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How Annie Got Her Gun

ART TIMES March 2008

Stranger things might have happened in the history of the musical theatre. However, the story of how “Annie Get Your Gun” came to be makes one really wish to enter a parallel universe and see how a certain musical COULD have turned out.

After Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II made enough money from “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” they were able to become producers as well as a words-and-music team. In 1945, they were approached by lyricist Dorothy Field, who told them of a possible show written by her and her brother Herb about Annie Oakley. When she suggested Ethel Merman in the title role, R&H were enthusiastic. Further, Dorothy told them, if Jerome Kern would do the music, she would do the lyrics.

Although in poor health, Kern agreed to leave Hollywood and discuss matters with R&H in New York City. If he wondered why Rodgers and Hammerstein did not do the show themselves, they might have given him two reasons. First of all, they were simply too busy producing. Second, they did not want people to say they were repeating themselves if they did another western after “Oklahoma!”

More or less committed to composing the show, Kern was walking down a Manhattan street on November 11, 1945, when he collapsed. Having no identification other than his Equity card, which had only his number, he was taken to City Hospital on Welfare Island, where he passed away without regaining consciousness. And with him passed away “Annie Get Your Gun” with a score by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Field.

It was time for a second choice and Irving Berlin was mentioned. Although they thought that he probably would not pick up a project that he did not start, they nevertheless asked him. Berlin had great respect for Kern and naturally was reluctant to “step into his shoes.” He also knew that his last book show had been “Louisiana Purchase” back in 1939 and that his strength lay more in musical reviews and hit singles.

When he protested that he knew nothing about writing hillbilly or western lyrics, legend has it that Hammerstein countered with “All you have to do is drop the g’s”! The book by the Fields, by the way, remained intact and Berlin said he garnered many an idea for lyrics from it.

Berlin went ahead and composed several songs, which he sang for them. They told him to go ahead with more. When he returned, he played them all again—all except one that had been designed to cover a scenery change behind the curtain. When they asked him why he had left it out, he replied that they did not seem too impressed when he played it the first time.

Although we will never know the exact words they gave as explanation, they did say it impressed them very much indeed and would he please restore it? What song? “There’s no business like show business”—nothing less than the unofficial anthem of actors all over the world.

During rehearsals, director Josh Logan said the show needed another duet, perhaps a sort of “contest” song.” Berlin left abruptly and called back very shortly afterwards. He had written the lyrics for “Anything you can do” in a taxi home.

The show opened on May 16, 1946 and stayed around for 1,304 performances. Of the 19 Berlin songs, several became hits then and still remain so: “Doin’ what comes naturally,” “The girl that I marry,” “They say it’s wonderful,” “Anything you can do,” and of course “There’s no business like show business.”

The 1950 film version was first shot with Judy Garland as Annie, but her physical and emotional problems made life impossible for all concerned. Betty Hutton, a far less subtle singer, was put in her place and the Garland soundtrack was put into vaults. It is now restored to CDs for those who want to hear yet another might-have-been.

When Merman appeared 20 years later in the 1966 revival, the show had lost its secondary lovers, Tommy and Winnie, along with their “Who do you love, I hope,” had become a little more Politically Correct concerning native Americans, and had picked up a new ballad, “An old-fashioned wedding.” (One wonders how modern audiences feel about the sentiments expressed in “The girl that I marry”! Perhaps that too will be dropped in some future productions.)

Given all this, one can only speculate what Kern would have done with the original Dorothy Field lyrics. In fact, I wonder if those lyrics are extant someplace in some archive. They would make fascinating reading.

The “original cast” recording of “Annie Get Your Gun” consists mostly of all the songs in which Merman had a part. A later EMI CD has Kim Criswell in a very full version of the score. Both are much recommended.

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