Annie Get Your Gun

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Annie Get Your Gun

Annie Get Your Gun, a popular musical comedy based loosely on the life of the legendary American crack shot and theatrical performer Annie Oakley (1860-1926), opened May 17, 1946 at the Imperial Theater in New York. The show helped complete the postwar transformation of the Broadway musical begun by Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945) from lavish and naughty revues to substantive stories with songs integrated into the plot. Although Annie Get Your Gun lacked the operatic aspirations and social commentary of the two Rodgers and Hammerstein works, the show boasted an Irving Berlin score that set a record for hit songs (nine). Annie Get Your Gun broke no new ground in theatrical tradition, but its color, humor, and enthusiasm have held an irresistible appeal for audiences through the end of the century.

Dorothy and (brother) Herbert Fields specifically wrote their romanticization of Oakley's life as a vehicle for musical comedy starEthel Merman (1909-84). The foul-mouthed Merman was no dainty romantic soprano but squarely in the tradition of great chest wallopers who had transfixed Broadway in the early 1900s. Annie Get Your Gun demanded that she act as well as sing, and Merman responded by turning in one of Broadway's monumental performances. Her health was as legendary as her arrogance and outspokenness, and when she eventually took a vacation after two years of performing, the show's receipts dropped precipitously, and it almost closed. For Merman, Annie Get Your Gun turned out to be an unquestioned personal triumph, consolidating her position as the greatest figure in American musical comedy.

The Fieldses took their idea to the legendary hit-making team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II, who agreed to produce it, and added the esteemed Jerome Kern to write the lyrics. When Kern suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in November 1945, the producers persuaded Irving Berlin (1888-1989) to replace him. Berlin was initially reluctant to enter the unknown territory of a musical with a plot; he hadn't written a Broadway show in four years, and the theatrical form with which he was most closely associated—the revue—was in terminal decline. Over a weekend in Atlantic City, Berlin tried to write some songs and came back with three to six hit songs (depending on the source). The deal was signed, and Dorothy Fields obligingly agreed to withdraw as lyricist. Berlin finished the bulk of the score within two months, astounding everyone with his extraordinary virtuosity and the speed with which he composed the new songs. To the roster of classics of the musical theater Berlin added "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "They Say It's Wonderful," "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun," "The Girl That I Marry," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," "Anything You Can Do," "My Defenses Are Down," and "Who Do You Love, I Hope." The show went into rehearsal in March, and Berlin later called it the easiest show he ever worked on.

In Annie Get Your Gun, Annie Oakley's (Merman) ability as a sharpshooter wins her a job in Buffalo Bill's (William O'Neal) Wild West show. Her brilliant shooting offends the masculinity of the show's erstwhile star marksman, handsome baritone Frank Butler (Ray Middleton), and makes a romance between the pair impossible. Butler takes his wounded vanity to a competing vaudeville show, but neither the main characters nor their businesses prosper. A merger is proposed, but the happy ending only arrives when wise old Sitting Bull (Harry Bellaver) gently demonstrates to the naive Oakley that she can easily win the insecure Butler by intentionally losing a shooting competition.

Although critics initially gave Annie Get Your Gun mixed reviews, the show was an instant hit, running for three years and 1,147 performances on Broadway, and quickly assuming a place in the pantheon of great post-World War II musicals such as South Pacific, Brigadoon, Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, and The King and I. The success of Annie Get Your Gun made Irving Berlin a wealthy man and demonstrated the immense potential profitability of postwar Broadway musicals. Berlin's thirty percent share of the proceeds brought him $2500 a week, his music company made $500,000 from selling sheet music of the score, his royalties from the original cast recording exceeded $100,000, and MGM eventually paid $650,000 to Berlin and the Fieldses for the movie rights, a record for a musical. Annie Get Your Gun profitably toured the United States with Mary Martin as the lead and also proved to be a vast international success.

Although Annie Get Your Gun does not lend itself to excessive analysis, the show does capture some of the post-World War II American confusion over gender relations. The war had caused millions of women to enter the work force to replace absent soldiers, and their contributions had undeniably helped the United States win the war. The plot of Annie Get Your Gun was charged with subliminal sexual implications, based upon a woman who used her phallic gun with complete mastery. Ultimately, Oakley discovers "you can't get a man with a gun," and understands that she must deny her superior talent and throw the shooting match in order to assuage Frank's fragile ego and win her man. The ending struck a chord with a society which had greatly elevated women's role both in the world of work and in propaganda during the war, and now was desperately attempting to return to the status quo ante.

The film version (1950) had a troubled history (Judy Garland was fired from the lead role) but eventually earned more than $8 million. The show was revived on its twentieth anniversary in 1966, for which the seventy-eight-year-old Berlin wrote the fifty-eight-year-old Merman a new song, "An Old Fashioned Wedding." This showstopper proved to be the last of Berlin's popular hits. Many of the show's tunes have fallen out of the popular repertoire, but "There's No Business Like Show Business" remains a virtual anthem of performers everywhere and has become one of the most recognizable tunes in American popular music.

—Jon Sterngass

Further Reading:

Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. New York, Penguin, 1990.

Kasper, Shirl. Annie Oakley. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Thomas, Bob. I Got Rhythm! The Ethel Merman Story. New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1985.