Last year, she was country superstar Reba McEntire, but in 2001 , when she stepped into Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway, her name rocketed to the pantheon of great ladies of the American musical theatre.
With the rave reviews, the broadcast media coverage and the overwhelming audience approval, to say nothing of the box office muscle, "Reba" was suddenly up there with "Chita," "Patti" and "Liza."
All good things come to an end — and the Broadway community thinks McEntire has been a very good thing. McEntire sheds the role of Annie Oakley in the Irving Berlin classic after the June 22 evening performance. The Oklahoma native joined the troupe of the revival Jan. 26, making Annie what perhaps she should have been since the original 1946 staging: A country gal.
Bernadette Peters originated the role in this revival in late 1998, thrilling theatre fans. But it was McEntire who made the show popular with a larger, crossover community. "It would appear that she brought a new audience to Broadway — those who followed her career and came to see just her," American Theatre Wing president Roy Somlyo told Playbill On-Line. "I think it's very exciting that she was able to infuse the show with her great personality and talent. What's most significant about it is that it should prove to other stars how tremendous it can be for their own careers — as well as for a Broadway show — if they replace a star in a production. I think other stars should take great note of this."
A sagging Annie Get Your Gun box office in fall 2000 (audiences were at around 63 percent of capacity during Cheryl Ladd's run in the role) exploded in early 2001 (jumping from 64 percent of capacity the week of Jan. 29 to 89 percent Feb. 19-25). Some observers say that despite the shrewd casting, McEntire wasn't automatic box office gold until TV coverage and rave reviews — including a love letter from The New York Times — came along. In the week ending June 17, the Marquis was filled to 96.7 percent of capacity. Somlyo praised McEntire for not merely visiting Broadway, but plunging into it by appearing at fundraisers and benefits, announcing the American Theatre Wing's Tony Award nominees and freely praising the community in her high profile TV interviews. "Here's a woman who has never been on Broadway and fell right into the community," Somlyo said. "She embraced the community, the community embraced her. It was a stroke of genius to get her here."
That stroke of genius came from the producers Barry and Fran Weissler and their casting directors Howie Cherpakov (the Weisslers' in-housing casting man) and Stuart Howard and Amy Schecter (of Stuart Howard Associates). McEntire's name was part of a long list of ideas, Howard told Playbill On-Line.
The Weissslers, who have mounted Grease!, Chicago, Seussical and more on Broadway, have a reputation for plugging stars into their shows, but no Weissler casting tactic has been as successful or as high-profile as putting McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun. The rumors about the "Reba" casting had swirled around the show even during the time of Peters' performance, in 2000, when Fran Weissler was seen in public with the red-headed McEntire.
Casting agent Howard looks back to Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman coming into Hello, Dolly! as previous examples of star recasting on par with the McEntire coup.
"Sometimes things work," Howard told Playbill On-Line. "The fact is, Reba McEntire was super in the role. Better than great. It's one of the best musical comedy performances I've seen in my life. I'd rank it with Channing in Dolly! and Streisand in Funny Girl."
Howard points to the chemistry between McEntire and Brent Barrett, who played her love interest, Frank Butler, as part of the reason for McEntire's success. They both leave the staging June 22 (Barrett re-joins Broadway's Chicago July 2). Stepping into Annie Get Your Gun June 23 are Tom Wopat (this production's original Frank Butler) and Broadway newcomer Crystal Bernard (of TV"s "Wings"). Wopat and Bernard have toured in recent months with the Annie Get Your Gun road company.
McEntire now returns to her country music empire, where she has a large staff and family of performers. McEntire will revisit to the role of Annie Oakley, however: As previously reported, she will star and be a producing partner in a CBS movie musical version of the classic. The project is in development.
Those who have heard the promotional sampler recording of McEntire, or seen her on TV singing "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun" or "I Got Lost in His Arms," have been knocked out by the country-music star's genuine Southern twang, her pipes, her natural ease with the material.
She took on the sharpshooter role previously played in the new revival by Bernadette Peters, Susan Lucci and Cheryl Ladd. Ethel Merman, of course, originated the role, and Betty Hutton played the film.
McEntire began pursuing an acting career in the early '90s, appearing in a string of television movies and the occasional film, often executive producing the TV programs in which she appeared. In the 1995 television film, "Buffalo Girls," McEntire played Annie Oakley.
Graciela Daniele staged Annie Get Your Gun and co choreographed it with Jeff Calhoun. The staging was trimmed and clarified in fall 2000, after Peter left (the entr'acte was cut, as was "I'll Share It All With You"). The book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields was altered by Peter Stone to erase any offensive references to Native Americans.
Annie Get Your Gun was songwriter Irving Berlin's biggest hit, totaling 1,147 performances in its original run. The revival, first seen in fall 1998 in Washington DC before opening on Broadway in 1999, retains most of the 1946 score: "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "Lost in His Arms," "Anything You Can Do," "My Defenses Are Down," "Who Do You Love, I Hope," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "The Girl That I Marry" and more.
The Marquis Theatre is at 1535 Broadway at 45th Street. For information, call (212) 307-4100.