CULTURE & ARTS
AUFBAU 65:6 March 19, 1999 p. 13
New Targets for Irving Berlin's Annie Oakley
1195 words by Leonard Lehrman
In 1945, fresh from their collaboration with Sigmund Romberg on his final Broadway show, the smash hit operetta on Boss Tweed, Up in Central Park, Dorothy Fields and her brother Herbert approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein with the idea of a new musical starring Ethel Merman as the legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley. It was immediately apparent to everyone that this would be a shot that could not miss. Occupied with projects of their own at the time, R&H nevertheless agreed to produce it, and approached Hammerstein's former collaborator (on Show Boat, Sweet Adeline, Sunny, and Music in the Air), Jerome Kern, to write the music.
Three days after Kern returned to New York from Hollywood, where he had been living, he collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage, from which he would not recover. The task fell to a Russian Jewish immigrant who was at first reluctant, but would create the greatest theatrical success of his career: Irving Berlin, _ne_ Izzy Baline, best remembered as both lyricist and composer for his secularized American holiday songs, from "Easter Parade" to "White Christmas"--along with "God Bless America." (Still later he would also give Emma Lazarus' poem "The Colossus" its classic setting: "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.")
In the 1946 Annie Get Your Gun, said Ethel Merman (nee Zimmerman), "Irving Berlin made a lady out of me"--by which she meant not only did he give her ballads to belt out like "You Can't Get A Man With A Gun," "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," and "I Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night" (slightly indebted perhaps to the Gershwins' "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess); there were also the lyrical "They Say It's Wonderful" and the crooning "Lost In His Arms." For Annie's competition and love interest Frank Butler, performed by Ray Middleton in his first hit since Kern's 1933 Roberta, Berlin wrote "The Girl That I Marry" (a direct inspiration for Leonard Bernstein's later "A Quiet Girl") and "My Defenses Are Down."
There was also a minor love interest provided by forgettable characters singing "I'll Share It All With You" and "Who do You Love, I Hope." In the 1966 revival with Merman (which some unkindly branded "Granny Get Your Gun"), the subplot--together with their numbers-- was excised, and Berlin came up with a new contrapuntal tour de force duet for Annie and Frank: "An Old-Fashioned Wedding," to complement the already classic "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better."
In the current revival at the Marquis Theatre, Barry and Fran Weissler present Broadway's reigning musical star, Bernadette Peters in Merman's role, with television star Tom Wopat co-starring as Butler. Peters does not try to fill Merman's shoes, but neither does she disappoint, cocking her head slightly to one side with her little-girl persona, observing, mocking, and enjoying herself and the material to the hilt, often playing with various country diva styles, accompanied by a knowing parodical wink.
The book has been rewritten, not so much for her as for today's audiences, by Peter Stone, author of such classic musical theater books as Kean, 1776, Two by Two, Sugar, and Titanic. The effort, largely successful, seems to have been to un-date rather than up-date (or re-date) the work, a technique first used extensively in the 1960s for works of the '30s and '40s, but probably as old as revival itself.
"There's No Business Like Show Business," which has virtually become Broadway's theme song, and was almost cut from the original show because of uncertainties as to where to put it, has now been placed at the very beginning, so as to frame the entire saga as a play within a play, presented as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
The subplot lovers have been restored (a smiling Nicole Ruth Snelson and a devoted Andrew Palermo) along with their musical numbers. Dolly Tate (a valiant Valerie Wright), Frank's would-be mate, as the designated villainess, is made the butt of slapstick misogynist humor. This is surprising, since anything that might have offended Native Americans seems to have been carefully deleted or rewritten, prompting some of the most interesting sociological discussion aroused by Broadway in years:
Consciousness of the feelings of Americans with pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere ancestry has not yet permeated U.S. sports fans, who still cheer on the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and Washington Redskins, as if those names were savage [animals like Bulls, Bears or Tigers]. But in New York, at least, much of the nonsense from the "Ugg-a-Wugg" number in the current revival of Peter Pan is gone, and so is the entire delightful song "I'm an Indian Too" from this Annie Get Your Gun. It seems that Peter Stone, who is after all not a lyricist, simply threw up his hands at rewriting silly lyrics which might now be considered demeaning, like replacing "Hatchet-Face" with more authentic names like "Crazy Horse," or whatever.
The loss is noticeable, for there is no longer any musico-dramatic cementing of the important plot development in which Chief Sitting Bull adopts the cheerily wild Annie as his daughter. Then again, perhaps nothing is better than something poorly-executed--Leon Kirchner's opera Lily after Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King died, as we mentioned last issue, at least in part because of the nonsense- syllables he had patronizingly strung together rather than undertaking any scholarly work on real African languages to represent the black African characters.
Another oddity of our time reflected in the audience reaction, which is by and large extremely favorable (the matinee we attended brought a standing ovation), is the complete lack of laughter--only total silence-- at one of the funniest verses in "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly":
"My little baby brother Who's never read a book Knows one sex from the other: All he had to do was look!"
To a public obsessed by pornography on the Internet and explicit sex in the headlines, the horrors of pedophilia seem to have frightened off the expression of any enjoyment whatsoever of such "natural" humor.
On the other hand, the all-male "My Defenses Are Down" is staged and choreographed by Graciela Daniele and Jeff Calhoun as a send-up of hot, suggestive Bob Fosse-type numbers that Annie Get Your Gun originally predated by at least a decade. Yet no one seems to mind.
With the order of the numbers scrambled, the bucolic "I Got the Sun in the Morning" ends up incongruously performed with European aristocrats. Unmiked (and therefore often barely heard) solo violinist Todd Reynolds is brought onstage for an Irish jig with the star in order to bring the atmosphere of the number back "down home."
Quirks and oddities aside, though, this is a major revival of a major work with a major star, joyously entertaining on several levels, and definitely worth taking the whole family to see. It is ably conducted by Marvin Laird, whose next show, opening later this year, bears the provocative title: Jewsical. Now that will be a difficult trick to pull off without offending anybody!
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