Irving — Anything Goes, the classic Cole Porter musical from 1934, has been revived three times on New York stages and is frequently produced in regional theaters, but now Lyric Stage Artistic Director Steven Jones is promising us the first production as it originally appeared in 1934. Also freshly restored is the original orchestration and book by Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, a buoyant send-up of Depression-era politics aimed at getting some laughs and having some fun. That it does.
Set aboard the ocean liner S. S. American, the show features nightclub singer/evangelist Reno Sweeney and her pal Billy Crocker, who’s a stowaway trying to get close to his love, Hope Harcourt, who’s engaged to the rich Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Got it? Throw in some fun gangsters and a shipload of tap dancing sailors, and you have some knotty love triangles to sort out—plus one hell of a party.
TheaterJones talked to Lyric Stage Music Director Jay Dias, who spent weeks in the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Center Library and the Schubert Archives researching and transcribing orchestra parts from the original Broadway run for the restored production of Anything Goes, playing June 17-26 at the Irving Arts Center.
TheaterJones: Why were the songs you restored in the new production cut from earlier revivals?
Jay Dias: Some songs were dropped to make room for more choreography, according to conventional reports. The Broadway audience for those revivals wanted long-legged, beautiful girls to perform more dance numbers. With permission from the Cole Porter Trust, I was able to truncate some big numbers and put the songs back where Porter intended them to be. There’s still plenty of hot dancing, but not eight-minute dance sequences.
How do these songs improve the show?
The restored songs are great, and part of the fun and character of Anything Goes. The show opens with a bar scene as the ship is about to leave, and the big song “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Then as they move to the ship, the departing girls sing “Bon Voyage.” We’ve restored the partner song, “There’s No Cure Like Travel,” where the guys are saying goodbye to their sweethearts, and asking, “Aren’t you going to miss us?” The girls answer that they just love getting away for a spree in Europe to have fun. The guys tell them to have a good trip, but they’ll be partying, too. This is a very sexy exchange—and this song tells us we’re about to see a sexy, adult musical by 1934’s code.
Ethel Merman played Reno Sweeney in the original production, and you say one of Reno’s original songs got cut early on.
That’s right. The book plays with the fun of turning somebody like the 30’s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson into a nightclub singer. The Reno Sweeney character is the result. Reno is introduced to great fanfare, and the photographers ask for a sample of her big act. Backed by her club singers, she sings “Kate the Great.” It’s a song in praise of Katherine the Great, and it’s sexy and funny and filthy—and gives Reno her stage persona right away. It was cut in Boston, and never made it to the New York opening. We’re the first to do this funny, sexy song, so Lyric Stage audiences will be the first to hear it. There’s a also a Cab Calloway reference in this song about how Katherine the Great was a woman ahead of her time.
I heard an excerpt of a lovely song sung by one of the actresses on your earlier television appearance.
We’ve restored the beautiful ballad, “What a Joy to Be Young” that Hope sings with her British intended, Lord Evelyn. Their families have arranged their marriage, and even though they don’t love each other, they sing this wonderful duet. They decide they might as well do something wild and crazy. They wonder what it would be like to play a waltz and go to the alter singing, “Waltz Down the Aisle.”
Lyric Stage exists to restore musicals to their rich beginnings, including hiring a big orchestra to make it happen. How big was the original orchestra for this show?
The original orchestra was 34 musicians, and that’s what we have. Things got smaller and smaller in this show and most others in later revivals. You won’t see an orchestra like this on Broadway. It’ simply not what it used to be. When somebody does a revival, 99 percent of the time they rewrite the orchestration to tamp it down, and in doing that they often lose the period sound. They sometimes use synthesizers and often mike every instrument and sometimes pipe it behind the audience, so it’s not originating from the pit. We have people travel from New York to Lyric Stage in North Texas to hear a large acoustic orchestra. We never mike the instruments in these restorations. We hire more violins.
Any unusual instruments or instrumentation in Anything Goes?
Maybe the most unusual instrument is the ocarina, an egg-shaped thing historically used in nautical music. That’s an ocarina you hear in the Popeye the Sailor song. We also have a guitar and a banjo, plus an early 1930 specialty mute made for the brass. The big band produces an exciting, very period sound. The first thing you hear—the opening overture—puts you back in the time. When you restore great musicals written by brilliant composers and orchestrators, the overture is a thrilling appetizer that sets the mood for the show before anyone walks onto the stage.
How about the cast? Is it as big as the band?
We have 37 singers, including choral singers and a men’s chorus. One gorgeous choral arrangement we’ve restored is the men’s chorus singing “All Through the Night,” right after the famous love duet. The men begin to sing, the couple dance away, and the audience is transported to the world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The show premiered during the Great Depression in the Roosevelt era. How does Anything Goes speak to our time?
It’s timeless. I realized as I restored the script that there’s a lot of politics involved in the book. FDR had just moved into the White House and the Democrats were in charge. Cole Porter was a Republican, and he had his own point of view. There are many similarities between now and then. We have the popular evangelist back then, and now we’ve got the Tea Party. When Reno falls for a lord, and realizes she’s going to become a lady in England, she sings “Anything Goes.” With the political climate in America today, I’d say that song is universal. Anything can happen—no matter how much we might resist the idea. The other big thing in the script that reminds me of today is the public’s fascination with celebrity—even if that celebrity is Public Enemy Number 1. How’s that for a reflection of the times?
Sounds like everything old is new again. You’re also working with director and choreographer Penny Ayn Maas, new to Lyric Stage.
I am – and I am in love with Penny. She’s the real deal. She’s done a lot of musicals and has a great understanding of the style. She’s terrifically supportive and a joy to work with. I think everybody is going to love this show.