How a disaster at sea changed the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes
There are times when a theatre buff comes across something he (or she) wants to share with others of like mind which doesn’t happen to be a theatrical book, cd or dvd. This is one of those times.
Every show has a “back story” that makes seeing or hearing it all the more pleasurable. I stumbled on a book that tells one of those “back stories” without seeming to know it. I ordered the book and found it fascinating for the story it tells and for the story it doesn’t tell.
I don’t know if the author, South Carolina journalist/historian/author Brian Hicks, even knows of the relationship between the 1934 disaster at sea about which he writes so eloquently and the 1934 Cole Porter musical which was so far from being a theatrical disaster that you can still go to Broadway and see it … in its third revival. I bought the book because I wanted to know about the seagoing disaster that presented the creators of the musical such a dilemma when trying to bring their song-filled flight of fancy into New York. I found it fascinating but was astonished that the show is not even mentioned in a footnote let alone discussed in the book.
It was the show that gave us “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “All Through the Night,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and its title song “Anything Goes.” It had a cast that included two big stars of the day, William Gaxton and Victor Moore, and a big star of any day: Ethel Merman, who had made such stunning debut in the Gershwin’s Girl Crazy.
Common wisdom has it that the show was an almost fool-proof property, a guaranteed hit. (Never mind that there is no such thing in any art.) It told the story of the adventures of its stars on an ocean liner that was in danger from a fire. The book had been by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse who, together or separately, wrote the books for for Jerome Kern’s “Princess Musicals” (Very Good Eddie, Oh, Boy, Leave It to Jane, Oh, Lady! Lady!) as well as Sally, Sitting Pretty and the Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good, Tip-Toes, Oh, Kay! and Girl Crazy. They had crafted a piece of whimsey that let Gaxton show off his dressing-up-in-multiple-disguises shtick and Moore his flummoxed fool routines, while giving Merman songs of beltable bravado.
As the production prepared for an opening that fall of 1934, the newspapers (and radio stations and newsreels) trumpeted the news of a fire aboard a luxury ocean liner off the coast of New Jersey. The Ward Line’s flagship, the SS Morro Castle, caught fire just off Asbury Park. One hundred and thirty seven passengers died that night. Some of the bodies washed up on the shore to the fascination of the local residents and tourists who drove down from New York to view the scene — the still burning ship had beached itself just yards from the town’s Convention Hall.
Producer Vinton Freedley didn’t think he could sell many tickets to a light entertainment about a burning ocean liner while the news was filled with first-person accounts of horror, death and disaster followed by stories of the government investigation into the causes for the ship’s loss. He wanted the book re-written to eliminate all the all-of-a-sudden-objectionable material from the show or, as some people have it, he took advantage of the situation to take action on what he thought was a less than sparkling book.
Whichever, by this time Bolton and Woodehouse had moved on to other projects. Freedley brought in a new team: unknowns of the day, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. It was a teaming that would go on to create Broadway history as their collaboration continued with Arsenic and Old Lace, Call Me Madam, Life With Father and The Sound of Music.
Their task was to craft a book that could use all the sets, costumes and characters of the original but which wouldn’t have anyone in the house thinking “will all these people burn up or will their bodies wash ashore in the morning?” They did well enough for the show to run a full year. (Pretty good in those Depression days.) What is more, a revised version of the Broadway original seems to have taken on a life of its own with a revival in 1987 that ran even longer than the original, and another currently on the boards that has already exceeded 200 performances.
So, what of this book I found?
In “When The Dancing Stopped” Brian Hicks details the history of the ship, the SS Morro Castle. He explains that it was named for the Spanish fort that guards the entrance to Havana Harbor, its usual destination. The ship was built to take pleasure seekers on a one week cruise from Depression-plagued New York to the tropical paradise of Havana, Cuba, while, at the same time, fulfilling the Ward Line’s contract for mail delivery between the two cities.
It may have been the height of the Depression, but there were still Americans who had money to spend on pleasure cruises. Hicks reports that even as “a quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed, more than 72,000 Americans would take pleasure cruises in 1934.” He was not counting, by the way, the thousands more who used ocean liners for transportation. It was still by steamship that citizens with business or other reasons traversed the Atlantic between, say, New York and London.
The cost of a week’s pleasure cruise to Havana ran between $65 and $200 ($900 to $2500 in today’s dollars) per person depending on the class of accommodations, and apparently the SS Morro Castle offered top-of-the-line accommodations. The ship wasn’t air conditioned, however. Instead, sea breezes were piped into internal spaces — great when it was cool outside but not a lot of help when those breezes where hot and humid. It also didn’t have what most consider a minimal requirement today – a swimming pool. But the crew sprayed seawater on one deck so passengers could cavort.
The return trip from Cuba on September 7,1934 found the ship running up the coast of the Carolinas in an effort to stay ahead of a hurricane, but running into a 20 knot headwind from a “nor’easter” that was blasting its way down from Canada. While churning into that wind at a sea speed of 20 knots, the combined 40 knot wind blowing into the air circulation system that substituted for air conditioning fanned the flames of what might otherwise have been a controllable fire that started in a locker in the first class writing lounge. Those flames eventually proved the ship’s undoing.
This was, of course, some twenty-two years after the famous sea disaster when the Titanic hit an iceberg and many of the lessons of the Titanic had been applied to the design of the Morro Castle. While the Titanic only had enough lifeboats to save half the people on board in 1912, the Morro Castle had enough lifeboats and rafts to save over twice as many passengers and crew members as were actually on board. No, the Morro Castle was the victim of an entirely new set of errors as the fire cut off access to many of the life boats and other boats could not be launched because the ropes to do so had been painted over to be more attractive. Add to this, errors in firefighting, in communicating between officers and crew members and simple cowardice, and the result was disaster.
Just what caused the fire was never officially determined and, while the acting captain and two others were tried and convicted of malfeasance, their convictions were ultimately overturned and mystery surrounded the episode for decades. Was it an accident? Arson? Murder?
In researching his book, Hicks developed a theory that accounted for all the known elements and covered many of the rumors, suspicions and oddities, not the least of which was the fact that the captain of the ship was found dead just hours before the fatal fire. He details the elements that lead him to believe that the disaster was the result of the act of one unbalanced crew member, a radio operator who initially was hailed as a hero but who ended his life in prison.
In telling his story, Hicks includes the experiences of a teenaged purser on that voyage, one Thomas Torresson, Jr., who was one of the last living survivors of the sinking. That first person perspective gives the book an immediacy that makes it compelling and you come to know the young man – a role that could well be played, by the way, by Aaron Tviet, now that “Catch Me If You Can” has closed on Broadway. The use of his story to make the tale come alive makes Hicks’ dedication of the book touching: “For Tom, who wanted it told right.”