GETTING GOES GOING: Anything Goes at Lincoln Center Theater

John Updike once wrote, "In the urbane, top-hat fantasy world wherein Fred Astaire and Cole Porter reign as quintessential performer and creator, love is wry, jokey, casual, and even weary but nonetheless ecstatic: you're Mickey Mouse." And of the 23 Broadway shows Cole Porter composed music and lyrics for, which reveals the many faces of love better than Anything Goes?

Here aboard the ocean liner S.S. American we find the handsome young stockbroker Billy Crocker -- he of the stuffed shirt and the starry eyes -- risking his precious Depression-era job on Wall Street to moon-June-spoon his way to the altar with debutante Hope Harcourt. His tycoonish boss and her aristocratic mother embody the more earthbound love of lucre and the luxury it allows, while the bored passengers who fawn over the fugitive gangster Moonface Martin (Public Enemy #13) betray the oh-so-American romance with celebrity.

And nothing is more like true-life love than an unlikely partnership, such as the one that propels Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, malapropisms and all, into the generous heart of evangelist-turned-saloon-singer Reno Sweeney, who gets her just rewards for not flying too high with some guy in the sky.

Throughout his career, Cole Porter was as fortunate in his professional affiliations as the characters of his shows were lucky in love. In creating the original 1934 production of Anything Goes, he had a particularly distinguished team of collaborators. Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, famous for their partnership with Jerome Kern on his Princess Theatre musicals such as Oh Boy! and Leave It to Jane, wrote the script based on producer Vinton Freedley's story about an assortment of glamorous and shady characters thrown together when an ocean liner gets shipwrecked. 

Three weeks before rehearsals began, a fire aboard the S.S. Morro Castle killed 134 passengers, and rather than proceed with a plot that would seem to make light of this recent disaster, the director of the show recruited a press-agent friend to help him rewrite the book at the last minute. Thus began the writing team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, whose lifelong collaboration would go on to produce many hits, including Life with Father and The Sound of Music.

The stars of Anything Goes were William Gaxton and Victor Moore, whose appearance as Wintergarden and Throttlebottom in George and Ira Gershwin's 1931 Of Thee I Sing had made them Broadway's leading musical-comedy team. The most memorable songs, however, were the first of many written by Cole Porter for a sensational young performer named Ethel Merman.

Fifty-three years after its Broadway premiere and more than two decades after the composer's death, Cole porter has gained a whole new set of collaborators on Anything Goes. Starting from a revised script by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, Lincoln Center Theater's resident director Jerry Zaks has marshalled his usual design team of Tony Walton (sets and costumes) and Paul Gallo (lighting) as well as musical director Edward Strauss and choreographer Michael Smuin to mount the new version of Anything Goes, which opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on October 19, 1987, with a cast including Patti LuPone, Howard McGillin, Bill McCutcheon, Kathleen Mahony-Bennett, Anthony Heald, Linda Hart, Anne Francine, and Rex Everhart. Their reasons for wanting to do this musical are so simple that they can be named and numbered:

1. "I Get a Kick Out of You"
2. "You're the Top"
3. "Easy to Love"
4. "Anything Goes"
5. "Blow Gabriel Blow"
6. "All Through the Night"

"It's just a fantastic score, and I hated to see it being played in not-very-interesting arrangements in supermarkets all over the country, as opposed to the way it was meant to be: as a body of songs for the stage," says Timothy Crouse, who conceived the notion of revivifying Anything Goes in 1982. It may seem odd for Crouse to be toiling in the field of music theater; a political journalist for Rolling Stone and Esquire, he became well-known in 1973 with the publication of The Boys on the Bus, his best-selling book about the press coverage of a Presidential campaign. But musical theater is literally in his blood.

As the son of Russel Crouse, he got hooked on the theater seeing Ethel Merman in the Lindsay & Crouse/Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam when he was four years old. And when he decided to follow his father's footsteps in sprucing up the book for Anything Goes, he enlisted his former Harvard roommate John Weidman, another second-generation musical-theater veteran (his father Jerome wrote the books for such hits as Fiorello! and I Can Get It for You Wholesale, Weidman himself supplied the libretto for Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures) to help.

With rare exceptions of shows like Show Boat and Porgy and Bess, the book for most '20s and '30s musicals "was hardly more than a framework designed to provide opportunities to spotlight the singers, dancers, and comedians," as musical theater scholar Stanley Green puts it. The original Anything Goes was no exception. Although it has justifiably been termed "the quintessential musical comedy of the '30s," that designation suggests nothing more than "some expansive frivoling set to music and with the usual obligato of dancing boys and girls," as first-nighter Percy Hammond wrote in the Herald Tribune. The show enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway revival in 1962 with a scarcely altered book. Nevertheless, it bothered Crouse and Weidman for there to be such a disparity between Cole Porter's sterling lyrics and the book for Anything Goes.

