Anything Goes is a farce set below decks on an ocean liner bound for London from New York. The original idea came from producer Vinton Freedley, who was living on a boat, having left the US to avoid his creditors. He selected the writing team, and the star, Ethel Merman. The first draft of the show was called Crazy Week, which became Hard to Get, and finally Anything Goes. Hard to Get was set on a mid-ocean liner that was in danger, but, just a few weeks before the show was due to open, a fire on board the passenger ship SS Morro Castle caused the deaths of 137 passengers and crew. According to one version, Freedley judged that to proceed with a show on a similar subject would be in dubious taste and he insisted on changes to the script. But theatre historian Lee Davis maintains that Freedley wanted the script changing because it was "a hopeless mess." Bolton and Wodehouse were no longer available, so Freedley turned to his director, Howard Lindsay, who recruited Russel Crouse as his collaborator, beginning a lifelong writing partnership. The roles of Billy Crocker and Moonface Martin were written for the well-known comedy team, William Gaxton and Victor Moore, and Gaxton's talent for assuming various disguises was featured in the libretto.
According to theatre legend, the show's new title, along with the title number, was born from the haste with which the show was revamped: at a late-night production meeting, an exasperated and over-worked member of the production team cried out "And just how in the hell are we going to end the first act?" "At this point," responded one of the producers, being more helpful than he realized, "anything goes!"
Three versions of the libretto of Anything Goes exist: the original 1934 libretto, the 1962 revival libretto, and the 1987 revival libretto. The story has been revised, though all involve similar romantic complications aboard the S.S. American and feature the same major characters. The score has been altered, with some songs cut and others reassigned to different scenes and characters, and augmented with various Porter songs from other shows.
Billy Crocker, a young Wall Street broker, has fallen in love with a beautiful girl he met in a taxi. His boss, Elisha J. Whitney, is preparing to make a business deal and is going to travel to London aboard the S.S. "American". Evangelist turned nightclub singer Reno Sweeney will be traveling aboard the same ship. Even though Reno and Billy are just friends, she tells him "I Get A Kick Out Of You." Billy goes to the dock to bid "Bon Voyage" to his boss and Reno and glimpses the mysterious girl. She is heiress Hope Harcourt and, escorted by her mother, Mrs. Harcourt, is on her way to England with her fiancé Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, an attractive but stuffy and hapless British nobleman. Billy stows away on the ship in hopes of winning Hope's heart. "Moonface" Martin, a second-rate [gangster] labeled "Public Enemy 13", and his friend Bonnie (Erma in 1987) have disguised themselves as a minister and a missionary and innocently aided by Billy, board the ship under their assumed identities, stranding the ship's real chaplain back at the port. Moonface and Bonnie mistakenly leave behind their leader, "Snake Eyes" Johnson, Public Enemy 1.
To thank Billy, Bonnie and Moonface let him have Snake Eyes Johnson's passport and ticket without telling him to whom they belong. Billy convinces Sir Evelyn that he is quite seasick and when he goes below deck, Billy and Hope meet again and realize each has been thinking of the other "All Through The Night". Though Hope prefers Billy, she insists she must marry Evelyn, not revealing to Billy her family's company is in financial trouble and a marriage to Evelyn would promote a merger and save the company. The ship's crew gets a cable from New York saying that Public Enemy 1 is on board. Moonface admits his true identity to Billy and he and Bonnie conspire to disguise Billy as a crew member since he is now presumed to be Snake Eyes Johnson.
A quartet of sailors proclaim that "There'll Always Be a Lady Fair" waiting on shore for each of them. On deck, Bonnie proclaims, "Where Are the Men?," attracting a group of sailors. She returns to Billy and Moonface with a sailor suit.
Hope discusses her impending marriage with Evelyn and discovers that he is not particularly pleased with the engagement either. Billy asks Reno to help separate Evelyn and Hope, and she agrees. Billy and Reno declare to each other, "You're the Top". Reno flirts with Evelyn, who invites her for a drink in his cabin. She and Moon plot that Moon should burst into the cabin and discover Reno half-naked in Evelyn's arms, providing sufficient reason for breaking off the engagement. However, when Moon breaks into the room, machine gun in tow, he instead sees Reno fully-dressed and Evelyn nearly undressed. Moon tries to invent some indecent explanation for the situation, but Evelyn insists that he would be quite pleased by any rumor depicting him as a passionate lover, especially if Hope heard it. Moon admits that the plot has failed.
The crew has caught on to Billy's sailor disguise, and Moon and Reno create a new disguise for him from a stolen pair of trousers, a drunk's jacket, and hair cut from Mrs. Harcourt's Pomeranian and made into a beard. Reno tells Billy that Evelyn has kissed her, and she is sure she will be Lady Oakleigh soon since nowadays "Anything Goes". Mrs. Harcourt, recognizing her dog's hair, angrily pulls off Billy's beard and the crew and passengers realize he must be the wanted man. As Snake Eyes Johnson, Billy is an instant celebrity.