Honorable mentions: “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “You’re the Top”
Anything Goes, like a movie of roughly the same age (eighty years and counting), is not the same now as it was when it first debuted. Musicals are different animals now than they used to be, having evolved from the skimpy plots and girls into occasionally psychological twisters (Oklahoma!), historical dramas (The Sound of Music), satires (Company), and operatic epics (Les Miserables). It’s not enough to just have some catchy tunes and half a story anymore, although Andrew Lloyd Webber keeps trying. (Ha! ha!) But the tunes from the ’30s, you gotta admit, were catchy as heckfire and twice as hard to shake off. “Anything Goes” is my personal favorite from Anything Goes, which has no small number of standards floating around to seize on.
I’m not typically a fan of antimetabole – as soon as the politicians got a hold of that, it was ruined forever – but Cole Porter gets a pass. The Puritans, he notes, landed on Plymouth Rock.
If today any shock they should try to stem
Instead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.
Aside from the fabulous mental image of Miles Standish trying to extricate himself from under a boulder (“Not now, Priscilla!”), the phrase is wonderful on its face. The past that we try to keep wouldn’t have a clue what to do with us now, wouldn’t have any more idea what to do with itself than we would if we were dropped in 1620.
Of course, the song isn’t necessarily just about how morals have changed, or how people have gotten more lax and sloughed off the old way of doing things. There’s a subtly interwoven sentiment that the old is still perfectly acceptable. “Old chairs,” “old hymns,” and “saying your prayers” are perfectly good to like, but then again, they’re surrounded by “bare limbs” or “back stairs” and “love affairs.” The placement is humorous, but there’s, again, the undercurrent of something more interesting going on; in putting them next to one another, it’s clear that the hymns, prayers, and the desire for Mae West were never really separate from one another after all.
My favorite satires tend to know that they, too, are worthy objects to be made fun of, and “Anything Goes,” sung in the play by a nightclub singer who’s trying to get in with an engaged English nobleman, understands it pretty well. The writers who used to know better words still play off of sex and crime for interest; the smart ones know that there’s time for some tap dancing in the bargain.