Flying Too High with Some Guy in the Sky

Some of the songs in Anything Goes seem at first to be throwaway numbers, one-idea novelties to shoehorn some more dance into the show. But even the seemingly emptiest of songs in this show reveal surprising relevance and irony to our story and to the times.

Even the innocuous "Let's Step Out" has the twin agendas of commenting on Bonnie's "class" divide from the other passengers, as the moll of the country's most dangerous criminal; but she also rails against the gloom and seriousness of the Depression, after the wild years of the 1920s. It's weirdly synchronisitic that the passengers sing the twisted, morally upside-down hymn "Public Enemy Number One" to Billy, believing him to be Bonnie's boyfriend -- just before Bonnie herself enters and chides them for their pointless solemnity. Unlike most of the passengers, she gets how fucked up all of this is. She also knows that with Snake Eyes in the care of the FBI, she's safe now -- so why not party and flirt?

But the richest song in the show is deceptive in the surface simplicity of both its music and lyrics. Reno's emotionally naked torch song, "I Get a Kick Out of You," is another of Anything Goes' songs that we've gotten too familiar with. We stop hearing these lyrics fresh.

The song originally opened the show, revealing Reno's secret crush on Billy, though I've never figured out the point of that, plot-wise. The 1962 revival moved the song to late Act I, and now it's about Reno's surprise at falling in love with Evelyn. It's so much stronger here, because these feelings are revealed to us now after we've spent time with the smartass Reno for an hour. That's much stronger structurally. When this song opens the show, it gives us a false first impression of Reno; but moved to later in the show, it reveals a deeper layer to Reno.

"I Get a Kick Out of You" has this sinuous Latin line in the low reeds under the vocal intro, which says so much about this very sensual woman, but that line disappears after the intro, and the rest of the song was set, in 1934, to the standard Broadway foxtrot. But in '62 (our version), the main part of the song continues the Latin beat, though still without that reed line. Alongside the Latin syncopation, there are several moments of hemiola (long vocal triplets over an accompaniment in four), that make the beat momentarily ambiguous, just like Reno's feelings.

But what exactly is Reno saying here? She's literally saying that nothing in life gives her particular pleasure or happiness. She is (particularly if we assume Texas Guinan's real life details) a professional cynic and smartass. Texas Guinan, the model for Reno (and for Velma Kelly), greeted her speakeasy guests every night with "Hello, suckers!"

Look at this lyric --
My story is much too sad to be told,
But practically everything
Leaves me totally cold.

Yep, that's the speakeasy hostess alright. And it really is sad. She feels nothing. This isn't the usual musical comedy leading lady. Hope seems more like our leading lady, but she's not; Reno is. She goes on:
The only exception I know is the case
When I'm out on a quiet spree,
Fighting vainly the old ennui,
And I suddenly turn and see
Your fabulous face.

She's racing through life -- racing around this ship -- doing anything to stave off boredom ("the old ennui"). Nothing thrills her. Nothing moves her. Except one thing -- the face of the man she loves. Up until this time, Reno's made a couple off-hand remarks about finding Evelyn cute, but this is Reno dropping the cynicism and honestly looking at her own emotions, maybe for the first time ever.

So why the goofball Sir Evelyn Oakleigh? He finds an undeniable joy in the adventure of life. He's almost childlike in his delight over learning new things. Quite likely, Evelyn is the first man Reno has ever met who's not a cynic. Imagine how different he is from the jaded criminals and bootleggers and chorines who no doubt make up the circle of Reno's friends, none of them trustworthy, none of them ever emotionally open or honest -- or delighted by anything.

Like her underworld circle of friends, Reno has seen it all...
I get no kick from champagne,
Mere alcohol,
Doesn't thrill me at all...

Don't miss the punch of those lines. It's one year after Prohibition is repealed, and America's biggest speakeasy queen (again, if we blend Reno and Texas Guinan) is saying alcohol doesn't really do it for her. So she asks the obvious question -- if literally everything leaves her cold...
So tell me, why should it be true,
That I get a kick out of you?

Each verse takes an addiction (alcohol, drugs, and adrenaline) all of which do nothing for Reno.
Some get a kick from cocaine,
I'm sure that if
I took even one sniff,
It would bore me terrif-
ically, too,
Yet I get a kick out of you.

The bridge expands on the title phrase --
I get a kick every time
I see
You standing there
Before me.
I get a kick though it's clear
To me,
You obviously
Don't adore me.

Notice the rhyme compounding, giving us a sense of momentum. We get the string of see, me, me, -ly, me, but also before me and adore me.  And yet none of the grammar is awkward or strained. It still sounds like Reno's voice.

The last verse follows the established pattern, but this time the music literally takes off with the lyric, and the multiple rhymes give us even more momentum...
ing too high
with some guy
in the sky...

But before the stanza is over, the music returns to earth, because there's no kick to be had there.
...Is my i-
-dea of nothing to do.
But I get a kick out of you.

The mood turns right in the middle of the "i" rhymes (splitting the word "idea").

Remember that passenger airplanes were really new at this point, and only rich folks could afford to fly -- the first passenger jet, the Boeing 247, was introduced one year before Anything Goes debuted. And Lindberg had made his historic trans-Atlantic flight only seven years earlier.

I've always wondered if "some guy in the sky" was a sly Porter reference to God and religion, especially since Reno is a former evangelist. We know Porter loved talking in code -- just look at his bridges in the title song, cataloging fast living ("low bars," "fast cars," etc.) and unconventional sexual tastes ("backstairs," "love affairs with young bears," etc.)...

One of the most interesting aspects of this song is how it changed when it was lifted out of context. In 1934, radio stations wouldn't play a lyric about cocaine, so Porter had to create the ever dangerous "bop type refrain."

But also, almost every pop singer rewrites the rhythm of the title phrase. (I've noticed pop singers also always rewrite the 10/8 bar in "Memory" from Cats. WTF?) Originally, Porter wrote that title phrase to a rhythm that almost no one sings correctly today. Most pop singers -- and therefore, most women playing Reno -- move the word "kick" to the downbeat. Like this:

That's not what Porter wrote. He placed the word "kick" on beat 4, ahead of the downbeat, to give the word "kick" a kick. Once you hear it the right way (which you will in our production), the other way sounds so wrong. This is the right way:

I've written background and analysis essays on so many shows, but as much as I've always loved Anything Goes, I never stopped to ask myself why I love it. Now that I'm working on it, now that I'm doing my best to help our actors find the reality and the humanity in this script and score, along with the dozens of period jokes and cultural references, now I know why I love it. It's endlessly rich and aggressively truthful.

Anything Goes is everything I want in a musical -- subversive, smart, surprising, insightful, often unexpectedly emotional; and despite its over-sized style and energy, there is a real honesty there about human connection and the early effects of branding and celebrity on American culture. So interesting!

The more I explore it, the more deeply I love it.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!