The new production of Irving Berlin’s vintage Annie Get Your Gun is a key event in the history of the American musical: It is the first politically correct musical of our time. I believe that such political correctness is a form of censorship by and for people who have no sense of humor. Please permit me, then, to reach for my gun.
Skip, for the moment, that Graciela Daniele’s production is as woeful as some cheap road company that we’d caught one miserable night in Idaho, or that its miscast star, Bernadette Peters, appears to be playing that mythic Mack truck of musical comedy, Annie Oakley, like a gurgling Dolly Parton. I’ll come to the production and its one saving grace-the ease and stage charm of Tom Wopat’s super performance as Frank Butler, the misogynistic sharpshooter whose defenses are down.
No, what disturbs me more than anything is the farcical belief that the original 1946 version of Annie Get Your Gun must be rewritten lest it offend anyone. Here we have a romantic musical comedy whose timeless central message is no more, or less, than “Have fun!” And, for a half-century, fun is exactly what it has achieved, in company with Irving Berlin’s sunny, masterly score. There are at least a half-dozen irresistible Berlin standards in the show, including “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.”
Berlin wasn’t a sophisticate like Cole Porter or a dark ironic wit in the manner of Lorenz Hart. His genius was that he unfailingly plugged into the heartbeat of purely American vernacular and sentiment, its confident, elegant zest and patriotism. In strict P.C. terms, his “God Bless America” is still O.K.; his “White Christmas” questionable.
But what’s causing such offense in the original Annie Get Your Gun -a nice, dopey story about two rival sharpshooters who fall in love-that contemporary audiences must be protected from at all costs? Handsome cowboy meets cowgirl; they sing; they dance; they shoot; we go home happy. What is it about Irving Berlin’s evergreen musical comedy that threatens the very social fabric of the nation?
It offends feminists and American Indians, apparently. In other P.C. words, Annie Get Your Gun is now considered racist and anti-women. By whom? Speaking on behalf of the American Indian and women, the veteran librettist Peter Stone ( Titanic ) has drastically reshaped and revised the musical, whose book was originally written by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. For example, “I’m an Indian Too,” Berlin’s flip homage to a show-biz Wild West, has been cut from the new version.
“Just like Battle Axe, Hatchet Face, Eagle Nose,/ Like those Indians, I’m an Indian too/ A Sioux,” sings Annie Oakley in the original, having been made an honorary member of the Sioux nation. Now, forgive me, but I don’t know a Sioux-do you? So I cannot speak for Native Americans. I would be sorry if Irving Berlin’s lyric offended anyone, and would ask only if they could possibly see a way to live with it.
Nevertheless, Mr. Stone is quoted, with approval, in The New Yorker for wondering how Broadway purists would react if somebody on stage sang: “I’m a Hebrew too/ A Jew-ooo-ooo.”
Fair enough. But that only proves that when it comes to the songwriting game, Peter Stone is no Irving Berlin.
Does he remember, I wonder, the Yiddisher Indian chief in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles ? A Jewish Native American! Now there’s a happy compromise! Wasn’t there a black sheriff, too? We trust that the politically correct Mr. Stone didn’t run screaming from the movie theater.
But his imaginary lyric-“I’m a Hebrew too/ A Jew”-doesn’t offend me, for one, least of all to the point of censorship. The only thing that offends me is bad writing. Of course, social values have changed in the 50 years since Annie Get Your Gun was created. Does this mean that our cultural heritage, warts and all, should be rewritten? Political correctness is the death of good theater. If theater can’t be free and challenging, what can it be? Even an entertainment as lightly innocuous as Annie Get Your Gun has rights.
But the outcome of Mr. Stone’s revisionism-or airbrushing-is a double whammy of dubious taste. In his craven need to please, he ends up patronizing both the American Indian and the audience. Now all the Indians are good and smart Indians. “How the hell did we ever get this country away from them?” observes one admiring white man in a coarse moment. For good measure, a lady called Dolly is introduced to the show as a racist. That’s why-we assume-desperate Dolly can’t get her man. She’s a stereotypically prejudiced ugly old cow. But isn’t this meant to be a pro-feminist musical? Isn’t it meant to be fun?
Frank Butler, the sharpshooting stud, no longer sings “I’m a Bad, Bad Man.” It’s a song about loving women, you see. Today, it’s a high crime for a guy to fancy so many women he wants them all. Still, Mr. Stone goes in for boob jokes (and old jokes). In fact, the script still remains antifeminist! Annie famously sings “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.” It’s why, of course, she ultimately throws the sharpshooting competition against handsome Frank. She makes herself seem inferior to get her man. Oops!
The holier-than-thou political conscience of the show is a wee bit muddled. Its artistic mediocrity is another story. Mr. Stone has introduced a new concept: Annie Get Your Gun is now the hack concept musical of a play-within-a-play. The tired idea, which is never sustained in any case, would have us believe that we’re watching Buffalo Bill’s circus tent production of Annie Get Your Gun . If so, Buffalo Bill isn’t my kind of producer.
But why this muddling “new” concept? Mr. Stone believes it’s a distancing device that makes the show’s innocence acceptable to a 90’s audience. Spoken like a true cynic. The dispiriting presumption is that we are no longer capable of open hearts.
My goodness, I’d sooner shoot myself than accept such bleakness. Great artists have struggled for generations with this question of theater’s innocence. “Theater is a long-promised, long hoped-for child,” said Konstantin Stanislavsky in search of naturalness. Shortly before Bertolt Brecht died, he told Peter Brook: “Do you know what my theater of the future would be called? ‘Theater of Naïveté.'” And Mr. Brook has with others, in all manner of sophisticated ways, held up a mirror to innocence-an imaginative sharing, a naïve trusting theater, born out of a child’s necessity to play.
That is why the City Center Revivals of Great American Musicals in Concert are such a joy. They convey the great pleasure of the past-and, yes, the politically incorrect, silly past-and they leave us exiting the theater literally singing. Those productions trust the audience.
And that’s why Tom Wopat’s performance stands alone so pleasurably. He sings the songs -freshly minted, unaffected, unjaded, with utter belief, doing what comes naturally. He conveys what it’s like to enjoy a great score.
Ms. Peters isn’t doing that: She’s struggling uphill, playing cute. Her hokey Southern accent is incomprehensible at times, an exaggerated cartoon. Her vulnerable fragility is inappropriate for Annie, whose tomboy toughness must be seen to melt. “I got lost,” goes the memorable lyric. “But look what I found.” Ms. Peters-the star-sings mostly alone, as if appearing in her own cabaret act with low-rent choreography borrowed from other shows.
Perhaps the role of Annie belongs forever to Ethel Merman, who triumphed in the original ’46 production and the 1966 revival. I was listening to the old sandblaster, as she was affectionately called, on the cast recording of the ’66 revival. To hear Merman sing “There’s no business like show business” is to believe her. You’d better believe her!
She cuts to the chase and rockets into orbit. She sings, “They say that falling in love is wonderful,” belting it out as ” waaander-full !” Love makes the lady ecstatic, and her sense of wonder overflows in its fullness to touch all hearts. So it is; so it should be.
But not with this joyless production, I’m afraid.