We're Merely Mammals

Today, most people think Anything Goes is old-fashioned and family-friendly. But really, it's a very adult show, and it was never meant to be family-friendly. After all, the title is Anything Goes! One verse of the title song even catalogs various sexual tastes that are newly acceptable...

Not much about this show was conventional. The musical comedy had begun thirty years earlier by consciously rejecting tales of rich folks and royalty in operettas, in favor of stories of common people, immigrants, average working Joes and Janes. But as one of the only gentiles writing Broadway scores at the time, as a native of Peru, Indiana, as the heir to a considerable fortune, and as a relatively open gay man, Porter wasn’t interested in immigrants or in common people. He had spent time in Paris alongside Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein.

So Porter wrote his songs about smart, glamorous, rich, sophisticated, sexual people. His lyrics were dripping with French phrases, dirty jokes, references to high society names, new brand names, exclusive night clubs, trans-Atlantic cruises... and America's complicated relationship with morality, after the debacle of Prohibition.

At its core, Anything Goes is a comic but pointed exploration of amorality and moral irony. The characters we like the most, our “heroes” (Reno, Moonface, Billy) are the least “decent;” and the most "decent" character (Sir Evelyn) is the antagonist (sort of).

John Waters would be right at home here.

Reno stands in for America in the aftermath of the repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s – going from moral purity (as an evangelist) under Prohibition to moral sin (as a nightclub singer) after the repeal. Her big song “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” slyly, ironically suggests that America should “repent” for the sin of repealing Prohibition (or is it for the sin of enacting Prohibition?). Mooney’s rise in social status aboard the ship mirrors the way gangsters and rum runners, now wealthy, became respectable members of “high society” after Prohibition was repealed.

Religious references pop up throughout the show, usually revealing religious or moral hypocrisy. Reno is a former evangelist, now nightclub singer; her backup singers are called her “fallen angels;” there’s a bishop who gets arrested, leaving his two Christian converts to fend for themselves; Moonface becomes the Reverend Dr. Moon; “Public Enemy Number One” is a parody of a hymn, worshiping celebrity rather than God; “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” is essentially a revival meeting that sounds like a sex act, complete with phony confessions and repentance. And early in the show, Reno comically merges her two sides when she says to the hard-drinking Mr. Whitney, “Come, let us lead them beside distilled waters.”

Religion, meet Speakeasy.

Ultimately, Hope (and Anything Goes) chooses love and authentic emotion over money, position, and obligation. America isn’t totally lost, the show's creators are saying. The romantic marginalization of Sir Evelyn by Hope is an echo of America’s marginalization of Europe after World War I. America was now the Super Power, and we didn’t need Europe anymore. Hope’s mother thinks they need Evelyn (no doubt the Harcourt fortune was decimated by the crash), but Hope doesn’t agree. In fact, in the original production, Evelyn didn’t even get his own song, even though he was a secondary lead. Both Hope and the show – and ultimately Evelyn – reject Britain in favor of America.

The show’s plot turns on such an odd love story – Reno loves Billy, who loves Hope, but Reno ends up with Hope’s fiancĂ©, an explicitly heterosexual character who is subliminally coded as gay (he has a woman’s name and tells Moonface he has “hot pants” for him). Not your standard musical comedy plot -- especially in 1934. Is Evelyn an ironic stand-in for the gay but married Cole Porter? The subliminally gay sidekick was a staple of the Astaire-Rogers movies, though here the character has been considerably fleshed out, and he gets a wife by the end. But does Reno’s cut song, “Kate the Great” suggest that it will be an “open marriage”...?

The relationships in our story are like those in A Little Night Music, in which the characters start with the wrong partners and have to reshuffle before the evening is over. This weird mismatching may be easier to understand in the revivals, with “Let’s Misbehave” added in the 60s and “The Gypsy In Me” added in the 80s, explicitly giving Evelyn a hetero sex drive.

Though Anything Goes trafficked in smart social satire, it was as horny as it was clever. Sex pervades the whole show (“Blow, Gabriel, Blow”…?), and it is made more explicit in “Let’s Misbehave.” But that title isn’t as random as it sounds to us today. “Misbehavior” presented as fun rather than as sin was something fairly new in 1934. Samuel Schmalhausen, a popularizer of Sigmund Freud’s work, wrote in his 1928 book Why We Misbehave:
Static morality has been repudiated in favor of dynamic experience. Fear yields its sovereignty reluctantly to fun. Passion’s coming of age heralds the dawn of a new orientation in the life of the sexes. We may sum up the quintessence of the sexual revolution by saying that the center of gravity has shifted from procreation to recreation.

Schmalhausen extolled the virtue of playful sex:
Sexual love as happy recreation is the clean new ideal of a younger generation sick of duplicity and moral sham and marital insincerity and general erotic emptiness. Sex as recreation is the most exquisite conception of lovers who have learned to look with frank delighted eyes upon the wonder in their own stirred bodies.

A year later in 1929, satirists James Thurber and E. B. White wrote the book Is Sex Necessary?, in which they argued:
During the past year, two factors in our civilization have been greatly overemphasized. One is aviation, the other is sex. Looked at calmly, neither diversion is entitled to the space it has been accorded. Each has been deliberately promoted. In the case of aviation, persons interested in the sport saw that the problem was to simplify it and make it seem safer. With sex, the opposite was true. Everybody was fitted for it, but there was a lack of general interest. The problem in this case was to make sex seem more complex and dangerous. This task was taken up by sociologists, analysts, gynecologists, psychologists and authors; they approached it with a good deal of scientific knowledge and an immense zeal. They joined forces and made the whole matter of sex complicated beyond the wildest dreams of our fathers. The country became flooded with books. Sex, which had hitherto been a physical expression, became largely mental. The whole order of things changed. To prepare for marriage, young girls no longer assembled a hope chest -- they read books on abnormal psychology. If they finally did marry they found themselves with a large number of sex books on hand, but almost no pretty underwear.

And that's what Porter was writing about, when he wrote "Let’s Misbehave" in 1928.

And that's why Anything Goes is a New Line show.

Long Live the Musical!

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