I've Been a Sinner, I've Been a Scamp

A lot of musical theatre fans love Anything Goes, but consider it a guilty pleasure, the artsy equivalent of Mississippi mud cake, just a mindless, old-fashioned musical comedy confection. They register great surprise when I describe it as a sharp satire.

But it is.

Musical comedy had dealt in gentle social satire since the beginning, but Anything Goes was the first successful Broadway musical comedy to build its story on two parallel threads of fierce, pointed satire. This time the plot came out of the satirical agenda, rather than the satire being just a fun side joke.

I've written a lot about the neo musical comedy, which emerged in the 1990s as one of the dominant musical theatre forms. A neo musical comedy involves the devices and conventions -- and usually the full-out joy -- of old-fashioned musical comedy, but with a more socio-political, more ironic, and often more subversive point of view. Think of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Heathers, Something Rotten, The Scottsboro Boys, Cry-Baby; but there were a few examples even earlier, like Little Shop of Horrors in 1982, The Cradle Will Rock in 1937, and really, The Threepenny Opera in 1928.

And arguably, Anything Goes in 1934. Anything Goes was a dead-on satirical chronicle of That Moment... which also happen to be This Moment.

Maybe we're just too used to Anything Goes at this point, to see it as it once was. But this is a show that includes a mock religious hymn to a (supposed) murderer, skeet shooting with a machine gun, a love song that mentions snorting coke, and a parody religious revival meeting featuring a song with a slyly sexual hook line. If you doubt the double entendre of "Blow Gabriel, Blow," this is the same songwriter who wrote in the title song, "If love affairs you like with young bears you like..." That meant then what it means today. And notice in the scene leading up to the song, most of the confessions are sexual. Reno is presented as an explicitly sexual presence from the beginning, so her spot as lead singer / evangelist, and with her randy angels as back-up, it's hard not to read the song as sexual double entendre.

In comic counterpoint to that, the language of the "Blow, Gabriel" lyric is Religious Symbolism as a Second Language. This is an amateur, or more to the point, a religious outsider, leading this revival meeting -- with the help of the fake-minister "Dr. Moon." It's obvious neither of them are really believers, and that doesn't seem to bother the crowd a bit.

And by the way, why do we want Gabriel to blow his horn? The Bible says that "an archangel with the trumpet of God" will announce the Second Coming, and people have assumed that's Gabriel, particularly since Milton made that connection in Paradise Lost.

During the Depression, many American believed that they were living through the "great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be." (Matthew 24:21) So riffing on that, Reno and her angels (I think we're supposed to assume this is one of their regular numbers) pray for the archangel to signal the end of the tribulations (Prohibition, the Depression) and announce with his trumpet the coming of Christ. Reno assures Gabriel she's ready to "trim [her] lamp," a Bible metaphor meaning she'll work at and maintain her faith (to keep oil lamps burning brightly and consistently, you have to trim the wick back), that she's mended her ways (we can only guess what those ways included), that now, "I'm good by day and I'm good by night." Of course, that line assumes that Reno hasn't always been "good by night."

But these "sinners" aren't asking for forgiveness or anything; they just want to "play all day in the Promised Land." It's a remarkably crass take on the Book of Revelation's thousand years of peace and righteousness. And all this to jazz music, until recently considered the devil's music...

In one section, they all chant:
Satan, you stay away from me,
'Cause you ain't the man I wanna see!
I'm gonna be good as the day I was born,
'Cause I heard that man with the horn!
Do ya hear it?

Once you really pay attention to this lyric, you realize this section is all about the End Times. They want to be good, because Jesus and Judgment Day are coming soon!

One of the more subtle jokes in the show is in this song, when the women take the melody and the men sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in counterpart, also a song about angels taking "me" to heaven. Since this is the male passengers and crew singing this counter-melody, are we to read that as spontaneous, that religious fervor is taking them over? Since this is always a big, involved, full-company, Broadway musical comedy dance number, it lays on top of our fake revival meeting an even more cynical layer of comment -- religion really is show business.

But there's even more swimming around in Anything Goes. When the show opened in late 1934, Prohibition had ended just a year earlier, but the Depression rolled on, and the Dust Bowl kept destroying lives. The FBI was at the height of its notoriety, but the public loved some of the gangsters on the FBI's Most Wanted list (which is the whole point of "Public Enemy Number One"). Importantly, the FBI -- standing in for law and order in general -- is not on board the S.S. American. In fact, they arrest the wrong guy at the beginning of the show, and leave the ship! They're not up to the job. They can't/won't protect us. Was this a comment on how hard it was for law enforcement to catch America's celebrity criminals, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie & Clyde, et al.?

On the other hand, we find out early in the show that the FBI has caught Snake Eyes Johnson, which is in tune with the fact that every celebrity criminal I just mentioned was shot and killed in 1934, just before Anything Goes opened.

Here on the S.S. American, we are in Shakespeare's metaphorical woods, away from laws and civilization, where two things will happen. First, love will get "fixed" as our characters de-couple from the wrong partners and re-couple with the right partners. Second, with lots of liquor and very little "law," these passengers are free to act on their impulses, to chase after various forms of vice, to be their "natural" selves. And notice that the ship is called the "American" -- this place of no rules and no law is 1930s America, where (until a year earlier) lots of Americans broke the law by drinking alcohol. When that many Americans broke the law, when they stopped believing in the institutions that failed them, America became functionally lawless.

By calling the ship the S.S. American, the show's writers were underlining their social commentary. As a comic microcosm of our country, these passengers showcase the worst of the American inclination to make celebrities out of criminals and show biz out of religion, an inclination as prevalent today as it was in the thirties.

