Technically speaking, the buoyant Cole Porter musical Anything Goes has reached senior citizen status. The intricate tale of misadventures and romance aboard a London-bound ocean liner first thrilled audiences in 1934. But at 81, Anything Goes is rather like Blake Lively in The Age of Adaline: forever youthful and timelessly appealing.
Not that the show hasn’t had work done.
Beginning a two-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, Anything Goes has always had its glorious Porter score, though songs have been added, subtracted, interpolated or moved around over the years. Among the gems are I Get a Kick Out of You, All Through the Night, Easy to Love, You’re the Top, Friendship, It’s De-Lovely and Blow, Gabriel, Blow, most now classics of the American songbook.
But ever since the show was created around the raise-the-roof talents of its original star Ethel Merman, multiple directors and choreographers have brought their vision to it. And book writers? A half dozen talented men have shaped the story’s zany, joyous antics aboard the S.S. American.
Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse wrote the original book, which was revised by director Howard Lindsay and former newspaperman Russel Crouse before the show’s out-of-town tryout in Boston. (Anything Goes was the first pairing of Lindsay and Crouse, whose partnership lasted nearly three decades and included the Broadway smash Life With Father, State of the Union, Call Me Madam and The Sound of Music.)
For the Tony Award-winning 1987 Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes, Crouse’s son Timothy (whose 1973 best seller The Boys on the Bus was a definitive account of presidential campaign press coverage) and playwright John Weidman (Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, Pacific Overtures and Road Show) teamed to give the vintage script a makeover.
“Without sacrificing the flavor of its feeling like a 1934 musical, our task was to reshape it, maintain its bones but add the pace and speed to which audiences had become accustomed,” says Weidman, who served as president of the Dramatists Guild for a decade.
Crouse says of the task, “The original was too slow. The stakes weren’t high enough, and it was too long. Also, the way songs work in a musical had changed with Oklahoma! and other shows. It’s important for songs to advance the story, and we wanted to make them work in that way in Anything Goes.”
That story is one of romantic mismatches and mistaken identity on the high seas. Nightclub singer Reno Sweeney is sweet on Wall Street broker Billy Crocker, but his heart belongs to heiress Hope Harcourt. Hope is engaged to the rich Brit Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, to the delight of her snooty mother Evangeline. Also aboard (in disguise as a minister) is gangster Moonface Martin, currently Public Enemy No. 13 but aspiring to a higher ranking, and Henry T. Dobson, a real clergyman who gets mistaken for Moonface.
Crouse and Weidman, Harvard roommates who had collaborated on a Hasty Pudding revue there, worked together for the first time professionally on the Jerry Zaks-directed 1987 Anything Goes, and they made other small changes for the 2011 revival (also a Tony Award winner) directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.
Marshall’s vision, Weidman says, was a major asset to the latest revival.
“The choreography in this is really spectacular. It does a lot of important storytelling, in tone and style and the way it moves the story forward,” he says.
Marshall’s direction and choreography were reworked for the Fort Lauderdale-bound second national touring company by Jennifer Savelli and Sean McKnight. Savelli played Charity, one of Reno Sweeney’s backup singers, and was dance captain in the 2011 Broadway revival. McKnight was dance captain in the Anything Goes first national tour.
“There was no way to improve upon Kathleen’s wonderful template, so adapting it for a smaller cast, the ideas are still there,” Savelli says. “The dancing is fantastic. It’s also organic ... Kathleen really respects the period. It’s easy to add contemporary flair, but Kathleen encourages elegance.”
Though the show is a fast-paced farce, McKnight says, “These characters are still relatable. These are people you’re rooting for, underdogs and couples with the wrong partner. In order for the story to land, it has to be rooted in truth.”
Emma Stratton, who learned she’d won the starring role of Reno Sweeney on her last day of classes at Penn State University, agrees that making the musical comedy characters come off as real is paramount.
“It’s easy in a 1934 musical to make them stock characters,” says Stratton, 23, who is following in the diva footsteps of Merman, Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster as Reno. “But Kathleen made it such a solid piece. She made the characters very grounded.”
Stratton, who grew up watching movie musicals with her grandparents and fell in love with the music of Porter, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, knows the history and the world of Anything Goes. But her view of Reno comes from a 21st century perspective.
“She’s a really strong, smart, self-made woman. She’s sexy, and she knows her worth,” Stratton says. “It’s thrilling to play her every night. It’s thrilling to be very broad and brassy, but also tactful and smart.”
Brian Krinsky, 25, toured in Beauty and the Beast and is now playing Billy Crocker, a “dream role,” in Anything Goes.
“Kathleen Marshall has put together this masterful perfect storm of a show, the way she’s designed it to land with an audience. Often times, you have to work [hard] to make a show work. Not in this,” Krinsky says. “This show is amazing. Every night I get excited to go onstage.”
That excitement, incorporated into the show, is infectious.
Savelli says that “a motor is always running underneath what the characters are doing ... Reno is like the quarterback. She starts the pulse of this fantastic Cole Porter music.”
Numbers build, other characters join in, and then “they send this energy out to the audience and welcome them to the party. It sends everyone out on a high.”
If you go
What: ‘Anything Goes’
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through May 17.
Cost: $40.01-$111.81 including fees.
Information: 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.