When it comes to the American musical, few composers are as well-known as Cole Porter, even fewer were as prolific, and nearly none as hummable. Rodgers & Hammerstein may have the awards, but Porter has the hits. And of those hits, Anything Goes is his musical with the highest concentration of catchy choruses and known titles. The play is so popular that it has been revised three times since its premiere in 1934, updating the plot and some jokes and characters that would be problematic to today’s audiences. The wacky humor, caper-style plot, and romantic pick-a-mix story originally penned by P. G. Wodehouse deserves to continue to present Porter’s beloved tunes to audiences for decades to come.
We’re lucky enough to have the chance to see it this spring, as Parkland College has chosen Anything Goes for the big season-ending musical. I was lucky enough to get to speak with the director Julia Megan Sullivan about her experience with this big hitter.
Smile Politely: I've read about your improv and acting experience in the News-Gazette, but is this your directorial debut? Or...can you tell me more about what you've directed that Google missed telling me about?
Julia Megan Sullivan: As an audience member, I am attracted to kitchen-realism dramas. But as a director, I am most at home with broad comedy. Before returning to the area, I acted and directed professionally on national tours and in regional theatres. Since returning to the area a little more than a decade ago, I've directed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Jekyll & Hyde for DLO Musical Theatre and a number of shows for Red Mask Players. I've assistant directed and coached acting for shows at the Station Theatre and the Beef House Dinner Theatre in Covington, IN.
After being impressed by so many productions at Parkland, I joined the cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood directed by Dallas Street a few years ago. When I was approached about directing Anything Goes, it was easy to say yes following that terrific experience.
SP: What made you interested in taking the helm of a huge musical with giant production numbers?
Sullivan: This is only feasible because of the talented team of collaborators. When we had our first production meeting with designers and directors, I clearly - and maybe brazenly - explained that I didn't have all of the answers or ideas. If I did, I would need significantly less talented people on the team. It's my job to tell the story. Part of that is acting as the air traffic controller, or as you said, taking the helm. This show has the benefit of some of the most talented artists and technicians in the area working collaboratively to create something memorable for audiences to enjoy.
SP: Will you discuss your directorial style, and how it has been affected by such a large cast?
Sullivan: Artists tend to love analogies, and I'm no exception. For this show, I've been using the idea of a layer cake. Our lead characters are like the frosting: the first thing you encounter. But if you only have frosting, it's out of balance and saccharine. You need a delicious, strong cake for the foundation - and that's our ensemble. The cake and frosting can be enjoyed individually, but are better in harmony. And if you're not tired of the metaphor yet, we can talk about sprinkles and garnish! That's what tech week is about - bringing in the extra elements like costumes and lighting, all in service of telling the story.
SP: How have rehearsals been going? Any favorite stories or moments?
Sullivan: We've been running concurrent music, dance, and staging rehearsals to work within the time constraints. As you've said, this is a huge musical. And as I sometimes have to be reminded, everyone involved has a day full of other obligations like work, school, and family. But from the beginning, Justin Brauer (our music director), Tanya Picard (our choreographer), and I have insisted on professionalism and full commitment.
It's a delight to watch shtick work out and to see all of the parts come together as we near opening night, but the rehearsal that stands out is when we received a "community theatre miracle." The "theatre miracle" is when the show suddenly blossoms to full life, as if in an instant. As a director, you've been fretting and are frustrated. You know the show is solid, but you just can't elevate it to the next level. You've tried all of the techniques you have, and you're ready to re-manage your expectations. Then the "miracle" happens.
Now not every show gets a "miracle." Sometimes it happens on opening night. I've seen it happen on closing weekend. It's often sparked by an exceptionally present audience. This was true for us thanks to crew view, when we ran the show for the backstage crew so they can get familiar with the rhythm before being assigned specific duties. Every joke was rewarded with laughter, and every production number was applauded enthusiastically. Truth be told, the "miracle" only happens if the foundational work by everyone has been happening throughout. But it feels miraculous.
The audience is an important part of this show. With so much comedy, big dance numbers, and tender songs, the cast will depend on them to laugh, applaud, and react. That's part of what makes live theatre so unique. When you see a movie, your reactions are only heard by other audience members. But on stage, every musician, actor, and crew member is aching to hear your reaction.
SP: Parkland's season-release said that you'll be staging the revised version from 1987...which the NYT reported has more emotional depth, less objectionable language and even more slapstick than the original. What do you feel are the strengths of this particular version?
Sullivan: Hands down, this is a musical for people who enjoy musicals. Other shows have embraced anti-musical theatre slogans, but that's not what Anything Goes is about. For a tiny taste, I've created a clip of some of the tap from the title song. I don't want to give away too much, but it will give you an idea.
SP: What do you think this revision offers to the longtime fans of the play? The folks who are new to it?
Sullivan: When the show was announced, I heard from so many people in the community who wanted to share happy memories of being in another production. There are current cast members who have had roles in the show before and are delighted to revisit it.
I think of Anything Goes as one of the original juke box musicals, meaning the show began with a great book of songs and the story was crafted around it. I think people will be surprised how many songs are familiar, even if they're not dedicated Cole Porter fans.
SP: Anything else you'd like to mention about the production?
Anything Goes is a gift for the audience. It provides an escape for a few hours, which is part of the important work that we do as artists. Throughout this rehearsal period, there have been times when creating something joyous was miles from how I was feeling in that moment. I am confident that's true for many others. But time and again, I am energized by remembering that we're there for the audience. This show provides a break from the every day. We have created something spectacularly fun, lighthearted, and entertaining, and I look forward to sharing it.
Performances of Anything Goes will be staged in the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College beginning this Thursday, April 6th, through Sunday, April 23rd. While performances are usually at 7:30 p.m., there are a couple special events planned: Friday, April 14th will be a dinner and show package for $30 beginning at 6 p.m., and Sunday, April 23rd will be a matinee at 3 p.m. Get the most complete schedule information at Parkland Theatre’s website. Tickets are regularly priced at $16, with discounts available, and reservations can be made online, or by emailing the ticket office, or by calling 217-351-2528.