Dark secrets of the sunny Anything Goes
Fri Apr 8 2011
"Times have changed!" proclaims Reno Sweeney at the start of the free-living, free-loving title song of Anything Goes. And Anything Goes has changed plenty with the times. As I mentioned in my review of the Roundabout's pleasing revival of Cole Porter's romp, the show has undergone multiple reconstructive surgeries and organ transplants since its birth in 1934. Right from the outset, its devil-may-care title song notwithstanding, the show was forced to adapt in order to avoid offending its audience. The original script, by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, involved a shipwreck; but in September of 1934, the S.S. Morro Castle caught fire off the coast of New Jersey, 137 people died, and maritime peril lost the ring of musical comedy. With help from Russel Crouse, who would become his longtime writing partner, director Howard Lindsay rewrote the show entirely in time for its November debut. The opening number, "I Get a Kick Out of You," had been forced to make a similar revision two years earlier: When Porter wrote it (for an unproduced 1931 musical), it included a double-entendre couplet—"I shoudn't care for those nights in the air / That the fair Mrs. Lindbergh goes through"—that was scratched after the 1932 kidnap and murder of the Lindberghs' infant son.
Even Anything Goes's carefully innocuous current script, crafted for the 1987 Lincoln Center revival, is not free of controversy on grounds of sensitivity: The show's two Chinese characters strike some audience members as holdovers from the insensitive ethnic humor of another era. And that, in fact, is pretty much what they are. But to understand how far the show has come, it helps to look at what wasn't considered shocking in the olden days. After the jump: Eye-opening glimpses at the cultural mores of the 1930s.
The Chinese passengers in today's incarnation of Anything Goes have a throwback feel: Their stereotypical costumes and thin characterization gives them away as ethnic cartoons. But they also serve a purpose in the plot that makes it difficult to dump them entirely. What the new version does do is spruce them up—an effort that comes into clear relief when comparing the current script with the one for the show's 1935 London production. In that script (tweaked by Wodehouse for English audiences), the so-called "Chinamen"—Christian converts turned gambling fiends—are named Ching and Ling, and several jokes are tied to their funny language and strong accents. In the new script, they are rechristened as John and Luke, speak excellent English, have many more lines and suggestions of different personalities. Compare and contrast the scene in which they confess their vice to Moonface Martin, a gangster dressed as a priest:
John (2011): Father! Father! Brother Luke has been playing cards! [He snatches the money from Luke.] Look, the wages of sin!
Ling (1935): We no lose. We win! Three hundred dollar.
Later, when Billy and Moonface disguise themselves as Chinese men, the 2011 Billy puts on a mild Chinese accent to make the ruse work. But it's not in the same league as, say, this exchange from the 1935 account of that scene:
Oakleigh: My nephew is to be married this morning.
Billy: Oh, you mean your nephew he catchee wife to-day? My friend, Mister Woo Chang Pung, he askee me to tell you he no likee you nephew.
And you ain't seen nothing yet, folks, because take a look at this long-supressed little verse that Porter wrote (or at least approved) for the show's title song:
When ladies fair who seek affection
Prefer coons of dark complexion
Yes, please do read that again. You're welcome!
Now, Porter knew whereof he spoke when it came to elegant white folks with a taste for black Romeos; he made frequent trips to Harlem to rent prostitutes, sometimes with his friend Monty Woolley. Whether his sexual interest in black men translated to respect for them is a different matter. In his 1998 biography, Cole Porter, William McBrien quotes descriptions of Porter's high-stepping expeditions to Clint Moore's Harlem bordello—"Whenever Monty and Cole visited this house, they first would spend a long period sitting in Moore's ornate offices, sipping champagne from Baccarat crystal flutes. Then Moore's newest male acquisitions were paraded around the office for their approval"—but asserts that there "is no evidence that he treated these men cruelly or felt in any fashion superior to them." Later in the same book, however, McBrien repeats the claim made elsewhere that Porter's friendship with Woolley cooled when the latter took a black servant as his lover, which Porter considered beneath his class.
So did Porter himself write the suppressed verse above for the London production? It's hard to say for certain. What we do know, thanks to Robert Kimball's authoritative collection of Porter's lyrics, is that the composer had already fiddled with similar themes (cf. 1929's "My Harlem Wench": "When for red-hot kisses I'm thirsty / Then my thirst I've just gotta quench / But the more I take / The more I ache / For my Harlem wench") and language (1919's "Oh So Soon": "Soon, oh so soon / This here coon / Is goin' to mosey from the land of cotton / Up to ole Manhattan / Where he's not forgotten. / Walk to Noo York / And jest stalk / Along to Harlem and its coontown alleys / Till I find the number where my yaller girl is.")
But this is hindsight, and blinkered hindsight at that. Yes, of course: Porter was surely not immune to the racism that suffused the world he lived in, and wrote some lyrics that he probably wasn't proud of later. Luckily, the ones in "Anything Goes" could easily be, and easily were, excised from an otherwise sparkling score. And if some vestiges of Ching and Ling still cling to the well-scrubbed Luke and John, is that a bad thing? Even in an escapist nostalgia trip like Anything Goes, which is set on a luxury liner that is lousy with insouciant socialites, it is good to have a tiny little hint of a reminder that the real 1930s didn't offer love songs and tap dances to everyone alike.