I went into it without reading up on its background, and couldn't even remember if it had been put together by Cole Porter himself, or was a later construct incorporating many of his songs. I have been reading up on it today, which has had the unfortunate side effect of putting the title song well and truly into "earworm" mode, but it's been very interesting nonetheless.
First, the show was made by Cole Porter (and a team of other creative types of the day) in the early 30's. In fact, the history of its creation as recounted in Wikipedia is so interestingly haphazard it bears repeating in whole:
The original idea for a musical set on board an ocean liner came from producer Vinton Freedley, who was living on a boat, having left the US to avoid his creditors. He selected the writing team, P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and the star, Ethel Merman. The first draft of the show was called Crazy Week, which became Hard to Get, and finally Anything Goes. The original plot involved a bomb threat, a shipwreck, and hijinks on a desert island, but, just a few weeks before the show was due to open, a fire on board the passenger ship SS Morro Castle caused the deaths of 138 passengers and crew members. According to one version, Freedley judged that to proceed with a show on a similar subject would be in dubious taste, and he insisted on changes to the script. However, theatre historian Lee Davis maintains that Freedley wanted the script changed because it was "a hopeless mess." Bolton and Wodehouse were in England at the time and were thus no longer available, so Freedley turned to his director, Howard Lindsay, to write a new book. Lindsay recruited press agent Russel Crouse as his collaborator, beginning a lifelong writing partnership. The roles of Billy Crocker and Moonface Martin were written for the well-known comedy team William Gaxton and Victor Moore, and Gaxton's talent for assuming various disguises was featured in the libretto.I am not knowledgeable about Wodehouse, but I would hazard to guess there are only one or two jokes in the show which have his "air" about them.
As Wikipedia goes on to note, later versions of the show (it seems to get revived about every 25 years) have added or deleted songs, so it's not as if there is a canonical version. But they all share the same silly story.
For me, the show comprises some spectacularly pleasing song and dance routines interspersed by some spectacularly anachronistic, broad vaudevillian comedy of a kind that is not to my taste (by which I mean, rarely rises above "slightly amusing"). Perhaps the problem is partly this cast overacting (I found myself particularly irked by the Captain seemingly doing a Nathan Lane impersonation); but it just might be something inherent in romantic farce when done in the theatre: the medium leaves no room for subtlety, and what might be made to work on screen gets overblown on stage. Still, it was very professionally done when it came to the music, singing and dancing, and I certainly didn't regret seeing it.
And to be clear: for a curious person, some of the anachronisms* help make the show interesting.
For example, I was only recently posting about how Australian papers were reporting (what we might now call) the nudist moral panic of New York in the early 30's, but I didn't realise at the time that this gets a reference in the lyrics of Anything Goes:
When ev'ry night the set that's smart is in-The Wikipedia entry on the song gives explanation of many other then-current references to scandal and gossip in the lyrics.
Truding in nudist parties in
I thought the bit about the cruise ships crossing the North Atlantic needing to have a celebrity on board was interesting; in fact, the short song "Public Enemy Number One" had a bit of Marx Brother's style satire to it which I wished more of the comedy shared.
But I was most interested in learning who the (female lead) role of Reno Sweeney was satirising. Clearly, there must have been some female Christian evangelist type who had notoriety at the time, and it didn't take long to track down that it was Aimee Semple McPherson. Her rather fascinating career as the 1920's equivalent of the modern tele-evangelist (and about whom I don't recall ever hearing about before now) is the subject of a fascinating, and not overly long, article at the BBC website, and she has many other articles devoted to her controversial life. Here she is, looking quite the glamour preacher star:
And, oddly enough, the "Foursquare Church" she founded claims to still be active and widespread today. I see I could even go to a service at the University of Queensland (?) if I wanted to. Should I be highly embarrassed by having just admitted I knew nothing of her until now?
Of course, having seen the musical led to me reading up a bit on Cole Porter himself.
I think everyone with the barest knowledge of him now knows he was gay (or bisexual) but married to a woman who was he quite devoted to (as long as she didn't interfere in his sexual pursuits.)
It's funny how both autobiographical films were extremely misleading, but in entirely different ways. The recent-ish Kevin Kline movie De-Lovely (which I haven't seen) gets marks for at least showing him as homosexual; but it sounds as if it twisted virtually everything else about his life to various minor or major degrees. This article about him in the New Yorker from 2004 is perhaps the single best one I read, but his lengthy Wikipedia entry is good too.
One thing I was surprised about - he didn't have his first hit show until he was 36 - followed by some dud ones, and finally hit his mark in the 1930's when he would have been in his 40's. He may have been rich and self indulgent as a young man (to put it mildly), but it sure appears he worked very hard on becoming a success in his chosen career.
(Here's one odd fact I stumbled upon by accident - David Cassidy of Partridge Family, um, fame, says in his autobiography that he only learnt after his death that his bisexual father Jack Cassidy had a long affair with Porter. Shirley Jones apparently confirms it in an autobiography which is very sexually explicit, leading one review to comment:
Jones also shares a story Cassidy told her about seducing composer Cole Porter, a story so lewd and off-putting that I’m not going to repeat it here.
I'm sorry, this post started off all nice, but is ending a tad sordid...)
Anyhow, as you see, seeing this show has been an education. Now, if only I can stop the John Williams orchestration of the version of the song in Temple of Doom running through my brain, I will happy.
* perhaps this isn't the right use of the word, since the play is still set in the 1930's. Perhaps just "dated" is more apt, but it doesn't sound as sophisticated...