Notable Productions

The Annie Get Your Gun Story

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 Annie Get Your GunEthel Merman (centre) with the cast of the original Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun, 1946. Photo by Vandamm. New York Public Library, New York.

The remarkable story of how Annie got her gun and ascended into musical comedy heaven had an unlikely beginning—when a drunken World War Two soldier proudly showed the bemused patrons of a New York bar the worthless prizes he’d won in the shooting booths at Coney Island.

Fortuitously, the story was relayed to the legendary lyricist Dorothy Fields. ‘As if out of the sky,’ she recalled, ‘comes this idea: Annie Oakley—the sharpshooter! With Ethel Merman to play her!’

Miss Fields’ timing was perfect. The real Annie Oakley was reasonably fresh in people’s minds. She had died in 1926 and her beloved Frank Butler had followed her nineteen days later, and in 1935 Barbara Stanwyck had portrayed her in a well-received film biography. And the portrayal of a strong woman—with or without a gun—had a special resonance during the war.

Dorothy, of course, imagined that she and her brother, Herbert, a librettist, would create the show; all they needed was a composer and, first, a producer. After Mike Todd scoffed at the idea (‘Who’s gonna care about a gal that knows nuthin’ but guns?’, he snorted), Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II agreed to steer the production. Revelling in the success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, they were already at work on their third, Allegro, but they liked the prospect of producing a show created by someone else. They, in turn, approached Ethel Merman. La Merm was sceptical, but her doubts were dispelled by a salary of $4500 a week (this was really big money in 1946), plus 10 per cent of the gross. She also relished the chance to create a multi-dimensional character, in contrast to what she called the ‘invulnerable bimbos’ that she was usually asked to play. 

To compose the score the team selected the celebrated Jerome Kern. He’d worked with Herbert and Dorothy Fields on the film Swing Time, and with Hammerstein on several hit musicals of the 1920s and 30s, including Show Boat. After the failure of his 1939 Broadway show Very Warm for May, Kern had kept busy in Hollywood, but his Broadway comeback was not to be—he died of a stroke before he had written a single note.

It was Rodgers who suggested Irving Berlin. He was not an obvious replacement for Kern, because he was known for revues, not ‘book’ musicals. Further, he always wrote the music and the words—and if he came on board, Dorothy Fields would have to take a back seat, and a reduced financial interest.

Miss Fields graciously agreed and, almost reluctantly, Berlin signed on. He soon came to regard the project as a personal challenge: it would allow him to demonstrate that his genius for creating popular songs still had relevance in the new world of modern musicals that Rodgers and Hammerstein had pioneered. He was saying, in effect, ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’. Within a week he came up with half a dozen brilliant songs, and he also gave the show its title. Annie Get Your Gun was a neat reminder of the first line of George M. Cohan’s still-familiar World War One hit ‘Over There’: ‘Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun …’

Joshua Logan, who had worked on Berlin’s This Is the Army, joined the team as director. Rehearsals went well. The show ‘tried out’ successfully in New Haven and Boston, but the New York opening was delayed for several weeks after part of the Imperial Theatre’s stage flying system collapsed. Annie eventually hit Broadway on 16 May 1946.

Audiences were ecstatic. The reviewers were generally pleased, though some complained that the score was a world away from the quasi-operatic offerings of Rodgers and Hammerstein and ‘merely an assorted succession of hits’. Berlin agreed: ‘Yes,’ he smiled, ‘Nothing but hits, good old-fashioned hits.’ And he was right. No other show, before or since, has contained as many hits. Mr Berlin had every reason to be happy. His share of the gross netted him $2500 a week, while his publishing company sold $500,000 worth of sheet music and the cast album returned him $100,000. And there was more to come from tours, international productions and revivals, plus the film rights, which eventually went to MGM for a record $650,000.

Annie Get Your Gun was the first musical after Oklahoma! to achieve more than 1000 performances and it became one of the four longest running musicals of Broadway’s golden era. It was Merman’s greatest triumph. Seemingly indestructible, she had two brief holidays and missed only two performances through the 1147-performance run. To stand in for Merman during one of her breaks, the producers hired Judy Garland, hoping she could use the experience to ‘warm-up’ for the movie version and create some publicity for it but, ominously, she withdrew at the last minute. Merman’s regular understudy, Mary Jane Walsh, stepped in, but disappointed patrons demanded refunds and business dropped by $10,000 a week. The cast took a wage cut to keep the show going until La Merm returned.

Friday, 09 December 2022 / Last modified on Monday, 12 December 2022


London and Beyond

Pages from the souvenir program for the original London production of Annie Get Your Gun, 1947. Broadway Collectibles. The London run exceeded New York’s—1304 performances at the cavernous Coliseum, with Dolores Gray as Annie, her first starring role. The…


Beth Dean as the Riding Mistress and the Ballet Ensemble in the JCW production of Annie Get Your Gun, 1950, Act I, Scene 3, Fairgrounds. National Library of Australia, Canberra. Long before the release of the MGM film, Annie hit Australia, the first modern…

Additional Information

Picture References & Sources

Picture References 1946 Original Broadway Production Museum of the City of New York, New York New York Public Library, New York 1946 Jo Mielziner’s original set designs McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas New York Public Library, New York 1947 Original…


Annie Get Your Gun—1946 Broadway production—archival colour home-movie footage of scenes from the original Broadway production starring Ethel Merman, including ‘I’m an Indian Too’, Hotel ballroom scene into ‘I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning’, ‘Anything You Can…


Annie Get Your Gun—1946 Original Broadway Cast members U.S. Catalogue no: Decca DA 468 Released as a 78 rpm record album containing six 10” discs; the inside cover of the album included black & white photos of the original production and an enclosed booklet…