When theatres began to reopen in the summer of 2021, one show above all welcomed audiences back with joyous high-fives and a celebratory embrace. Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s delightful, delicious, de-lovely musical extravaganza, ran at the Barbican in London from July to October, and every performance provoked standing ovations not just at the end of the show but even during it. Audiences went home wreathed in wraparound smiles.
The critics went bananas too. “Makes you gasp in wonder.” “Delirious delight.” “The musical equivalent of sipping one glass of champagne after another.” There was so much to marvel at. The show’s many hit numbers together read like a Spotify playlist from the Great American Songbook: “You’re the Top”, “Friendship”, “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “It’s De-Lovely”. Above all the explosive “Blow Gabriel Blow” and the ecstatic title tune brought a vast company onstage to participate in a wondrous displays of ensemble tap dancing. In the pit sat a crack band of West End musicians summoning up the swooning sound of 1930s New York, and it was all set off by a glorious set design and a spectacular parade of beautiful costumes.
The good news (of which there’s not much about at the moment) is that Anything Goes is now setting off on tour around England, heading up to Edinburgh and over to Dublin before returning to the Barbican for another summer run. In Kerry Ellis, Denis Lawson, Bonnie Langford and Simon Callow, it has the ideal cast to take the show on the road: four much loved stars of stage and screen with an unrivalled musical theatre pedigree.
Their task, as with any such mega-hit, is to maintain the momentum of the original production. This is something that Kathleen Marshall, who most unusually combines the roles of director and choreographer, knows a lot about. She first mounted Anything Goes on Broadway in 2011, then recast it several times before bringing her production to the UK last year.
“How many hundreds of times have I heard these Cole Porter songs?” she said. “I never get sick of them because they’re so smartly written. This show to me is like a wonderful gift. When you’re giving someone a gift you can’t wait for them to open it. I feel like that’s the way it is for the cast when they discover these parts, and then ultimately giving that gift to an audience.”
The biggest gift of all goes to Kerry Ellis, who will play Reno Sweeney, the sassy evangelist-turned-nightclub vamp and queen of tap who sings a lot of the top tunes. One of the UK’s very biggest names in musical theatre, with a voice that sizzles and soars as much as any grand dame of Broadway, Ellis has mainly wowed audiences in contemporary hits. After lighting up We Will Rock You, Wicked and the revival of Cats, she is relishing the chance to show what she can do in the old-school tradition. “These classic musicals don’t come around very often,” she says, “and I jumped at the chance to take on a role that I didn’t think I’d get to play. But I grew up dancing—it’s like riding a bike. And I performed ‘Friendship’ when I was really young doing competitions. To get to sing it as a professional is really nostalgic for me.”
Denis Lawson, who takes on the hapless hoodlum Moonface Martin, is another iconic British star. Celebrated for Local Hero and primetime drama, he has an impeccable record as a Vaudevillean talent with Olivier Award to show for it. He says Anything Goes “is just right up my street. This is the kind of material that made me want to be a performer in the first place, when I was four or five and seeing performers like Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis. I just wanted to do that and it never really went away.”
The new cast member with the longest pedigree in musical theatre is Bonnie Langford. In more recent years, the much loved star has cemented her place in public affection via Doctor Who, EastEnders and Dancing on Ice, but Kathleen Marshall remembers seeing her play Baby June in Gypsy the first time she was taken to Broadway. “I will never forget it. Every time she came out she did this little bow and she did this six o’clock kick. She was amazing.” That was in 1974 when neither of them was yet in her teens. “It’s extraordinary that we’ve come together after all that time,” said Langford. She may be doing no six o’clock kicks, but the role of Evangeline Harcourt is a gift for someone Kathleen Marshall describes as “a great comic actress”. An impoverished widow, Evangeline is desperate to marry off her daughter to maintain her social standing. “There’s a wonderful line in it,” said Bonnie Langford. “’If you don’t marry this lord, we’ll have to live in hotels!’ She has a great sense of fun in her.”
And then there is Simon Callow, who signed up on the strength of this newest version. “The production is a pleasure machine from beginning to end,” he says. “It was one of the most joyous evenings in the theatre I can recollect.” He plays Elisha Whitney, a Wall Street tycoon and Yale man who likes a drink and is hilariously lost without his glasses. Callow has directed more musicals than he has appeared in (two) but relishes the prospect of joining this one on the road. “I’ve always felt that that’s what we’re here for, which is to spread the word. I really do feel like we’re medieval actors going round on our cart, bringing entertainment to people rather than them having to come to us.”
As for the entertainment that audiences can expect, Kathleen Marshall explains that Anything Goes “acts like a classic farce. But instead of being in an English country house for a weekend, we’re on a ship.” All these characters—plus young lovers, more gangsters, one very seductive single lady and an English lord with a secret hinterland—are brought together when they board the SS American bound from New York to London. Along the way, there’s lashings of swooning romance and screwball comedy. “What I’m really excited about is that everybody takes their comedy seriously,” said Marshall, “which I do too. The beating heart of Anything Goes is these are real people who are in real jeopardy. They are desperately trying to find their happiness.” It’s not much of a plot spoiler to suggest that they are eventually successful in this quest.
Because the show doesn’t come around that often—the last big production opened at the National Theatre 20 years ago—inheriting a role is not like stepping into a Shakespeare comedy which brings with it the memory of previous performances. Alone among the new stars, only Denis Lawson did not see Anything Goes at the Barbican. “I’m a bit like a sponge so it’s nice not to have seen any previous performances of it. So I can start with a clean slate on it.” To play Moonface, who is known as public enemy number 13, he has sought inspiration from an unlikely source. “I’ve been immersing myself in the Godfather movies. I want to get the right kind of voice and I’m assuming that this man is of Italian extraction.” He won’t say which character he’s latched on to, only that he’s “quite a minor role but I liked his accent very much”.
As for the widowed Evangline Harcourt, Bonnie Langford has worked up a back story in which she “was probably an actress and Mr Harcourt saw her at the stage door and put a fur coat round her shoulder and she went, ‘Yeah all right I’ll marry you.’ I decided she probably married him for love of his lifestyle. I’m kind of looking on her a little bit like Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek. She’s a little bit away with the fairies.”
Kerry Ellis’s inspiration for Reno Sweeney is closer to home. “I can relate to her a lot,” she says. “She’s a proper showgirl and has been living this lifestyle her whole life. Travelling around and being very interactive with people can be lonely at times.” To complete the overlap, the week before rehearsals started, she was performing her own show on a newly launched cruise ship in the Canaries.
Just as all on board the SS American are trying to find their happiness, the goal of Anything Goes has always been to perk people up. The original production opened in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression and this one landed in London when theatres had been dark for more than a year.
“We were the right show at the right time,” said Kathleen Marshall. “It was a chance for an audience to see something big and noisy and joyous and silly and romantic. Even in times of crisis, people needed release. We need to be able to fill our souls again so we can have the strength and energy to face the darker thing happening around us.”
Anything Goes was written before Rodgers and Hammerstein created their great musicals that were actually about something, and Cole Porter’s message is that there’s no message. “It’s just blue skies happiness,” said Bonnie Langford. “When people start to tap, there is this beat that goes through you and you feel that coming across the footlights and it definitely gets those happy endorphins going. Although we can all sit in our own living rooms and watch something on a screen, there is nothing like that feeling of it happening right in front of you with everyone enjoying something together. I think I’m going to get quite emotional when I stand on that stage, I really do.”