How do you take an old fashioned musical comedy from another era, and make it relevant and meaningful for a new generation? This is the challenge that a show like "Annie Get Your Gun" presents for today's theatre artists. In 1946, when this piece was first produced, it was not only created for the Broadway audiences of its time, it was also created by artists who came out of a tradition completely different from ours.
People like Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin came from a live theatre steeped in the traditions of vaudeville: where big personalities, specialty talents and broad performance styles were the accepted norm. The books of shows like "Annie Get Your Gun" were frequently light on character development and emotional truth, and heavy on the one liners and preposterous plot lines. These pieces were also designed to appeal to a generation of older theatre goers who remembered with nostalgia the vaudeville pleasures of an earlier time; so they were even more stylized and, by our standards, 'cornier' than the more realistic dramas that populated the theatre of that era. All one has to do is watch Betty Hutton's brassy, over-the-top performance as Annie Oakley in the MGM film to realize how much styles have changed.
And one must also think of the time in which "Annie Get Your Gun" was written. World War II had been fought and won, and our culture was going through profound changes as America struggled to adjust to the new world it faced. It was a time of optimism and a return to the traditional roles expected of men and women in our country. When the men were off at war, women had to take on more 'masculine' roles: pursuing new careers, working hands on in industries hitherto unknown to women, and providing a stronger, more forceful foundation for a country in crisis.
Even the shoulder pads that were popular in womens' fashions spoke to the more masculine qualities expected of the gentler sex. And so when we look at a story like the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler in that context, we see a strong, independent woman who can shoot a rifle as well as any guy, in conflict with her desire to be a soft, desirable woman for her man. Annie's famous lament, "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," speaks not only to the plight of a pistol packin' frontier gal, but also to the woman who worked in the munitions factory who now had to provide a soft, supportive housewife for her returning soldier husband. It is not surprising that in the original storyline for the musical, Annie throws the final shootout between her and Frank in order to play the feminine role and give him his masculine authority, facilitating that walk into the sunset in matrimonial bliss. For women of our time, this kind of sublimation would be unthinkable, but for an era in which the men had made the ultimate sacrifice in a foreign war, it was considered proper that the woman, strong as she may be, should step aside and take her place as the supportive wife and mother.
Look also at the treatment of Native Americans in the original script of this show. Racial sensitivity and political correctness were not a part of the cultural attitudes toward minorities in this era. Consequently the Native American characters in the show were inarticulate, thinly drawn stereotypes, and when Annie was adopted as a daughter by Chief Sitting Bull in the story, she launched into a comic number called "I'm an Indian Too." In its time, this big colorful production number would have been hugely entertaining, but for our time, lyrics like
Some Indian summer day
Without a care
I may run away
With Big Chief Son-of-a-Bear
truly smack of racial insensitivity.
Consequently, when the show was being reworked by Pulitzer prize winning author Peter Stone for the 1999 Broadway revival, this number was removed from the piece. While some may miss this classic Irving Berlin tune, the potential offense that may be given to Native Americans in our time is something that can't be taken lightly. In this revised version of the script, Chief Sitting Bull and the other American Indian characters have a dignified presence more palatable to today's audiences.
Our talented director, Rob Ruggiero, has become identified with providing productions of traditional musicals with an emotional depth and human texture more suited to our modern sensibilities. He focuses on story, and on the relationships between the characters; the songs and dances come from the narrative threads of the story and from the characters' need to communicate and connect with each other. This approach challenges us as performers to simultaneously honor the traditions from which "Annie Get Your Gun" was born, while infusing the piece with a humanity and sense of truth that will allow our 21st century audience to identify with the characters and the tale we are telling. My character of Charlie speaks in one liners and comic zingers, like an old borscht belt comedian. It's my task to make this wisecracker a fully fleshed out human being. As you can imagine, our director must have a steady hand and be continually aware of where the comedy and the old fashioned musical styles of the piece serve the play and where they need to be given texture, simplicity and realism for our modern day tastes. Rob is supremely skilled at this task, bringing a highly detailed eye and a sophisticated aesthetic to the table. What the Goodspeed audience will get in "Annie Get Your Gun" will be a rich, entertaining experience that simultaneously brings to life the great old fashioned pleasures of this classic piece, and a human story of a man and a woman finding each other, and themselves, against a colorful crazy quilt of Americana steeped in history. So... does Annie still throw that final shooting match to give Frank the upper hand? Or does she take a stand for her own abilities in a way that a 21st century woman can relate to? You'll have to catch a performance at Goodspeed to find out!