American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

OCEAN LINER DRAMA. A number of plays and musicals take place during ocean crossings. Two famous American musicals are set on glamorous ocean liners from Prohibition New York to liberated France. Anything Goes (1934), featuring music and lyrics of Cole Porter, was based on books by Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay, and Russell Crouse. The coauthored title by Bolton and Wodehouse, a comedy about a shipwreck,* became unproducible after the real-life sinking of the S.S. Morro Castle on 8 September 1934, and required revisions by Lindsay and Crouse. Nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, originally played by Ethel Merman, is the entertainment on the cruise. Also onboard are two stowaways: Sweeney’s friends Billy Crocker, who wants to be near Hope Harcourt, the debutante he loves, and Moon-Face Mooney, Public Enemy Number Thirteen, who is escaping the long arm of the law. Their romantic and criminal misadventures involve the female passengers, including Reno’s backup singers, and the sturdy crew of the ship. The classic Porter score includes “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel Blow,” “Anything Goes,” the sea chantey “There’ll Always Be a Lady Fair,” and a crew song. Film versions in 1936 and 1956 jettisoned several Porter songs and most of the book.

Based on Anita Loos’ 1925 novel of the same title, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) features music by Jules Styne and lyrics by Leo Robin. The show is mostly set on board the Ile de France, which is taking Lorelei Lee, played by Carol Channing in a star-making turn, and her chum and nominal chaperon Dorothy Shaw to France, courtesy of her rich friend button tycoon Gus Esmond. On board, Lorelei and Dorothy meet the American Olympic team en route to the 1924 Paris Olympics. Sir Francis Beekman loses a diamond tiara to Lorelei, and Henry Spofford falls in love with Dorothy.

After a series of complications, the musical ends with the two couples happily wed. The 1953 film version starred Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.

Another musical features an infamous ocean liner in a minor role. The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960), with music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson and book by Richard Morris, is loosely based on the life of the famous Denver socialite. It traces the heroine’s rise from poverty in the Colorado silver mines to life among the elite in Monte Carlo. Brown’s heroism during the sinking of the Titanic* finally wins over the snobs of Denver and wins back her husband. The score’s break-out hit was Molly’s anthem “I Ain’t Down Yet.” The Broadway production was a triumph for Tammy Grimes, as the 1964 film version was for Debbie Reynolds.

The infamous ocean liner moved center stage in Titanic* (1997, stage; 1997, 1999, 2000 films), with book and lyrics by Peter Stone and music by Maury Yeston. In act 1 the crew exults in staffing the largest moving object in the world, the first class toasts their prosperity and the wonders of technology, the second class explores exciting new social options, and the third class anticipates the opportunities that await in America. The act 1 finale is instrumental, with the stage converted to a moonless sea and a model of the ship sailing toward the iceberg. The tone of act 2 is darker, moving from doubt, to horror and panic, then finally to acceptance and elegy. The act opens with the crew waking up the passengers when the ship collides with the iceberg and moves through the boarding of the lifeboats, to the reflections of those left on board, including the ship’s architect, who reviews his drawings and envisions the final moments before the ship sinks. An epilogue turns to the survivors aboard the S.S. Carpathia, who remember the dead. A stunning finale reunites the living and the dead in a visionary restaging of the ship’s disembarking. The original Broadway production featured a cast of forty-three and an ingenious set by Stewart Laing which showed several decks of the ship simultaneously in a variety of flexible arrangements.

On a lighter note, At Home Abroad (1935) was a lighthearted revue featuring music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz. The around-the-world cruise of Otto and Henrietta Hatrick served as an excuse for a series of songs and sketches featuring Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, Eleanor Powell, Reginald Gardiner, and Eddie Foy Jr. in a variety of exotic settings. Under the direction of Vincent Minnelli, Lillie repeated her classic sketch about a tongue-tied London shopper and also played a Russian ballerina, a geisha girl, and the wife of an Alpine guide; Waters sang “Hottentot Potentate,” “Thief in the Night,” and “Loadin’ Time”; and Powell played a high-hatted, tap-dancing Eton boy and a Samoan beauty.

An ocean crossing is also featured in the nonmusical play Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1946). Adapted by Jean Kerr from the 1942 book of the same name by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, the play depicts the European adventures of the original coauthors. Acts 1 and 2 take place aboard ship. After evading Cornelia’s parents and learning how to deal with the ship’s staff, the young women overcome their fear of shipwreck, unwittingly catch a stowaway, win a talent competition, share their sink with the eccentric British ladies from next door, and meet two college men. Act 3 brings their adventures to a dizzying end in Paris. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA; RICE, ELMER]

FURTHER READING: Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals: Show by Show. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 1985; Leonard, William Torbert. Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television, Volume 2: M-Z. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1981.

Brian T. Carney