This is the second blog post in a four-part series written by performing member Danielle Moore, who proposed Anything Goes for this fall’s show. The posts will discuss the history of Anything Goes and why it is a such a great show for Penn Singers.
Creating the original show was an endeavor that spanned multiple continents, constituting an international development process that undoubtedly contributed to the show’s worldly sophistication. According to Howard Lindsay, the co-author and director of the original production, in 1933, musical comedy producer Vinton Freedley was, quite appropriately, vacationing in the Caribbean when he got the idea for a cruise ship-set musical comedy in the “intimate” vein of the Princess Theatre shows written by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton and scored by Jerome Kern. At the time, Bolton was living in England, and Wodehouse in France. Cole Porter – who, according to Howard, was the third-choice composer, behind both Kern & Ira Gershwin – had also been abroad, returning to New York with the score in August 1934 (according to Robert Kimball, editor of the definitive Cole Porter lyrics tome, Cole). Freedley set his sights on the comedic duo of William Gaxton and Victor Moore of Gershwin’s Pulitzer prizewinning Of Thee I Sing to star alongside Ethel Merman, who had co-headlined Freedley’s Girl Crazy.
Anything Goes’ course was steered by world events as well. Although the show was initially set to involve the threat of a shipwreck as a comedic gag, two days prior to the first rehearsal, the cruise ship S.S. Morro Castle incinerated off the coast of New Jersey, necessitating a full rewrite for which New York Post humor columnist and Theater Guild press representative Russel Crouse was tapped to help Lindsay. Though frequently regarded as one of the best early examples of the American “musical comedy” form, the show also draws heavily on the musical tradition in which Penn Singers specializes: Gilbert and Sullivan light opera! Specifically, Anything Goes’ plot bears striking similarities to that of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous comic light opera, H.M.S. Pinafore.
Both shows are set aboard ships and have a central romantic conflict involving the perils of cross-class marriage. In the case of Pinafore, the Captain’s daughter, Josephine, desires to marry sailor Ralph Rackshaw, rather than a first lord of the admiralty; in Anything Goes, American debutante Hope Harcourt secretly yearns to end up with lowly stockbroker’s assistant Billy Crocker
rather than marry the bumbling British Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Other similarities, including cases of mistaken identity and characters named, respectively, “Little Buttercup” and “Little Plum Blossom,” abound, rendering Anything Goes a sort of Americanized adaptation of Pinafore for a 1930s Broadway audience. Curiously, though, there is no explicit record of the influence of Pinafore, or Gilbert and Sullivan in general, on the making of the original Anything Goes.