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'Anything Goes' revision is one for the book

Rachel York plays Reno Sweeney, the evangelist turned nightclub singer who leads a chorus line of sailors in Anything Goes. The role was originated in 1934 by Ethel Merman and features popular songs such as I Get a Kick Out of You and You’re the Top.

Straz Center for the Performing Arts

Rachel York plays Reno Sweeney, the evangelist turned nightclub singer who leads a chorus line of sailors in Anything Goes. The role was originated in 1934 by Ethel Merman and features popular songs such as I Get a Kick Out of You and You’re the Top.

Anything Goes is like a lineup of Cole Porter's greatest hits, with one fabulous song after another: I Get a Kick Out of You, You're the Top, Blow Gabriel Blow, the title tune and many more.

But the ramshackle plot of the show was always a problem, a silly shipboard comedy of socialites and stowaways, a mobster who masquerades as a preacher and wacky sailors. After it premiered in 1934, with Ethel Merman in the leading role as evangelist-turned-chanteuse Reno Sweeney, it was subjected to all sorts of changes in stage revivals, a couple of movies and various TV treatments.

"About the only thing they all had in common is that at some point they are on a boat," said Kathleen Marshall, who directed and choreographed the 2011 Broadway revival, which is on tour and opens Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.

One of the notable things about this Anything Goes, which won three Tony Awards, is its revised book, first used in an acclaimed 1987 revival at Lincoln Center Theater, starring Patti LuPone, and further refined for the recent Broadway production and tour by authors Timothy Crouse and John Weidman.

"We tried to reimagine the piece so that it still felt as if there was not a word in it that hadn't been written in 1934, but we wanted it to feel like it was paced and organized in a way that modern theater audiences expect," said Weidman, whose credits include collaborations with Stephen Sondheim on the musicals Pacific Overtures, Assassins and Road Show.

The Anything Goes revision was something of a family affair, because Weidman's partner in the project is son of one of its original librettists, Russel Crouse, who, with his partner, Howard Lindsay, did the first revision of the musical, rewriting a failed book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. It was the debut for the team of Lindsay and Crouse, who went on to become Broadway legends as authors of hit plays such as Life With Father and State of the Union and the books for Call Me Madam, The Sound of Music and other musicals.

"Anything Goes was the one show that my father and Howard never felt completely satisfied with," said Timothy Crouse, best known not for theater writing but for his classic account of pack journalism and the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus. His sister is actor Lindsay Crouse.

The gist of the Crouse-Weidman revision involved two things. "We knew we had to accelerate the pace of the show and raise the stakes for the characters, especially the part of Billy Crocker, who is the leading man and the motor of the show," Crouse said.

There had been other overhauls of Anything Goes, notably a 1962 off-Broadway revival, but Crouse and Weidman mainly worked from the 1934 original. The pair — longtime friends since being roommates at Harvard (Weidman also comes from show business royalty, as son of playwright Jerome Weidman) — restored Porter songs that had been cut before the original opened, added songs from other shows, changed the order of songs and which characters sing them and rewrote dialogue.

"I would say that the new version of the show is about 60 percent us and about 40 percent my father and Howard," Crouse said. "And the 40 percent is not always in the places that it was originally."

For example, the purpose of The Gypsy in Me was transformed. "It was originally given to the debutante, Hope Harcourt, and we changed the way that the song is used and gave it to the lord, Evelyn Oakleigh," Crouse said. "Now it is exhibit A of using a song to further the plot. It's at a place where a sort of turnaround in his character, a side of him we haven't seen before, is revealed, and it changes everything in the plot. In 1934, it was sung by a different character for a different reason."

Easy to Love, a song cut from the original because the actor playing Billy couldn't sing it, was put back in the revised score. Songs added from other Porter musicals include It's DeLovely (first sung by Merman in Red, Hot and Blue), Friendship (a duet by Merman and Bert Lahr in DuBarry Was a Lady) and Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.

"Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye was deleted from Red, Hot and Blue before the show opened in New York," Crouse said. "I felt justified in putting it in because that was the other Porter show with a book by Howard and my father."

Crouse and Weidman had a hand in the current revival. "We went over the book again and looked for places to tighten and tweak," Crouse said. "We heightened a confrontation here, we put a new button on a scene there. For a joke we had never been satisfied with, we sweated it out until we got a better joke. Trim a line here, trim a line there. Anytime we could advance the pace, we did. They're a bunch of small things, but they added up, and I think it's a better script now."

The tour stars Rachel York as Reno Sweeney. She is an accomplished performer of Porter, having starred in a splendid tour of Kiss Me, Kate that played the bay area in 2001 (and featured Marshall's choreography). The director-choreographer likens York's take on the role to screwball comedies from the 1930s and '40s.

"Rachel's Reno is kind of a combination of Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire and a little Roz Russell, a little Mae West, you know: tough, sexy, smart-talking dames," Marshall said.

However, nobody would ever confuse the stylish York with Merman, at least the pile-driving diva she was near the end of her career.

"Well, you have to remember that Ethel Merman was 25 when she first played Reno Sweeney," Marshall said. "I think a lot of people now think of Ethel Merman in her later years, going on variety shows and singing Anything Goes or You're the Top or I Get a Kick Out of You, but she was 25 years old when she first played this part. It's meant to be somebody kind of young and smart and hip."

As background for staging Anything Goes, Marshall watched old movies. "Especially Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, because a lot of the style of the dance, especially for Billy and Hope, is based on Fred and Ginger," she said. "In their movies, they were attracted to each other, but there was always some obstacle, and yet when they danced you knew they belonged together. I watched Busby Berkeley just for fun, to get a sense of that sort of extravaganza and the use of pattern and spacing."

And she listened to Porter's amazing songs. "The lyrics are so smart, so clever, so witty and so romantic," Marshall said. "I listened to these songs every day for months and months when we were preparing the show, and I never got sick of any of them."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.



>>if you go

Anything Goes

The national tour of the Cole Porter musical opens Tuesday and runs through March 17 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. $46.50-$81.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

'Anything Goes' revision is one for the book 03/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 6:53pm]
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