This is the fourth and final 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.
One aspect of the 1934 show that the 2011 revival further accentuated is the fact that, like most musicals of the era, Anything Goes was “tailored to the talents of its stars.” The show was composed to suit William Gaxton and Victor Moore, but molded more so to Ethel Merman’s merits. As Stempel points out, “Above all, and more often than any other musical comedy songwriter, Porter wrote for the comedienne who was arguably the most distinctive Broadway vocal stylist of the age, Ethel Merman,” who “… not only became a musical comedy star but also forged a new leading-lady image for the genre.” The feature that distinguished Merman from her female musical comedy predecessors who “cut rather dainty figures onstage, singing with a light, operatic-style head voice that had been the prevailing vocal ideal” was also her major contribution to the form: the female “chest-voice belt,” of which Porter was a vocal fan. Eric Davis writes in The Cole Porter Companion that Porter even “claimed publicly that she was his favorite interpreter”; perhaps this is why, in Stempel’s view, he “gave Merman practically every hit number in Anything Goes.”
Although the original Anything Goes preceded what musical theater historian Ethan Mordden calls “the Big Lady Show” trope that emerged in the 1960s, it was an obvious precursor to such female-focused musicals driven by a succession of high-profile stars, particularly since Merman also created the lead role in the show that arguably started the trend: Gypsy (1959). The 2011 revival built on this tradition, affording Reno as a character, as well as veteran Broadway star Sutton Foster, an even bigger billing. To observe this, one must look no further than the promotional materials of the two productions. The 1934 Playbill cover featured the floating faces of its three main stars – Moore, Gaxton, and Merman – essentially on equal footing.
Similarly, a 1934 promotional photo that accompanied the Boston Traveler preview of the show’s tryout run featured a close-up of the threesome, labeled “a trio of scintillating stars.” It was Merman’s show, certainly, but it was sold as Moore and Gaxton’s as well. The promotional materials for subsequent revivals prove just how far Reno’s star has risen: the 2011 poster – like the 1987 one before it – features an illustration of Sutton Foster as Reno, (literally) flying solo above the ship. Bearing a striking resemblance to pin-up art from a 1940 Old Gold Cigarettes ad, the poster is certainly meant to emphasize Foster’s centrality to the revival’s appeal as much as it emphasizes Reno as both symbol and star of Anything Goes.