"My father and Howard's trademark was a painstaking craftsmanship," says Crouse. "They spent months on an outline for a play, then worked on the dialogue, then rewrote and rewrote until everything was just right. Anything Goes was the only exception to that process -- they wrote it at night and over weekends while the show was in rehearsal, and they finished the final scene on the train up to Boston."

"The 1934 script was very funny, but not a lot of attention had been paid to what the characters were about, what they wanted, and what might constitute consistent behavior on their part," Weidman adds. "Our task was to take what was essentially a good story and craft it a little more so it would work for an audience in the 1980s."

As writers with an interest in social history, Crouse and Weidman were aware of certain similarities between the 1930s and the 1980s, such as the vast disparity between the rich and the poor in American society. But they chose to let the contemporary resonances of the original story speak for themselves, rather than trying to update the book. For instance, the notion of criminals being glorified as celebrities may seem especially pertinent today. "When the captain turns to Billy at the end of the first act and says, 'Don't lock him up! He's public Enemy Number One -- he's a celebrity,' I imagine people are thinking about Ivan Boesky and respond to that," says Weidman. "But we don't spend much more time on it than they did in 1934, and it was never our intention to bend something that really is 50 years old to force it into a different mold. Our intention was to take a cheerful romantic comedy and make it more cheerful and work better."

Once the authors had completed a working draft, they showed their work to Gregory Mosher, who was then artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Crouse had met Mosher socially through his sister, actress Lindsay Crouse, whose husband David Mamet has premiered many of his major plays at the Goodman under Mosher's direction. Mosher had never produced a musical, but he was "knocked out" by the Porter score and intrigued with the idea of reviving a '30s musical.

"The '30s were, after all, the best decade in American theater," says Mosher. "Kaufman and Hart, Lindsay and Crouse, and Philip Barry were working alongside the Group Theater and the Federal Theater Project. it's interesting now to see that the comedies hold up, speaking to and of the culture, better than the serious plays. They're social commentary in their own way. Finally, Holiday or The Philadelphia Story tells you more about living in America in the '30s than Waiting for Lefty. And the idea of knowing where you come from is important, especially these days when 16-year-old kids can't name five presidents."

When Mosher became director of Lincoln Center Theater in 1985, Anything Goes was one of the first shows he slated for production. But he and LCT executive producer Bernard Gersten, who, as former associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, oversaw the original production of A Chorus Line, had very particular ideas about presenting a musical. "We wanted it to have a human sound and a human look," Mosher says. "I have a lot of negative feelings about big musicals nowadays, partly because of the big bucks it takes to put them on -- there is social comment in the size of these musicals and the investment of time and money in them -- and partly because of the way they manipulate audiences. We wanted to get back to trusting the audience, loving them, embracing them, getting them to lean into the show rather than being thrown back in their seats by the sights and the sounds."

To direct Anything Goes, Mosher chose Jerry Zaks, who had been in musicals as a performer but who was primarily known for his exquisitely detailed productions of Christopher Durang's heartbreaking comedies, including Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Zaks also directed the Lincoln Center Theater's acclaimed revivals of John Guare's House of Blue Leaves and Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page.

"Respect for the word was important," Mosher says about his selection of the director of Anything Goes, "and I knew Jerry would care about the dramatic value of the songs as it came through the words. He'd never directed a musical before, but he respected writers and wouldn't use them as fodder for his genius. He's a loving man, so I knew it'd be loving, but he's also tough, so I knew it wouldn't be sappy. He also has a lot of respect for audiences and knows they're capable of a greater range of emotions and thoughts than audiences are generally given credit for."

The prospect of directing a musical was both tantalizing and frightening to Zaks, but what finally drew him to Anything Goes was "the sense of joy" in the music and particularly the lyrics. "I find them to be about people trying desperately to connect or dealing with the ramifications of trying to fall in love. It's a pretty basic, schmaltzy notion, but I've always found it very powerful, and it's handled in a very unschmaltzy way," says Zaks. "The original version of the show was at one point called Hard to Get, and I hope that's what it's still about: people trying to connect to someone else." (For the record, other working titles for Anything Goes included Bon Voyage, Easy to Love, Too Too Divine, and Some Like It Hot.)

