THE SATURDAY LIST: Annie by Annie Gettin’ Her Gun

Ethel Merman in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
Ethel Merman in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

Annie Get Your Gun is 74 years old today! This grand old dame of musical theatre premiered on this day in 1946 – imagine what it must have been like to hear those classic Irving Berlin songs for the first time. This show undoubtedly has one of the great song stacks of the Golden Age musicals. With a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, the show has been revived and revised many a time, dropping and adding songs from production to production, with a new curate’s egg of a book written by Peter Stone for a high profile revival in the 1990s. Join me today in celebrating some of the great Annies that have tried to get a main with a gun over the years.

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen any of these performances live – so this isn’t a ranked comparison by any means. (Obviously, I have seen the 1950 film and the 1957 telecast.) Rather, it’s a celebration of performances I’ve enjoyed in the way that every musical theatre kid and superfan on a budget has done for decades – by hunting down every little scrap of everything I can.

1. Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman was the first Annie to ‘sparkle like a crystal’ and in many ways, hers remains the definitive reading of the role. She was 38 years old when she originated the role, playing it once again two decades later in a revival. Opinions differ on what that Annie Get Your Gun was like on stage, some shadily referring to the production as “Granny Get Your Gun,” but on record, its a smash. I discovered this album in high school when I was performing in a community theatre production of the show and I played it over and over within an inch of its life. Classic Broadway.

2. Delores Gray

Annie Get Your Gun was Delores Gray’s first big triumph. Headlining the original London production of the show was a breakthrough for her. Of the early Annies on record, she sounds the most like a singer of the period – the 1940s, that is. Her take on the songs is glossy and glamorous, even when she’s drawling her way through “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.” Listening to her recordings, you understand why the songs were such big hits of the time. Her turn of phrase has more or a pop sensibility than the showtune mannerisms of Merman. Both have their place.

3. Mary Martin

John Raitt and Mary Martin in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

The second Annie who made a major impact stateside was Mary Martin, who led Annie Get Your Gun on tour. More charming than Merman in the role, the more polished second-act Annie peeks out through backwoods Annie’s eyes early on, something that can be seen in the live 1957 television broadcast based on the show. Martin’s disarming performance earned her a Special Tony Award in 1948 for “Spreading Theatre to the Country While the Originals Perform in New York.” One can see why – she just makes you grin from start to finish.

4. Betty Hutton

Betty Hutton always has to bear the yoke of being the person who replaced Judy Garland in the film version of Annie Get Your Gun. I’d even say that she’s more famous for that episode of show business history than she is for what she did with the role. She tackles both the role and the score with exuberance – but the film is a rather uninspired, sing-at-the-camera kind of affair, the adaptations made to the material not really doing much to illuminate it in a different medium.

5. Andrea McArcle

I have such a soft spot for Andrea McArdle. Maybe it has to do with the connection so many kids make with her when they are presented with the original cast recording of Annie. Whatever the reason, I always light up when she pops up on my playlist. Something that never pops up, of course, is her unrecorded stint as Annie Oakley. She was nineteen when she played the role for the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera, rather closer to the real Annie’s age at the time of the events depicted – however far they depart from reality. When you hear McArdle sing songs from the score at that age, there is something genuine that shines through in her voice. Annie’s naiveté never felt so believable.

6. Suzi Quatro

Poster Art for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

I wonder what people thought when they first heard the news that rock singer Suzi Quatro would play Annie Get Your Gun in a British revival of the show. How would the singer of “Devil Gate Drive” and “Daytona Demon” manage the classic Berin score? The results are preserved on a cast recording in which Annie Oakley has never sounded earthier, Quatro serving more Hutton than Merman in her vocals. She is more memorable than Hutton though, perhaps because she sounds so distinctive. There’s a catch in her voice that knits together her take on the role.

7. Bernadette Peters

There are those who did not love Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun. Some cry miscasting. Others just can’t get past the revisions. But there’s no business like show business for differing opinions and personally, I’ve enjoyed every smidgen of footage I’ve seen of Peters in the show. The thing is, I guess the issue of whether you like Peters in the role depends on that for which you’re looking. Annie has never been a role that’s depended on an actor disappearing into the role. It was conceived as a diva role, one where audiences delight in seeing the filter through their favourite musical theatre stars. In the context of big-budget musical theatre, it’s also a role that has to be cast with a name big enough to underwrite the show. That’s pretty much what Peters offers. She’s playful when the show calls for broader moments and gives us the vulnerability that is one of her trademarks. Perhaps that’snot everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me. It also worked for the Tony Award voters in the 1998/1999 season.

8. Reba McEntire

I guess every age has a Merman and a Martin. In the 1940s, Merman put her stamp on the original production, with Martin following in her footsteps. At the turn of the century, Peters’s more Martinesque take on Annie Get Your Gun was followed by the broader Mermanesque stylings of Reba McEntire – a full circle, perhaps? McEntire’s Annie drew universal acclaim and what might have been stunt casting became the stuff of legend. McEntire’s Annie is so unaffected – a perfect marriage of performer and character. Her singing is easy on the ear and her take on the numbers is an idiosyncratic delight.

Reba McEntire in ANNIE GET YOUR RUN

9. Jane Horrocks

Jane Horrocks had the sun in the morning and the moon at night when she took on the role in a production of Annie Get Your Gun opposite Julian Ovenden will opening at the Young Vic in London. The trimmed book cut Tommy and Winnie completely, reallocating  “I’ll Share It All With You” to Dolly and Charlie. Of Annie’s siblings, only Jessie survived the cut and as is standard in contemporary productions of the show, “I’m an Indian Too” was deleted from the score. Accompanied by four pianos, Horrocks tackled with songs in a more jazzy idiom than her predecessors. In an oddly anachronistic touch, video footage showed Horrocks’s Annie receiving medals from historical figures like Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. The only response one might have to that: but why?

10. Patti LuPone

Patti Lupone got lost in Patrick Cassidy’s arms in a 2010 concert staging of Annie Get Your Gun at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. Under the direction of Lonny Price, the presentation of the Fields version of the show was staged to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Annie Oakley’s birth. Also featured in the company was George Hearn in the role of Buffalo Bill Cody. LuPone’s performance and strong notices put paid to the bitchy whispers about whether the esteemed Broadway diva was pushing the envelope age-wise at the age of 61. Merman, one might recall, was 58 when she played the role in the 1966 revival and that was a full-scale production – so why raise such quibbles for what must have been a fabulous concert?, PuPone of course, had sung the role in concert before opposite Peter Gallagher. It’s a treat to hear her belt out the songs like its nobody’s business.

There are many other Annies to celebrate – Barabra Eden, Debbie Reynolds, Kim Criswell, Judy Kaye and Susan Lucci among them. Who’s your favourite?

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