But the satiric aim is more pointed than just those two overarching themes. So what else does Anything Goes satirize? A lot.

Even though economists will tell you the 1929 stock market crash did not "cause" the Depression, it was still the starting pistol, and most people in 1934 believed rich Wall Street types were to blame. Notice that in Anything Goes we have two representatives of Wall Street -- the drunken, horny, nearly blind Mr. Whitney, and the shit-disturbing rogue Billy Crocker.

The name Crocker comes from the French for "heartbreak." In this story Wall Street is decidedly undependable.

Richard Whitney had been the very famous president of the New York Stock Exchange and during the 1930s, he was famed for steering his clients through the treacherous waters of the Depression. But his success was a scam of the proportions of Enron and Bernie Madoff, and he was finally caught in 1938 when his firm collapsed. Still, as audiences watched Anything Goes in 1934, Whitney was the hero of the rich, so naming Billy's boss Whitney -- and making him a drunk -- was a pretty subversive reference. According to Wikipedia:
On October 24, 1929, Black Thursday, Whitney attempted to avert the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Alarmed by rapidly falling stock prices, several leading Wall Street bankers met to find a solution to the panic and chaos on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The meeting included Thomas W. Lamont, acting head of Morgan Bank; Albert Wiggin, head of the Chase National Bank; and Charles E. Mitchell, president of the National City Bank of New York. They chose Whitney, then vice president of the Exchange, to act on their behalf.

 With the bankers' financial resources behind him, Whitney went onto the floor of the Exchange and ostentatiously placed a bid to purchase a large block of shares in U.S. Steel at a price well above the current market. As traders watched, Whitney then placed similar bids on other "blue chip" stocks. This tactic was similar to a tactic that had ended the Panic of 1907, and succeeded in halting the slide that day. The Dow Jones Industrial Average recovered with a slight increase, closing with it down only 6.38 points for that day. In this case, however, the respite was only temporary; stocks subsequently collapsed catastrophically on Black Tuesday, October 29. Whitney's actions gained him the sobriquet, "White Knight of Wall Street."

It is a little weird that Mr. Whitney's first name is Elijah, coincidentally (?) named after the nineteenth-century inventor and arms manufacturer...

The Harcourts (and Mrs. Wentworth, in the '34 version) stand in for America's "cafe society," the 1% of 1934. In the original version of the show, the Harcourts' family business was in serious trouble and needed saving, which was the reason for the arranged marriage. Is it any wonder Billy and Hope both would like to escape this culture? According to an article on the PBS website:
The Great Depression was partly caused by the great inequality between the rich who accounted for a third of all wealth and the poor who had no savings at all. As the economy worsened many lost their fortunes, and some members of high society were forced to curb their extravagant lifestyles.

But for others the Depression was simply an inconvenience especially in New York where the city’s glamorous venues – places to see and be seen – such as El Morocco and The Stork Club were heaving with celebrities, socialites and aristocrats.

For the vast majority the 1930s was a time of misery. But for many American dynastic families, parties helped to escape the reality on the street and the grander the better.

Parties and trans-Atlantic cruises.

Many stories of the Great Depression show us the shattered and disenfranchised turning to religion in their time of need. But church attendance grew during the Depression only about five percent. Notably, no one aboard the S.S. American in Anything Goes has that spiritual need, and so for these people religion becomes show business, entertainment, the latest fad. Though the content of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" is basically reverent, the song's rowdy, fast, jazz music quickly and comically short-circuits any hint of real religion fervor. This is religion as party.

The only genuine symbol of religion we see in the show is the comically clueless Bishop Dobson, who's banished from this community (i.e.,mistakenly arrested) before the ship even sets sail; and all we're left with is the fake religion of fake-minister "Dr." Moon, and the gambling "Christian converts." Genuine religion (and conventional morality), the Baptist tent revivals and religious radio shows of the 1930s, are all missing from this place. Here there is no moral control -- it's Shakespeare's woods.

In the 1930s, the 1960s, and also today, Dark Times bring forth the most pointed satire. Anything Goes opened halfway through the Depression, which also begat brilliant satires like Of Thee I Sing, Let 'Em Eat Cake, and The Cradle Will Rock.. The 1962 revival opened at the start of one of the most divided, angry decades in American history. The 1987 revival opened on the infamous Black Monday, the day the stock market crashed again.

None of the show's targets feel dated, because we're struggling with all the same things now. Still today, religion is often repackaged as slick, high-budget show biz. When America's evangelicals strongly support the womanizing vulgarian and sexual predator Donald Trump, religion in America is on life support. And still today, we make celebrities out of criminals, and depending where the various investigations lead, Trump may be the best illustration of that too.

Cole Porter's songs have all the bite, the sophistication, and the smartass humor of Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, but Porter's songs often bite a little harder, his lyrics closer to how people talk, instead of always just building toward a funny rhyme. Like those of the great George M. Cohan, Porter's lyrics sound like they could actually come out of the mouths of the characters. If his songs can often be transplanted from one show to another, that's only because many of his shows were about the same kind of people -- smartass, subversive, sexual, clever, ironic, complicated, and contradictory.

Just think for a second about all the characters in Anything Goes that have contradictory impulses.

Porter wrote both in contemporary slang and in genuinely elevated, powerfully poetic language when the moment called for it. His songs can be emotionally shattering and they can be icily cynical, about the most intimate insecurities or the most macro satire. Porter and his co-writers were writing old-school musical comedy, but they were also chronicling our times -- then and now -- most insightfully. It's so much fun working on this rich, crazy material.

Long Live the Musical!

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