Zaks worked closely with Crouse and Weidman to arrive at a script that was funny and fit with Cole Porter's music without being condescending in any way. "I had in mind from the beginning the notion of serious silliness," Zaks says. "The book has always been silly, but earlier versions have been silly in a way that got me very impatient with their stereotypical characters, improbable relationships, and lack of suspense or genuine wit. I've seen two productions based on the 1962 version, which took a campy look at the world of the play, all 'golly-gee.' They don't try to be three-dimensional. For example, in the play, Reno Sweeney falls for Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, who is engaged to Hope Harcourt. In the productions I've seen, Lord Evelyn is portrayed as a fop, so out-of-touch with his sexuality that Reno ends up looking stupid for having fallen for him. I just think you have the potential to make the pursuit of person A for person B real and important and let the silliness come out of that."

Both in revising the script and casting the show, the director and the authors took special interest in making the show, in Tim Crouse's word, "hot." "Growing up, I saw this show done many times, and Reno has increasingly been played by septuagenarians," says Crouse. "For me, it just destroyed it. I didn't see the point of the show if these people weren't young and attractive and passionate." Describing the kind of "real sexuality" he wanted there to be in the love relationship between Billy and Hope, Zaks says, "An image that lives very strongly in my mind is Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart on the phone in It's a Wonderful Life. It's that kind of sexuality where nobody is sticking tongues down anybody else's throat or ripping clothes off, but you can feel the excitement of being next to someone who just turns you on. I think Cole would have loved that!"

In creating the physical production for Anything Goes, both Tony Walton, who designed the sets and costumes, and choreographer Michael Smuin specifically looked to Fred Astaire for inspiration. Smuin, who was resident choreographer with the San Francisco Ballet and who directed the Duke Ellington salute Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway, reviewed all the Astaire-Rogers films from the '30s and '40s, especially Top Hat and Swing Time. (The fruits of this labor can be seen in the Fred-and-Gingerly interludes Smuin has choreographed for "Easy to Love" and "It's De-Lovely.") In addition, he studied every day for six weeks with Stanley Kane, a virtuoso tap dancer from the '20s and '30s, to soak up the fragrance of the period.

"In Sophisticated Ladies, there was no time for research, so I did what I felt like. I wanted this work to be more scholarly, in keeping with the lyrics, which have a wit and a chicness that are steeped in education," says Smuin. "I read all the Cole Porter biographies I could lay my hands on and listened to some 2000 songs to get a handle on his rhythms, his feelings, his images. I don't think I made any concrete use of the biographical research, but I got a sense of the time he worked in, what New York was like, what an Atlantic cruise was like, who his friends were, what music they liked, the economic conditions, etc. You sponge all that stuff up, because you never know when the shape of a deck chair might change the way you stage something."

In fact, Tony Walton modeled the music stands for the onstage orchestra of Anything Goes from some he spied in Swing Time. And two of his costumes specifically related to Ginger Rogers: Reno Sweeney's "Friendship" outfit is a more soignee, less girlish version of the dress worn by Rogers in Follow the Fleet, while Hope Harcourt's gown for "It's DeLovely" -- "beaded to infinity, so it has a life of its own when she moves" -- echoes Rogers' outfit from "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

But the quality of Fred Astaire's that most inspired Walton was effortlessness. "I'm a big fan of movie musicals from the '30s, the Astaire-Rogers era, which was the height of deftness and a consciousness of hiding the effort," says Walton, the award-winning designer for dozens of shows and movies such as Pippin, Chicago, All That Jazz, and Murder on the Orient Express. To create the look of Anything Goes, Walton rummaged through fashion magazines (Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar) and illustrations by graphic designer Georges Lepape to pick up the flavor of the time. "The period is still Art Deco, but as the Depression hit, the champagne quality in the appearance of things evaporated," says Walton. "The edge came off right about 1934."

Walton sought to duplicate not the surfaces, however, but the spirit of the 1930s, which often as not meant stripping away elements of '30s style. To design the shipboard setting -- a triple-layer deck which could be transformed into a variety of staterooms -- he studied the layout of the Queen Mary and the Normandie. "But any time I did something accurately boatlike, such as hanging lifeboats, it seemed too literal. And once you start being literal, you can never do enough," Walton explains. "The solution was to acknowledge the set as a performance space that has more to do with the score than with the voyage. Instead of it literally being a cruise liner, I thought of it as a kind of nautical bandstand."

While Walton had a dozen set pieces and 168 costumes with which to establish the look of Anything Goes, graphic artist James McMullan's task in designing a poster for the production was to distill into one image Jerry Zaks and Gregory Mosher's vision of the show as sophisticated and funny yet operating on real psychology rather than a camp idea of sex or style. "I tried to hit a certain note of wit which was not looking down on the material or putting the emotions in quotation marks," says McMullan. Working from photographs of a female friend posing on the Staten Island Ferry, he arrived at the alluring, somehow timeless design that adorns bus ads and subway posters for the show -- not a stylized flapper, but a curvaceous, adventuresome woman at a ship's railing looking over her shoulder as if to say, "Come on over...but not too quickly."

