Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Anything Goes": What Recording is the Top?

Doesn't this make you want to go on a transatlantic cruise in the 1930s--preferably with Cole Porter writing the music? Poster from

Writing my 1934-play last weekend, I got struck by a mania to listen to Anything Goes, the year's hit musical. The lyrics of "You're the Top" alone provide enough mid-1930s topical references to transport me to the past. And songs like "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and the title song are just great, great musical-comedy treasures. The other songs found in Anything Goes, though, can vary depending on which version of it you see. The show's Wikipedia article thoroughly explains the revisions that have been made over the eyars.

I couldn't find much information comparing different recordings of Anything Goes (that's why I'm writing this blog post) so I checked out two of them from my school library. One is the 1987 Broadway revival starring Patti LuPone, which featured a rewritten book and several interpolated songs, including Cole Porter favorites like "Friendship" and "It's De-Lovely." The other is the 1989 EMI studio recording, which bills itself as "The First Recording of the Original 1934 Version." Maybe it was produced in reaction to the 1987 revisions?

Like Ethel Merman, who originated the role of Reno Sweeney, Patti LuPone is a star performer with an instantly recognizable voice and personality. Her mannerisms are on full display here: a torchy, dark-hued voice; a slight sloppiness of phrasing and enunciation. But she definitely has Reno's diva-charisma. Kim Criswell, who plays Reno on the studio recording, is not as idiosyncratic. She has a bright, clear, powerful belt voice, which sounds higher and more exciting than LuPone's--and perhaps more Mermanesque. Yet she sings "I Get a Kick Out Of You" with a tenderness that Merman could never achieve.

Both of the actors who play hero Billy Crocker--Howard McGillin in 1987, Cris Groenendaal in 1989--sing very well. Advantage goes to McGillin for his dreamy near-falsetto at the climax of "All Through the Night" and "De-Lovely."

Opera star Frederica von Stade sings the role of ingénue Hope Harcourt on the studio recording. Perhaps her mezzo-soprano timbre is a little too warm and mature for 21-year-old Hope, but it's a lovely voice, and she generally avoids being too "operatic" with it. At any rate, she's much better than the Broadway Hope, Kathleen Mahony-Bennett, whose thin and breathy soprano is not pleasant to hear, and far too cutesy when she sings "De-Lovely."

Neither actor who plays the comic role of Moonface Martin is a very good singer. Bill McCutcheon (Broadway) mumbles and strains his voice; Jack Gilford (studio) barely has enough breath to get through his solo. (In fact, he died the next year.) However, you can tell that Gilford might once have had a pleasant voice; McCutcheon seems like he never did.

The "Ambrosian Chorus" take on choral duties in 1989, singing in a "square," classical style. This works for the sailors' hornpipe "There'll Always Be a Lady Fair" and the satiric hymn "Public Enemy No. 1," sung with the proper rhythmic and harmonic precision. The Broadway version tries to make these songs swing, which feels wrong. But for the rest, I prefer Broadway's more casual, jazzy chorus.

The 1987 version assigns solo songs to more characters than the 1934 version does. Gangster's moll Erma now gets to sing "Buddie, Beware" (instead of Reno)--and it makes more sense for this character, even if singer Linda Hart's voice is a little raspy. The even raspier Rex Everhardt, playing Elisha J. Whitney, sings a pointless few bars of "I Want to Row on the Crew." Hope's solo "The Gypsy in Me" gets reassigned to her fiancé Evelyn Oakleigh, becoming funnier in the process.

The studio recording's insistence on using all the original orchestrations, arrangements, and lyrics means that it can get a little monotonous. All seven verses of "You're the Top" are sparklingly witty, but since the orchestration doesn't vary enough with each verse, it's "as the French would say, de trop." The recording is so complete that it even includes three cut songs as an appendix: "There's No Cure Like Travel," (a nifty countermelody to the song "Bon Voyage"), "Kate the Great" (solo for Reno that Ethel Merman vetoed as too bawdy), and "Waltz Down the Aisle" (sung by Hope and Evelyn--melody later revised and recycled as "Wunderbar" from Kiss Me Kate).

The Broadway version cuts the more obscure or overkill lyrics, as well as some pointless songs like "Where Are the Men?", and fills out the recording with additional dance music. You really get a sense of how the big songs worked as production numbers. And the orchestrations are great--love the musical joke after Reno sings "the feet of Fred Astaire" in "You're the Top"!

For my main purpose--getting a sense of the world of 1934--the studio recording proved invaluable. I loved learning additional lyrics to the title song, which reference topical events like the Depression:
And that gent today
You gave a cent today
Once had several chateaux
When folks who still can ride in jitneys
Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
Lack baby clo'es
Anything goes.
But I can understand if modern audiences prefer the trimmed-down and more "Broadway" 1987 recording--even if it does have some pointless interpolations and bad singers. The studio cast is maybe slightly stronger...but Howard McGillin and Patti LuPone are great too. So, in the end, I'm not sure which recording is the best, if you could only buy one. Um...anything goes?

Links for your pleasure:This should tide you over for a while. I've got a very busy week ahead of me and doubt I'll blog much.
So my blog goes bust
For a week it must
Close shop
But if, baby, it's the bottom
You're the top!

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