About this Recording
8.120790 - BERLIN: Annie Get Your Gun (Original Broadway Cast) (1946) / (Original Film) (1950)

Annie Get Your Gun
Original 1946 Broadway Cast and 1950 Film Soundtrack
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin

Annie Get Your Gun began, like many of the greatest musicals, with a series of unexpected events – some happy, some not.

Dorothy Fields was a woman at loose ends early in 1945. Her latest show, Up In Central Park, had opened on 27 January, and although the book she wrote with her brother Herbert and her own lyrics had both been warmly received, she felt restless.

Her good buddy Ethel Merman was depressed after the recent closing of her first flop, Sadie Thompson, and wanted Fields to write a new show for her. Dorothy was willing, but couldn’t come up with a single idea.

One night, she was wandering around Broadway with Herbert when they passed by one of those shooting galleries where the sharpeyed and steady-handed can win stuffed animals by the score. A young GI on leave was doing just that and his lady love was positively weighed down with a plush menagerie.

‘That might make a cute story,’ suggested Herbert.

‘Why does it always have to be the man who’s the marksman?’ bristled Dorothy. ‘Haven’t they ever heard of Annie Oakley?’

She stopped dead in her tracks.

‘Oh my God! Annie Oakley. The Merm.’

That’s all she had to say. It had only been fifteen years since Merman made her Broadway debut in Girl Crazy, but she was already an icon, with hits like “Anything Goes” and “DuBarry Was A Lady” to her credit.

Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley: it was an idea that everyone adored. Merman was the first to sign on. Then Rodgers and Hammerstein agreed to produce. Jerome Kern offered to write the score and Joshua Logan was set to direct.

There actually was an Annie Oakley, by the way. She was a farm girl from Iowa and her real name was Annie Moses but she adopted ‘Oakley’ as her stage name. She fell in love with her rival (who really was named Frank Butler) and they toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show from 1880 to 1901.

Annie Oakley, as the team originally called their show,was set to go into rehearsal early in 1946.

Then, on 4 November 1945,Kern suffered a stroke, dying a week later.

The interesting thing is how no one thought of abandoning the show; they all felt the initial concept was that solid.

Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to start their search for a replacement at the top – with Irving Berlin, a man who had been riding high since he wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911.

The canny Berlin liked the show’s book as well as the idea of composing for Merman, but he shared his worries with Oscar Hammerstein.

‘Annie is a hillbilly and I’ve never written country music in my life. I wouldn’t know where to start.’

Hammerstein dryly suggested that all Berlin had to do was drop the final ‘g’ from his lyrics and he’d do just fine.

Berlin wasn’t convinced, but he vowed to try. In the dead of winter, he went off to Atlantic City for a weekend and came back with five songs: Doin’ What Comes Naturally, You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, The Girl That I Marry, They Say It’s Wonderful and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Needless to say, the show went ahead with Berlin as its songwriter.

Merman got a strong leading man to play Frank Butler when they cast Ray Middleton. At that point he was a seasoned Broadway veteran with shows like Roberta, Knickerbocker Holiday and Winged Victory to his credit as well as the distinction of having been the first actor ever to play Superman. (In a 1940 radio broadcast at the World’s Fair.)

Director Logan so admired their chemistry together that he suggested Berlin write them a challenge song. He did during a 5-minute cabride and the result was Anything You Can Do.

They changed the title to Annie Get Your Gun, and rehearsals proved to be a joy. The out of town tryout was a love-fest and only two problems occurred. Berlin was unhappy with the original orchestrations of Ted Royal, so both Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang had to be enlisted to save the day.

The other difficulty happened when they were hanging the lavish scenery of Jo Mielziner in the Imperial Theatre just prior to the New York opening. A structural beam snapped from the weight and they had to delay the show two weeks to fix it. They quickly booked it into Philadelphia and buffed it to a high gloss.

Opening night on Broadway was 16 May 1946 and the critical reviews were love letters for Merman. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times astonishingly derided Berlin’s songs as ‘undistinguished’, which is surely one of the bad judgment calls of all time.

The show went on to run 1147 performances and when someone told Berlin it was oldfashioned, he had the last word.

‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘It’s a good oldfashioned smash.’

The show was recorded on the Decca label in May of 1946, under the direction of the Broadway conductor, Jay Blackton. Merman and Middleton recreated their roles, of course, as did the three backup singers on Moonshine Lullaby, including a 24 year-old Leon Bibb,who went on to a substantial career as a folk-singer and a Tony-nominated Broadway actor.

The young juveniles,Tommy and Winnie, who sing Who Do You Love, I Hope were played on Broadway by Kenny Bowers and Betty Ann Nyman, both known as dancers rather than singers. They’re replaced on this recording by the studio-savvy voices of vocal coach Robert Lenn and big band singer Kathleen Carnes. This was a not uncommon move from Decca’s boss Jack Kapp, who liked all voices in his recordings to be ‘first-rate’. Kapp also frequently left out a show’s Overture so that as many songs as possible could fit on a 78 rpm album. That’s what happened with Annie Get Your Gun, but in its place you'll find a 1950 medley recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.

The 1950 film version of Annie Get your Gun is best remembered now for the fact that Judy Garland actually began production in the leading role and even pre-recorded her vocal tracks. But this was during the period when Garland’s abuse of prescription drugs was getting the best of her and she cracked under the strain of delivering another big hit musical.

Production was closed down for four months and when it resumed, the perky Betty Hutton, best known for her comic skills,was playing Annie. Big-voiced Howard Keel, discovered by producer Arthur Freed in the London production of Oklahoma!,was an appropriate foil for her as Frank Butler.

Hutton brings a friskier, funnier quality to Annie than Merman did, but anyone following in Ethel’s considerable footprints will fail to duplicate the same socko effect of the original – something which obviously contributed to Garland’s neurosis.

Also heard on the selections featured from the original soundtrack recording are actors Keenan Wynn (Charlie) and Louis Calhern (Buffalo Bill).

Another bonus on this recording is the 1953 duet of Merman and Mary Martin singing There’s No Business Like Show Business, from the legendary television spectacular, The Ford 50th Anniversary Special.

Martin played Annie in the first national American tour of the show and later starred opposite John Raitt in the 1957 NBC-TV version of it.

There’s No Business Like Show Business has classic status today, but this legendary anthem of Broadway was nearly lost to us forever. The hyper-sensitive Berlin thought Logan and Rodgers hadn’t showed enough enthusiasm for the song at an early meeting, and so he instructed his secretary to destroy it.

Fortunately for everyone, she was a bit slow at her job and when cooler heads prevailed, the manuscript was still safe and the song went on to thrill audiences to this day.

A fitting coda to a show that may have needed some time to take aim, but sure knew how to hit the bull’s-eye in the end.

Richard Ouzounian

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