For musical director Edward Strauss, as for everyone involved in the production of Anything Goes, the central question was how best to evoke the feeling of a 1934 musical for an audience in 1987. The pitfalls are many. Even the best-intentioned efforts to reconstruct period musicals in an authentic and faithful manner tend to result in nostalgia, which views the past as quaint and distant, thereby robbing the work of its potential emotional immediacy. Yet too much modernization can result in a production that condescends to its characters, viewing them as people who are not quite as smart as we are and whose emotions are not quite valid today.

"All the original orchestrations for Anything Goes survive, but they haven't been consulted," says Strauss. "We didn't want this show to sound like a valentine to 1934. We wanted to recreate the excitement of being in the room with the Benny Goodman orchestra in the '30s." Strauss, whose first exposure to the adrenalin high of swing-band music was hearing Bette Midler sing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" in her Clams on the Half Shell Revue on Broadway, compiled a robust 16-piece brass band that could emulate hot dance-band arrangements from the '30s by Fletcher Henderson. "I remember Jerry asked me early on if we had to worry about being lighter, effete, all the things people associate with Cole Porter. I said no," Strauss says. "My idea was -- let's take our cue from how we feel about the music now."

Sound and lighting are two very important elements in any stage musical, but there's no question of duplicating today what might have been done technically in a 1934 production. "You can do period sets and period costumes, but period lighting would just be dark," says Paul Gallo. "Because of movies and television, we're accustomed to an intensity that is ten times the amount of the original." Gallo, a longtime collaborator with Jerry Zaks and the award-winning lighting designer for Martha Clarke's dance-theater pieces, acknowledges that today's superior technology allows him to paint the stage with darker colors than was possible on older equipment. But he has refrained from employing any dazzling, computer-age lighting effects on Anything Goes. "The story is as simple as a fairy tale," he says. "There's nothing complicated about it, so why should the lighting be complicated?"

The sound of Anything Goes is terribly complicated, yet it has to look simple, says sound designer Tony Meola. Miking is a controversial issue in today's musical theater, but given the increasing size of theaters and an audience accustomed to TV remote-control devices and stereo headphones, it is inevitable. For Meola, that means studying costume sketches to make sure there's room for actors to strap on their transmitters, consulting with wardrobe departments about how to hide mikes in costumes and wigs, and pleading with orchestrators to go easy on the brass during tricky lyrics. Anything Goes strives for a balance between an acoustic orchestra and subtly miked singers. "The overall sound is a Benny Goodman concert: a swing band with the singer down front with a microphone," says Meola. "Only we don't show the mikes."

Theatergoers who recall the classic dramas and new American plays produced at Lincoln Center over the last twenty years may find it curious for Cole Porter's Broadway melodies to be ensconced in the Vivian Beaumont Theater. After all, except for Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera, produced during Joseph Papp's directorship, and Peter Brook's staging of La Tragedie de Carmen, which was an outside booking, the theater division of Lincoln Center has shied away from presenting musicals. But as executive producer Bernard Gersten points out, the artistic imperatives of a not-for-profit theater such as the Lincoln Center Theater need not exclude popularity.

"As a producer, I've never liked to see 100 people in a 1000-seat house, and my feeling is that it's unnatural to select plays that don't have potential for popularity. People in the theater need to be loved and popularity is love," says Gersten, who with Joseph Papp took the New York Shakespeare Festival's 1971 musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona from Central Park to Broadway, thus creating the model for A Chorus Line and the dozens of other productions that subsequently came to Broadway from the not-for-profit theater. "If you look at the spectrum of plays produced in not-for-profit theaters across the country, you'll see that people will produce just about anything if it piques their curiosity. In the body of theater literature, The Front Page has always been a popular play; so is Anything Goes. We didn't choose to do them because we thought they would make a million bucks. On the other hand, we certainly didn't think, 'No -- it might be popular, so we won't do it.' You could say we were willing to run the risk of popularity."

Gregory Mosher shares Gersten's feelings about the valued place of musicals in the continuum of programming that Lincoln Center Theater presents. "When Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead were named to run the theater, the cry went up about 'Broadway whores' -- and these were men who'd been doing Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller!" Mosher recalls. "In the beginning, they felt the pressure of implied repertoire very strongly. Restoration comedies and Jacobean tragedies -- that's what they were supposed to produce. They would have been laughed at for wanting to do Anything Goes. And in fact, I suppose I wouldn't have done it in 1965 either. But as with every show we do here, whether it's The Front Page or a new David Mamet play, it all starts with the writing. In the case of Anything Goes, you have Cole Porter and all three generations of book writers. There's not a lot more to be said.

"There is," Mosher adds, "a lot to be said for the theater providing real joy."

(program booklet, 1988)