How Irving Berlin Turned "The Dullest People In the World" Into Annie Get Your Gun

News   How Irving Berlin Turned "The Dullest People In the World" Into Annie Get Your Gun
Annie Oakley used to sit in her tent and knit, rather than striding through the country with a rifle in hand. So how did Irving Berlin turn that woman into a sharp-tongued heroine in a musical unlike anything he had ever written before?


One of the perks of living to 101 is that after you die, nobody's left to debunk your mythology. By the end of his life, the composer Irving Berlin was more folk hero than human; even The New York Times referred to him as "a reclusive immortal." We'll probably never know whether Berlin actually let his song "God Bless America" languish in a trunk for 20 years, or whether he really knocked out "Anything You Can Do" during a 15-minute cab ride.

Of course, the entire score of Berlin's 1946 masterpiece Annie Get Your Gun inspires disbelief. The musical, which City Center will present in a two-performance concert version starring Megan Hilty, boasts an unmatched string of American standards — from "I Got the Sun in the Morning" to "Doin' What Comes Naturally" to "There's No Business Like Show Business" — all of which radiate the infectious postwar exuberance that Berlin was feeling at the time.

Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman in 1966
Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman in 1966

"During Annie, he was so high," director Joshua Logan recalled. "You couldn't make him depressed; you couldn't say if, and, or but. It would never register with him. I'd say, 'Gee, I'm kind of worried about that spot in the second act.' He'd say, 'That spot in the second act?! Your father should have such a sickness'…All through this thing he kept saying, 'Your father should have such a sickness.' And howling with laughter."

It shouldn't have been so easy for Berlin. By 1946, he was 57 years old — an old-timer by Broadway standards — and had made his fortune writing the sort of plotless revues that Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! would eventually render extinct. Berlin was unaccustomed to writing for character and was dogged by "the damnedest feeling of inferiority" to younger composers, sometimes becoming blocked for years at a time. Even when he was able to write, it didn't always come naturally. "I sweat blood between 3 and 6 many mornings," admitted the lifelong insomniac, "and when the drops that fall off my forehead hit the paper, they're notes." So how to explain the ease with which Annie Get Your Gun flowed forth? Some backstory: near the end of the war, Herbert and Dorothy Fields had come up with the idea of a musical about the rivalry and romance between famed sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. The script was unapologetically fraudulent because, according to Dorothy Fields, the historical duo "were about the dullest people in the world. Annie Oakley in real life used to sit in her tent and knit, for God's sake."

Irving Berlin was a hasty replacement for the show's original composer, Jerome Kern, who had collapsed on Park Avenue of a cerebral hemorrhage Nov. 5, 1945. Though Berlin had qualms about doing the show — he doubted his ability to write "hillbilly music" and disliked the idea of working within a set narrative — he began writing Nov. 14 and had polished off most of the score by Dec. 4, according to the dated manuscripts in Berlin's Library of Congress papers.

Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman

Possibly this was because the Fieldses had done so much of the work for him. Berlin closely followed the song cues in their script, and swiped two of their suggested song titles almost verbatim — "You Can't Get a Feller with a Gun!" and "They Tell Me It's Wonderful." In what would soon become a practice among Broadway composers, Berlin even cribbed bits of dialogue for use in his songs — including Frank Butler's description of his ideal woman as "pink and soft," which Berlin inverted for "The Girl That I Marry."

However, the song placement has a wit and sophistication that seems to have been Berlin's own. His enduring anthem about the dingy realities of working in the theatre, "There's No Business Like Show Business," was written to cover a set change. (In their script, the Fieldses had simply indicated a "quartette" for Annie, Frank, Buffalo Bill and Charlie Davenport, adding, "As they sing the Traveler [curtain] closes behind them.") And Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick has singled out "They Say It's Wonderful" as a marvel of subtle characterization, with its lyric "I can't recall who said it / I know I never read it." As Harnick explained, "Of course Annie Oakley had never read it: In the show, she's illiterate. And I thought that was such good writing: It's a specific character lyric which means something in the show but it can also be understood out of context."

Berlin would pooh-pooh the notion of the "integrated musical" for the remainder of his life. "It wouldn't be hard to integrate any of the songs from My Fair Lady in another show," he once said. "One of the characters gets the urge to dance all night and there you go."

Still, as Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel points out, Annie Get Your Gun is "an interesting hybrid. The show was being produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who cared deeply about the integrated musical. I'm sure there were some interesting discussions, and maybe even arguments, between Berlin and the producers — who were not only as powerful as Berlin, but undoubtedly his equal as songwriters. I think that one way or another, they led Berlin down the road of the integrated musical to the greatest degree possible."

Megan Hilty
Megan Hilty

Others have speculated that Berlin wrote with such unprecedented inventiveness because he had something to prove to Rodgers. "Dick and Irving had the greatest mutual respect," said Jay Blackton, who conducted the original production. "But they were not soul mates. I could feel this tug…I would say Irving Berlin wrote this tremendous score not just for himself but for Richard Rodgers." Berlin compulsively brought up the record sales of "White Christmas" when Rodgers was around, and he seems to have written "Anything You Can Do" in a spasm of oneupsmanship after Rodgers suggested that the second act include a "challenge" duet between Annie and Frank. "Challenge!" Berlin bellowed. "Of course! Meeting over!" Within an hour, he was warbling the melody to Joshua Logan over the phone.

Annie Get Your Gun may not have revolutionized the art form as Oklahoma! did, but the original Broadway production was an enormous hit that has proven influential in its own way. "I remember leaving the Imperial Theatre starry-eyed," Jerry Herman said in 1985, "because I was in the presence of what to me is the strongest single force you could have in a musical, a great, larger-than-life lady on the stage. It changed my life."

That "lady" was originally Ethel Merman, of course, but Annie Oakley has since been played by performers as varied as Bernadette Peters, Reba McEntire and Deborah Voigt. "A fine libretto, wonderful music, a role full of vitality can make milestones in the careers of entirely different personalities in the theatre," wrote Mary Martin, who played Annie Oakley on the first national tour. "Annie was one of those roles."

The odds are that it will be one of those roles for Megan Hilty, who is returning to City Center for the Annie Get Your Gun concerts three years after starring in the smash Encores! production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "In a conversation with our casting director, Megan's name came up immediately," says Viertel. "I mentioned the idea to [New York City Center President & CEO] Arlene Shuler, who okayed it instantly and enthusiastically. Then the only questions became: would Megan want to do it, and would she be available to do it? Well, yes, and yes."

Matt Weinstock writes for the publications at New York City Center.

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