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May 3, 2021

Annie Get Your Gun: A History


Rodgers & Hammerstein produced Annie Get Your Gun. Not only were they writers, of course, but in 1946 their partnership was still young. Why would they produce a musical they did not write?

Well, producing shows was very much of interest to them. Originally hired by the Theatre Guild to create the show that became Oklahoma!, they moved quickly to becoming their own producers. And if they were going “staff up” to produce their own shows, why not go into the business of producing? From 1944 until 1952 they presented six plays on Broadway, mostly written by friends like John Steinbeck, Samuel Taylor and Anita Loos. Then Dorothy Fields brought a musical for them to produce: the story of Annie Oakley, to star Ethel Merman, with music by Jerome Kern, book by Dorothy and her brother Herbert Fields, and lyrics by Dorothy herself. Rodgers & Hammerstein signed on, only to lose Kern who died days after he arrived in New York to work on the show. Without a composer, the producers had to think fast. And in a flash, they came up with an idea: Irving Berlin.

Now, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers had a distanced relationship. Producer Florenz Ziegfeld placed an Irving Berlin song – and not just any song, “Blue Skies” – in the middle of Rodgers & Hart’s 1926 musical Betsy, unannounced and on opening night. Needless to say, it was a moment of embarrassment for Rodgers. But as the old show business adage goes, “I won’t work with that man again… until I need him.” Whatever hard feelings may have existed were now gone. Rodgers & Hammerstein had an instinct that Berlin could provide a specific kind of musical vernacular that would suit both their star and the show. Dorothy Fields had already sketched out many of the song titles for the first act, but she stepped back in order to allow Berlin to provide both music and lyrics.

Flattered though he was to be asked, Berlin was not sure he could handle the task. Hillbilly songs weren’t for him, he feared. But he took up the challenge, went away to read the script, and in a very few days wrote a few of the now-classic songs that form the basis of the score. He would play songs for his producers as he finished them, and one day when he played all he had written he left out one song. “Where is that song about show business?” he was asked. “Well,” said Berlin, “Neither of you made much comment on it so I just cut it.” “Put it back!” he was told. And thus, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was saved from going into the trunk.

Mary Martin in the 1947 US National Tour of Annie Get Your Gun (R&H Archive)

Mary Martin in the 1947 US National Tour of Annie Get Your Gun (R&H Archive)

That was 75 years ago. The show was a smash hit. Ethel Merman held down the fort on Broadway, and a major national tour starring her old pal Mary Martin went out a couple of years later. Merman got to revive the show in 1966 and Mary Martin’s version was captured for television in 1957.

It’s a work that has endured in the musical theatre’s classic repertoire. In the late 1990’s, Barry and Fran Weissler produced a revival on Broadway that starred the irrepressible Bernadette Peters, who won a Tony Award. Pay dirt was struck when country music star Reba McEntire made a sensational Broadway debut following Peters, playing the role with a genuine Oklahoma honesty and twang that won everyone over. She should have been given a special Tony Award for her performance. Period.


Want to learn more about Irving Berlin’s life and works? Visit

For more information about Annie Get Your Gun, visit the Concord Theatricals website in the US or UK.

Header Image: Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin in rehearsal (R&H Archive)