Annie Oakley is the best shot around, and she manages to support her
little brother and sisters by selling the game she hunts. When she's
discovered by Col. Buffalo Bill, he persuades this novel sharpshooter to
join his Wild West Show. It only takes one glance for her to fall head
over heels for dashing shooting ace Frank Butler, who headlines the
show. She soon eclipses Butler as the main attraction which, while good
for business, is bad for romance. Butler hightails it off to join a
rival show, his bruised male ego leading the way, but is ultimately
pitted against Annie in a final shoot-out. The rousing, sure-fire finale
hits the mark every time in a testament to the power of female
The idea of doing a musical based on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley originated with Dorothy Fields in the mid 1940s, who never considered anyone but her friend Ethel Merman for the lead. (By this time Herbert and Dorothy Fields had co-authored four musicals for Merman, the most recent being Something For The Boys in 1943). Merman instantly agreed to take on the show, but when the Fields’ longtime producer Mike Todd turned the project down, they took it to a team of producers who, though novices in the field of producing, knew a thing or two about musicals nevertheless—Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Having scored with two folk American musicals of their own (Oklahoma! and Carousel), Rodgers & Hammerstein were all too happy to sign on as producers of what was originally called Annie Oakley. Hammerstein's longtime partner Jerome Kern was to write the music, Dorothy Fields the lyrics, and Dorothy and Herbert were to co-author the book. Jerome Kern's sudden death in November of 1945 changed everything.
Rather than scuttle plans for Annie Oakley, Rodgers, Hammerstein and the Fields turned instead towards finding the right team or person to take on the job of writing the score. All four felt unanimously that there was one person absolutely right for the job, but since he wrote words as well as music, Dorothy Fields would have to relinquish her role as lyricist. She had no trouble making her decision—if Irving Berlin would write the score for Annie Oakley, Dorothy Fields would happily step aside.
Irving Berlin had not written for Broadway since Louisiana Purchase in 1940, and, fresh from a patriotic three year stint with his revue This Is The Army, he was at first skeptical that his unique style was still in fashion. The musical revolution that Rodgers & Hammerstein had fomented with Oklahoma! changed the rules, and Berlin wasn’t sure he wanted to play by them. Still, it made sense when Rodgers & Hammerstein suggested that Berlin borrow the script, look at it over the weekend and see if he couldn't come up with a tune or two.
Berlin took their advice and the following Monday morning he came bounding into their office with three completed songs under his arms: "You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun," "Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly," and "There’s No Business Like Show Business." Bullseye again.
Directed by Joshua Logan, with sets by Jo Mielziner and costumes by Lucinda Ballard, starring Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley and Ray Middleton as Frank Butler, and with a rousing new title, Annie Get Your Gun opened at the Imperial Theatre, New York, on May 16, 1946. It was a smash success and the critics cheered.
"For verve and buoyancy, unslackening, there has seldom if ever been a show like it," said William Hawkins in the World Telegram. In the Post Vernon Rice declared "Irving Berlin has outdone himself this time. No use trying to pick a hit tune, for all the tunes are hits." Lewis Nichols of the New York Times modestly maintained that "it takes little gift of prophecy to add that [Annie Get Your Gun and Ethel Merman] will chant their saga of sharp-shooting for many months to come." In fact, Annie Get Your Gun ran on Broadway for an astounding 1,147 performances. (The first musical after Oklahoma! to go over the 1000+ performance plateau, Annie Get Your Gun was, along with Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I, part of the elite quartet of longest running musicals in Broadway's golden era.)
Dolores Gray starred in the 1947 London production, which ran at the Coliseum for 1,304 performances. Mary Martin headed the U.S. national tour, which began in October of 1947 and travelled for nineteen months; she subsequently played Annie to John Raitt's Ray Butler in a 1957 NBC telecast. MGM released the movie version of Annie Get Your Gun in 1956; Betty Hutton starred (in a role originally slated for Judy Garland), and Howard Keel played Butler.
In 1966 Ethel Merman re-created her role in a Music Theater of Lincoln Center production, presented by Richard Rodgers. Irving Berlin wrote a new song for this production, "An Old Fashioned Wedding."
In the years since, hundreds of actresses have played Annie Oakley, from Paris (Annie Du Far-West) to Berlin (Schiess Los, Annie!), from Evi Hayes in Melbourne, Australia to Chiemi Eri in Tokyo, Japan. Annie Get Your Gun has been seen in Kuala Lumpur, Zimbabewe, Venezuela and throughout Europe.
In the 1990s Annie Get Your Gun kept "doin’ what comes natur’lly" with a sumptuous studio recording from EMI Records, featuring Kim Criswell and Thomas Hampson under the musical direction of John McGlinn; a U.S. national tour starring Cathy Rigby, directed by Susan Schulman, which originated at the Houston Grand Opera in July 1992 and toured throughout the following year; and a U.K. national tour and West End production starring Kim Criswell and John Dierdrich.
At the end of the 20th century Annie Oakley aimed her bullets over Broadway once more, with a Tony-winning revival starring Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat. Opening in April 1999, it ran on Broadway for over two and a half years, and spawned a successful national tour. In its second year, country music star Reba McEntire made her Broadway debut in the title role, and took the town by storm.
"Berlin’s greatest achievement in the theatre," wrote New York Post critic Clive Barnes about the ’99 revival, "should carry Annie Get Your Gun happily into the next century and a bit beyond. It will always be a musical for the ages, one of the Broadway theatre’s enduring triumphs."