Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A little Annie Get Your Gun history

Director Jay Manley took the time to fill me in a bit on the history of the show. Even having done it before (albeit when I was 14 years old) I was completely unaware of most of this:

Annie has an interesting history...the "Rodgers and Hammerstein Connection..."  As just about everyone knows, R & H essentially revolutionized the American musical with their first and second collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, in 1943 and 1945 respectively.  Their principal contribution to the musical's evolution was to insist that the book, or story, be the spine of the show, with songs and dances growing organically from its telling. 

With the success of their early collaborations, R & H decided to become entrepreneurs and producers (Many years later, Stephen Sondheim would satirize Rodger's "confusion" of art and profit with the Franklin Shepard character in his Merrily We Roll Along).  But I digress!

Annie Get Your Gun was the first musical that R& H chose to produce. It had come about as the brainchild of writer Dorothy Fields, lyricist of over 400 theatre songs, including "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "The Sunny Side of the Street", who was looking for a story with a strong woman protagonist.   With her brother Herbert, she was to write the book and lyrics. They chose Jerome Kern, Hammerstein's long-time earlier collaborator (what a different sound it would have had!), to write the music.   But Kern's sudden death scuttled that plan.  Rodgers and Hammerstein cast about for a replacement composer (interestingly, they did not apparently want to take it on themselves), and they determined that Irving Berlin was the natural composer for so American a subject matter as the story of Annie Oakley.  Undoubtedly, they were guided, too, by Jerome Kern's own, oft-quoted maxim, "Irving Berlin has no PLACE in American music.  He IS American music."

There were problems, however.  The first was that Berlin wrote music AND lyrics, and the Fields were to have written the lyrics as well as the book.  Graciously, they agreed to bow out of the lyrics and focus solely on the book.  He also was used to "Irving Berlin's...," not "Rodgers and Hammerstein present..."  Somehow, egos were assuaged, and "Rodgers and Hammerstein present Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun," satisfied everyone.

The second problem centered on Berlin's own self-doubts. He had never written a musical play in the style of R & H, and doubted that he could.  His earlier shows were mainly revues.  He didn't know if he could write plot- and character-specific songs to dramatize a book.  But persuaded to give it a try, he went away to Atlantic City to work.  A week later, he returned and sat down at the piano before a very tough set of critics - Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Fields, and the newly-hired director, Joshua Logan - and sang "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly", "They Say It's Wonderful", "The Girl That I Marry", "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun", and a little ditty for the scene changes called "There's No Business Like Show Business" - all songs that have now become American standards.  R & H were thrilled, and the project went forward, to a hugely successful 1946 opening of Broadway, starring the legendary Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley.

An interesting sidebar, and undoubtedly the source of Berlin's initial discomfort with an association with R & H,  is that because Rodgers and Hammerstein's names appeared above the title as producers in all the professional productions of Annie Get Your Gun, many people carried away the idea that Annie... was their composition, not Berlin's.  And while certainly R & H were key players in the development and presentation of the show, it was indisputably  Berlin and the Fields' triumph.
Coming soon...  "I'm An Indian, Too?"  Even in 1999? Yes, I've asked Jay to comment on the subject of how Annie Get Your Gun handles its Native American, and whether the version Foothill is doing makes any adjustments to account for our more modern sensibilities.

Comments:
Hi Elisa,

Loved this background info. Early on in the rehearsal process Jay spoke with me about the portrayal of Chief Sitting Bull.

He indicated that he wanted a more "real" and less sterotypical character, and gave me permission to adjust some of the dialogue to reflect his "realness."

I had already done some research on Sitting Bull and had found that he was a remarkably articulate person with a strong sense of family values. Sitting Bull was also very intelligent, along with many other positive characteristics.

The hope is that the audience for our production will see Sitting Bull as a strong, caring individual, and not as the sterotypical "redskin."

I truly am enjoying re-creating the man, and hope that the audience will enjoy him too.

Steve Completo
 
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