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How Annie Got Her Gun

ART TIMES August 2005

One day in 1945, composer Jerome Kern was summoned to the offices of Rodgers and Hammerstein, now producers as well as composer and lyricist team, and presented with a project. It was called "Annie Get Your Gun" with lyrics and book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields (whose idea it was in the first place). He was suspicious about their not wanting to do the play themselves if it was so promising, but they explained that they did not want to do another western musical after "Oklahoma!"

Kern was busy with a revival of “Show Boat” slated for two months later, and he was worried about his increasingly high blood pressure. Still, he accepted and a short while later, while walking along 57th Street and Park Avenue, he collapsed. With no identification other than a numbered ASCAP card that he had neglected to sign, he was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, where he died without regaining consciousness.

Irving Berlin was then called in by Rodgers and Hammerstein and offered the assignment. Should he accept, the Fields lyrics would be out the window. He claimed he had no idea of how to write Western lyrics, and Hammerstein is reported to have told him that he need only leave the final “g” off participles.

Soon after, Berlin came in with several songs, was congratulated, and asked to come in with more. When he did, they commented that he had not replayed one song they had liked in particular the time before. Berlin said he left it home because they did not seem to respond positively to it the first time. They said they had been thinking of where to place it in the show because it was so good. And so, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was restored — and the rest is musical history.

The original show opened on May 16, 1946 and ran for 1,147 performances. ("Oklahoma!" had run twice as long.) As Mary Martin put it, "New York is Merman's town." Merman brought down the house with one showstopper after the other, supported by baritone Ray Middleton and directed by Joshua Logan. Of the eight major theatre critics at the time, four gave rave reviews and four very good ones. While much of the praise was for Merman herself, critics like Vernon Rice, writing for the "Post," realized that almost every song was a potential classic. In fact, one woman was heard to exclaim during the Lincoln Center revival, "My God, every song's a standard!"

You can read extended excerpts from the opening night reviews in Steven Suskin’s valuable collection, Opening Night on Broadway: a Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, Oklahoma! (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964), published by Schirmer Books.

The plot (which was somewhat modified when revived some decades later) is familiar to all.  A hillbilly girl who lives by "doin' what comes natur'lly" becomes the star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and falls in love with sharpshooter Frank Butler. By the time the curtain comes down, in true rite-of-springtime tradition, love conquers all.

Yes, the original version does have stereotypical views of American Indians in a comic way; but that is part of what the Buffalo Bill show was all about, and leaving these views out (as a recent Broadway version did) distorts the show beyond recognition. (What next? A "Merchant of Venice" with no religious references?)

In a strange way, the Kern-to-Berlin story was repeated when MGM decided to film “Annie Get Your Gun.”  Who else but Judy Garland would even be considered for the title role; and as happens in filmmaking, she pre-recorded all the songs. But her long history of drug use (for which she had MGM itself to thank) and other problems in her life led to her being curtly dismissed. So while Betty Hutton took over (and not too badly, I think), there are still recordings of the Garland soundtrack and two or three rehearsal takes on film.

Still in all, how I would love to pop into an alternate universe to hear “Anne Get Your Gun” with words by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and music by Jerome Kern!

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