The clearcut winner among all the Anything Goes albums that exist is — well, there isn't one. We could start with the authoritative recording of the score, which is — well, there isn't one. This is going to be more complicated than we thought!
All right, let's start at the very beginning. Again, that doesn't work, as Anything Goes opened in the pre-original cast recording days. If we were dealing with something simple, like Oklahoma! or Gypsy, we could just go to the real and authentic original cast album and take it from there. Compounding the enigma is that Cole Porter's 1934 musical hit comes from an era when the shows were not imperishable; the production team of every major Anything Goes revival has revised the book and altered the selection of musical numbers, with full approval of the authors' estates. Will the real Anything Goes please stand up? What is the real Anything Goes, anyway?
Ethel Merman, one of the three stars of the musical in question, recorded her song hits from the show on occasion, but with studio orchestras. There is a full-scale reconstruction of the 1934 version of Anything Goes, but it wasn't recorded until 1988 — when almost everyone involved with the original was long gone. Six selections were recorded by the stars of the 1935 London remounting, which is as close to the original sound as we are likely to get (albeit with Anglicized topical references and a French leading lady). When Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records started recording scores from pre-original cast musicals, he quickly chose Anything Goes (with Mary Martin) for treatment. It soon became apparent that these early attempts — with contemporary arrangements and little theatrical feeling — were ineffective, so Lieberson and musical director Lehman Engel thenceforth decided to reconstruct the original sound of the scores.
Anything Goes was always a staple of stock, but it gained new life in 1962 when it appeared Off-Broadway in a modified version (with libretto revised by Guy Bolton, one of the original authors). The success of this production launched the show back into wide circulation, albeit with interpolated songs and a small-band arrangement. The resulting recording became the one and only cast album, and for many years that's the Anything Goes we listened to. Until a full quarter-century later, when two things happened.
The folks at Lincoln Center Theater — producer Bernard Gersten and artistic director Gregory Mosher — decided to expand their operations to include occasional musicals. They set their resident director Jerry Zaks, at the time Broadway's reigning comedic genius, to devise an Anything Goes for contemporary audiences. Working with librettists Timothy Crouse (son of original co-author Russel Crouse) and John Weidman, choreographer Michael Smuin, designer Tony Walton, and musical director Edward Strauss, Zaks reimagined Anything Goes as it might have been — but certainly wasn't — in 1934. The result was grand, glorious, and smashingly successful, instantly wiping away memories of the pint-sized Off-Broadway revival. (Looking at the names on the Lincoln Center cast album, I notice in the chorus a dancer called Robert Ashford. Hmmm.)
At the same time, musical director/detective John McGlinn — who had just broken new ground, recorded musical theatre-wise, with a full 3-CD set of Show Boat — was hard at work on his own recording of Anything Goes. Working closely with 88-year-old Hans Spialek — co-orchestrator with Russell Bennett of the original production — McGlinn prepared a full reconstruction of the 1934 version and recorded it in 1988. Finally, this was what Anything Goes sounded like! Or was it? And whose Anything Goes was this, anyway? What about the Tony Award-winning revival still packing them in at the Vivian Beaumont?
There are other Anything Goes recordings, naturally, including a 1969 London production (which I believe used the 1962 version), and three remountings of the Lincoln Center version (including 1989 productions in London — starring Elaine Paige — and Australia, and a 2003 London revival). But I needn't include these. Enough is enough.
As you see, we can't really cover this chronologically, because which came first? The only remnant of the 1934 production is a 78 RPM recording by a group that was billed as The Foursome. Original Anything Goes producer Vinton Freedley's prior hit, the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, used a quartet of lonesome cowboys as a framing device: they walked around singing and reprising a ditty called "Bidin' My Time." When Anything Goes came along, Freedley presumably instructed the authors — including Bolton, from Girl Crazy — to write The Foursome into the new show. And so Porter gave them a mock sailor's shanty called "There Will Always Be a Lady Fair."
The Foursome — Ray Johnson, Del Porter, Marshall Smith and Dwight Snyder — had recorded "Bidin' My Time," and so they were called into the studio to do the same with "Lady Fair." They accompanied themselves on guitar and ocarina (which is apparently how they performed in the shows, with pit accompaniment). So what we get on the 78 is presumably the precise original cast performance — with vocal arrangement by Johnson — albeit without the orchestra. The flip side contained the boys singing a non-show arrangement of "The Gypsy in Me," a second act beguine originally performed by the ingénue Hope Harcourt. Merman also made two early 78s, with Johnny Green's orchestra. The first, "I Get a Kick Out of You," seems to use an approximation of Bennett's Broadway orchestration for the first half, after which it goes into a studio chart. Merman's other early track, "You're the Top," is presumably a Johnny Green arrangement. There is also a Merman recording of her second act showstopper "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," but this one — with orchestra led by Jay Blackton — was recorded by Decca in December 1947.
The 1935 recordings by the London cast are probably as close to authentic Anything Goes as we'll get. (The London 78s, as well as the early American ones, have appeared on several compilation CDs.) Yes, the Reno of the occasion was French singer Jeanne Aubert, who needless to say sounds quite unlike Merman. Billy Crocker was played by Broadway leading man Jack Whiting, who was more of a traditional musical comedy hero than original star William Gaxton. Gaxton, who started in vaudeville, had starred in Fifty Million Frenchmen for Porter and Of Thee I Sing for Gershwin; while he introduced a slate of hit ballads for the Messrs. Porter, Gershwin and Rodgers, he was foremost a comedian. In fact, Gaxton and his acting partner Victor Moore were the main stars of Anything Goes; Merman, who had made a splash in Girl Crazy, was here elevated to stardom.
Yes, Porter gave Gaxton the Anything Goes love songs, but the actor was already 41 — which in that day and age was extremely old for the love interest. Whiting was in his early 30s, and decidedly more suitable for "All Through the Night." Also represented on the London recordings — singing "Be Like the Bluebird" — is Sydney Howard, who had earlier played the Victor Moore role in the London production of the Gershwins' Funny Face.
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