After Rodgers and Hammerstein became producers of their own shows, they also began producing the work of others. From 1944 until 1952 they produced six plays—mostly written by friends like John Steinbeck, Samuel Taylor, and Anita Loos—and one musical. The idea of that musical came to them from Herbert and Dorothy Fields: a show about Annie Oakley, starring Ethel Merman. They liked the idea right away, and were happy to sign on with the proposed writing team: the Fields siblings doing the book, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Jerome Kern.
But when Kern came east to begin work, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. In a moment of producorial genius, they thought of turning the score over to Irving Berlin, a colleague who might well have seemed an odd choice. He did write musicals, but that wasn’t what he was best known for. Mostly his songs were for the popular repertoire, not for the character and dramatic specifics of the musical theatre. Berlin’s early work included a spectrum of ethnic-influenced material—“Abie Sings An Irish Song,” “Sweet Italian Love,” “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars”—and he had become America’s greatest writer of popular songs with emotionally rich subjects: “Always,” “Blue Skies,” and the like.
Instinct told Rodgers and Hammerstein to give Berlin a try, and so they did. He responded well, creating songs in a very specific vernacular with great theatrical flair. And also gave show business one of its great anthems with “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
The end result, which opened May 16, 1946, and ran 1,147 performances (listen to the original cast album on Spotify here), was the most successful of the shows R&H produced but didn’t write. And at first it was their possessive title across the top. Years later, when Rodgers produced the show at the nascent Music Theater of Lincoln Center, Irving Berlin took over the possessive credit.
It’s a work that has endured in the musical theatre’s classic repertoire. March 4, 1999, saw the opening of a new revival produced by Barry and Fran Weissler, which starred the irrepressible Bernadette Peters, who won a Tony Award (listen to the cast album of that production on Spotify here). As replacements came in over the course of the 1,045-performance run, pay dirt was struck when country music star Reba McEntire made a sensational Broadway debut playing the role with a genuine Oklahoma honesty and twang that won everyone over. She should have been given a special Tony Award for her performance. Period.