Keeping Score: Annie Get Your Gun

Jason Carr
Saturday, February 17, 2024

We can’t think of this show without humming Irving Berlin’s score, yet he was a late addition to the project says Jason Carr, who explores the composer’s enduring foray into the narrative musical

Rachel Tucker, 2003 concert (photo: Danny Kaan)
Rachel Tucker, 2003 concert (photo: Danny Kaan)

‘The average United States citizen is perfectly epitomised in Irving Berlin’s music... Both the typical Yankee and the Berlin tune have humour, originality, pace and popularity; both are sometimes a little loud, but what might unsympathetically be mistaken for brass, is really gold. In short, what I really want to say, is that Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.’

These comments, by Show Boat composer Jerome Kern, are even more astonishing when we realise they were written in 1924 when Berlin was only 36 – 18 years before the world’s biggest-selling single ‘White Christmas’, and over 20 years before he would write his stage masterpiece Annie Get Your Gun.

When five-year-old Russian-Jewish Izzy Baline arrived in New York in 1893, he spoke only Yiddish, yet would develop a playful and idiomatic English that would become the envy of any lyricist. Despite never learning to read music and only playing the piano (badly, by ear) in the key of F sharp, his music demonstrates a sophisticated sense of harmony and structure, as well as his celebrated melodic gift.

Berlin would produce over 1,500 songs in his long career, while chief among his stage musicals is Annie Get Your Gun. Irreplaceable as his superlative score now seems, it is amazing to learn he was a late addition to the project. Herbert Fields, who co-wrote the book with his sister Dorothy, had recently penned three hit shows with Cole Porter for Broadway star Ethel Merman. It was Fields’s brainwave to star ‘the Merm’ as sharp-shooting Annie Oakley and he persuaded Rodgers and Hammerstein to join the project as producers. The music was to be by Jerome Kern.

Tragically, Kern took the train from California to discuss the show, and shockingly suffered a fatal collapse on the streets of New York. Nonetheless, Rodgers and Hammerstein remained committed to the show and approached Berlin to write the score. Berlin professed to being nervous both about ‘writing hillbilly’ and tailoring songs for what he called ‘a situation show’ (meaning a narrative musical in the manner de rigueur since Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! of 1943). However, Rodgers and Hammerstein reassured him that ‘situations’ were in fact a great stimulus to finding ideas for songs, and that ‘substituting a few cain’t’s for cant’s’ would be all that was required for the requisite hickory-smoke flavour.

Berlin took a week to think about it, re-emerging with sketches of half-a-dozen miraculous songs, including ‘Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly’, ‘They Say it’s Wonderful’ and our industry’s anthem-to-be: ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’.

Opening in 1946, Annie Get Your Gun was an immediate smash, becoming only the second Broadway book musical to run for more than 1,000 performances, and provided Merman with one of her signature roles. The songs are almost relentlessly top-drawer – note the perfectly-placed double and triple rhymes of ‘You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun’, or the heart-breaking falling harmonies that underpin the simple rising melody of ‘I Got Lost in His Arms’.

There are problems in reviving the show: it’s hard now to stomach the sight of a talented woman deliberately losing a shooting contest so as not to humble the preening man she loves; and the portrayal of Native American people is, well, of its time – the song ‘I’m an Indian, Too’ is now unperformable. Nevertheless, the show continues to be frequently revived on every scale. The last Broadway revival in 1999 starred Bernadette Peters and later Reba McEntire. Richard Jones’s 2009 London revival, starring Jane Horrocks and Julian Ovenden, was widely acclaimed for its fresh vision (and featured my own four-piano orchestration, sounding like a western saloon on acid…).

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today