Agonizing over Annie
by Michael Kotze
Irving Berlin had to make a big decision. To Annie Oakley, or not to Annie Oakley? That was the question. The offer was on the table, and if he chose, he could make his return to Broadway with Annie Get Your Gun. The idea had a lot going for it: a distinguished group of collaborators, an appealing story, and already attached to the project was Broadway’s biggest star, Ethel Merman. So why the hesitation?
First, a little background. It was the end of 1945, and Irving Berlin had been away from Broadway for quite a while. His last Broadway credits were the old-school musical comedy, Louisiana Purchase, in 1940, and a 1942 limited run of This Is the Army, a spectacular wartime morale-building revue, featuring a cast of servicemen, including Sgt. Irving Berlin himself singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
Not a “situation show” composer
Actually, Berlin’s career had not been centered on Broadway for some time. His most productive period on the Street dated back to the 1920s, when his series of popular revues packed the Music Box Theatre year after year. The revue was Berlin’s preferred genre. For the most part, he steered clear of book shows (he called them “situation shows”), and only worked on a handful of them throughout his career. He was first and foremost a songwriter, and the revue was the form best equipped to deal with the teeming variety of his songwriting genius.
The 1930s saw only two Berlin shows on Broadway. As the movies began to sing, more and more of Berlin’s time was taken up by Hollywood, where he penned tunes for the likes of Astaire and Rogers and Bing Crosby. One of these, written for a Crosby picture, became the best-selling song of all time: “White Christmas.”
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Berlin turned his hand to the war effort with such songs as “Any Bonds Today?,” the royalties of which he donated to the United States Treasury. The culmination of his patriotic work was This Is the Army, which after its Broadway run toured the country and eventually the world, with Sgt. Berlin and his troops performing on three continents, sometimes near battle lines.
Berlin was on tour with This Is the Army for more than three years, never taking a paycheck for his efforts. The show and its subsequent movie version raised more than 10 million dollars for the Army, and Berlin was awarded the Medal of Merit by President Truman. By this time, the man was a National Treasure.
A new Broadway “situation”
A triumphant return to Broadway would seem a fitting follow-up, but Berlin had reason to be hesitant. He would be returning to a different Broadway from the one he had left. What had happened in his absence? In a word: Oklahoma! After Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 breakthrough, the “situation show” was in the ascendant, with a new emphasis on the integration of all elements into a seamless theatrical whole. As Richard Rodgers put it, “the orchestrations sound the way the costumes look.”
Berlin was out of sympathy with these new developments. He didn’t do “musical plays.” Heck, he barely did musical comedies! He was a songwriter, plain and simple. He must have been tempted to bow out gracefully. What if he couldn’t adapt to the new Broadway? Anything less than a smash would tarnish his image, and make him seem an old dog that couldn’t learn new tricks.
The Annie offer had come from his old friend and rival Richard Rodgers. Since their Oklahoma! success, Rodgers and Hammerstein had gotten into the producing game, and had a long running hit, the comedy I Remember Mama, currently on Broadway. Lyricist Dorothy Fields had approached them with the idea of an Annie Oakley musical, an idea they thought a fine one.
They engaged Jerome Kern to write the score. Like Berlin, Kern hadn’t had a show on Broadway in years, spending more time out in Hollywood. Rodgers and Hammerstein were delighted by the prospect of bringing this beloved veteran composer back to Broadway. But Kern’s sudden death on November 11, 1945, threw their plans into jeopardy. What to do? Rodgers had the perfect solution: bring another beloved veteran composer back to Broadway.
Berlin demurred; this just wasn’t his kind of show. He didn’t know a thing about Annie Oakley, and besides, he couldn’t write the kind of “hillbilly music” (his words) he felt the story demanded. But Rodgers wouldn’t let the idea drop; “I begged him to go home with the book,” he recalled, “and fool around over the weekend and see how things worked, whether he got any ideas, whether it felt comfortable to him.” Berlin agreed.
The “situation” is show business
He went off to a hotel in Atlantic City and got to work. The “hillbilly music” problem seemed intractable, until finally the penny dropped: this wasn’t a musical about hillbillies, this was a musical about show people. That he could write.
Within a week, he had rough drafts of “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and the song that would become an anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Usually Berlin did not work so fast, but now the songs were pouring out of him. Finally, Berlin’s mind was made up: he would make his long-awaited return to Broadway with Annie Get Your Gun.
The rest is history: Annie enjoyed a long New York run (with an even longer one in London’s West End), and an MGM Technicolor spectacular appeared a few years later. The score boasts more hit songs than virtually any other musical, and offers triumphant proof that Irving Berlin still had something to offer post-Oklahoma! Broadway. Even today, more than six decades after its premiere, Annie Get Your Gun proves that the greatest single asset a musical can have is a great songwriter.