Alvin Theatre (now known as the Neil Simon Theatre) on Broadway, the musical has been revived several times in the United States and Britain and has been filmed twice. Porter wrote the majority of Anything Goes in the Rosecliff mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, while staying as a houseguest there.
Four versions of the libretto of Anything Goes exist: the original 1934 libretto, the 1962 revival libretto, the 1987 revival libretto, and the 2011 revival libretto. The story has been revised, though all involve similar romantic complications aboard the SS American and feature the same major characters. The score has been altered, with some songs cut and others reassigned to different scenes and characters, and augmented with various Porter songs from other shows.
“I think the background of this play is fascinating,” continues Wisniewski, “because it was based on an actual character and developed around a clever inception, but when this actual passenger ship was bombed and 138 people were killed, this other very real tragedy caused them to rewrite and re-develop the script, which I believe took it to the level of becoming a strong musical comedy. Because it was based more around this master of disguise and these vaudeville performers on the lam, transforming it into a musical comedy took attention away from the tragedy that happened. The entire script is very cleverly written. Plus, the way Cole Porter worked in tandem with the writers created a beautiful balance of book and music. There’s not a weak spot in it.”
Wisniewski developed his familiarity with Anything Goes when he acted in his second production in the late 1980s in a production of the musical by the Midland Music Society, where they performed the 1962 version. “The 1962 version contained a lot more dialogue and then it was revised again in 1987 and again in 2011, where a few characters were changed and four songs deleted.”
With a cast consisting of 25 actors and given the expansive scope and spectacle of Anything Goes, Wisniewski says the biggest challenge for him as a director with this production is how to best stage the amount of dancing involved. “Pit has a nice intimate space, but we don’t have a large apron to work with, so we’re doing a different design that utilizes both a lower and upper deck to the ship with staircases on each side that should fill the space nicely with the big numbers.”
“We could have had a cast of 30 to 35 actors, but with the amount of space we’re working in, that would appear too congested, so we have a nice mix of seasoned actors and newer young actors involved, which forms a solid mix,” continues Michael. “There’s always people coming and going in this production and we are using space creatively so everything appears very fluid.”
Key roles for the Pit production of Anything Goes will be filled by Kaitlyn Riel, as Reno Sweeney; Conner Wieland as Billy Crocker; Allie Williams as Hope Harcourt, Matt Kehoe as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, with Moonface Martin being portrayed by Chad Wiliiam Baker.
“We have a 9-piece band performing the music and Todd Thomas is handling the musical direction, while Natalie Schwartz is handling the choreography,” concludes Michael. “There’s well over 400 pages of music to this production so it truly is a big musical; and because it’s part of the great American musical collection, it tends to carry a natural draw, especially for younger generations looking at all these big new flashy shows that tend to forget the charm of something from this era.”
“In a nutshell, Anything Goes is a spectacular experience that needs to be experienced live to be fully appreciated.”
Pit & Balcony’s production of Anything Goes runs from Oct 6-8 & 13-15th. Tickets are available by phoning 989.754.6587 or visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com