Debts, Disaster and Desperation
(Inside the Making of Anything Goes)
What happens when the bull market goes bear, and just as your latest play bombs on Broadway? If you’re producer Vinton Freedley, and you’ve got an army of creditors pounding on your door, the answer is simple. Split town and hide out on a boat in the Gulf of Panama. Yet, Freedley did not just idle his days away lying on deck, soaking up the tropical rays. His adventure at sea, for reasons we can only imagine, inspired an idea for a new musical comedy about the shipwreck of an ocean liner. Not a writer himself, he rang up his longtime collaborators Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse to write the book, and enlisted the genius of Cole Porter to compose a libretto for what he was sure would be his next big hit. Yet, like the show he envisioned, the waters ahead were anything but smooth.
At first, however, all went well. While Bolton, Wodehouse and Porter developed the script for Hard to Get—as it was then called—Freedley assembled a dream cast for his comeback show, which included the likes of Ethel Merman, William Gaxton and Victor Moore, all of whom were Broadway icons at the time. How did this struggling producer trying to recover from an abysmal failure only a few seasons before manage to attract such lucrative talent? He did what any desperate producer would do. He lied. Whenever he approached any of these Broadway stars, he told them that the others had already signed on board for his new high seas disaster comedy.
Then, just as rehearsals were about to begin, the front page of every newspaper across the country was suddenly filled with a true-life cruise ship disaster. On September 8, 1934, the SS Morro Castle, returning from a seven-day journey to Havana, suddenly burst into flames just off the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, taking the lives of 137 passengers and crew. It was one of the worst maritime disasters of that decade, and Freedley knew that doing a lighthearted musical farce about a disaster at sea was now unthinkable.
The play had to be rewritten, but Wodehouse and Bolton were unfortunately already on vacation in Europe. Freedley’s desperation, however, once again paid off. He turned to the play’s director, Howard Lindsay, and asked him to revise the script. Lindsay agreed, but only if Freedley could find him someone to collaborate with. That collaborator turned out to be a young press agent by the name of Russel Crouse. They could not have known it at the time, but this would mark the first of a lifetime of collaborations for Lindsay and Crouse, whose subsequent works, including The Sound of Music and Life with Father, made them one of the most successful playwriting teams of their generation. The two men worked feverishly to retool the script, rewriting most of the dialogue, creating the role of Reno Sweeney for Ethel Mermen, and reinventing the entire plot from sea level up. When Freedley called the cast into rehearsals a mere six weeks after the Morro Castle disaster, he handed them a practically brand new play.
Yet, it lacked a title. Freedley and his team bandied about suggestions to no avail until the show’s star, William Gaxton, cried out in frustration “Anything goes!” referring not so much to the play itself, but rather to its tumultuous creation. His suggestion stuck—Cole Porter wrote the title song that very night—and Anything Goes opened on Broadway in November of 1934. Despite its topsy-turvy development, this play that almost sank under the weight of circumstance became the third longest running musical of the 1930s, and reestablished Vinton Freedley’s reputation as one of the leading producers on Broadway.
Dan Tarker Literary Associate