If ever a production invited controversy, it is the revival of Annie Get Your Gun at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia. Irving Berlin's hit includes a song that makes fun of Native- American names: "Just like Rising Moon, Falling Pants, Runny Nose, I'm an Indian too." That number seemed so tasteless to the producers of a 1999 Broadway revival, Fran and Barry Weissler, they removed the entire scene.

The original producers of Annie Get Your Gun didn't intend to slur any minority. They were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, political liberals who excoriated racial prejudice in their South Pacific with the song "You've Got to Be Taught (to hate and fear...people whose skin is a different shade.") Hammerstein even wrote with sympathy about oppressed Negroes as early as 1927 in his Show Boat. So how did they allow that scene? It was thoughtless.

A bit of theatrical history will help us understand the circumstances. Rodgers & Hammerstein wanted to produce Annie Get Your Gun but didn't want to write the songs for it because they had just finished Oklahoma!, Carousel and State Fair -- three creations in three years that all dealt with homespun Americana. They felt Annie would be too similar. Instead, they wanted to write an original contemporary story-musical that turned out to be Allegro. So they hired Hammerstein's old Show Boat partner, Jerome Kern, as songwriter. But Kern died suddenly, and R&H hurriedly called in Irving Berlin to do the job.

Berlin embodied an interesting contrast. He was an activist for Negro equality, and he put blacks in the cast of his all-soldier show, This Is the Army in 1942. At a time when America's armed forces were segregated, Berlin insisted that his troupe, black and white, ate and roomed together.

But Berlin started his career in an era where it was considered funny to use racial epithets. He wrote comic dialect songs such as "Marie From Sunny Italy" and "Yiddle On Your Fiddle." He penned the lyric: "When you squeeze your gal, and she no say `Please stop-a' / When you got dat twenty kids what call you `Papa' / Dat's Italian love."
He also wrote: "Hey, wop / Go to the barbershop / Take-a da razor and make-a da skip / Shave-a da face and collect-a da tip."

In the 1920s he wrote: "Just picture me / Sipping oo-long tea / Served by a Chinaman / Who speaks a-way up high."
For This Is the Army, he included a minstrel routine in which white soldiers put black greasepaint on their faces and imitated black speech. He thought of this as showbiz tradition and didn't realize some people might be offended.

(Bob Sidney, director of This Is the Army, recently told me: "Believe me, our black guys in the cast were very vocal, and if they were offended they would have told us.")

For three decades, Berlin wrote tender, sensitive love songs. Then he reverted to his old ways and wrote his send-up of Indians in Annie Get Your Gun.

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So how offensive is "I'm an Indian Too?"

The Prince Music Theater tries to present Broadway creators' work as faithfully as possible, so producing artistic director Marjorie Samoff was inclined to stage the complete scene. But, first, she asked an Indian group, the Native Nations Dance Company, to read the script and voice any objections. Vaughnda Hilton, its artistic director, okayed the version that's now on stage.

The line quoted in the first paragraph of this story was cut by the Prince, but Annie Oakley still sings the names "Hatchet Face" and "Battle Axe." (A spokesperson says it was for timing reasons. They wouldn't change Berlin's lyrics.) Aside from that, Annie's affection for Sitting Bull as he adopts her is clear. The Indians are depicted as wise, sympathetic and literate. All of this was there, all along, in the original script. Hilton says that the song is funny to her. The controversial scene is actually touching as it shows Annie yearning to be part of a family. And the song's melody is damn catchy.

By the way, the word "Indian" nowadays is shunned as if it were insulting, and "Native American" is substituted. But Hilton says she prefers to be called an American Indian. Ideally, she'd like to be known as a member of her specific tribe, but "if we're all lumped as one, a lot of us prefer `Indian.'"

As for the performance, the lead roles are well done by Andrea McArdle as Annie Oakley and Jeff Coon as Frank Butler. Their characters dominate the show, which essentially is a love story. Historical trappings, the Indians and show biz behind-the-scenes are welcome embellishments -- side shows, if you will -- but what drives Annie Get Your Gun is the plot about a woman winning a man only by allowing him to think that he's the dominant one.

McArdle and Coon could put more tenderness in their delivery. They should listen to Ethel Merman and Ray Middleton on the original 1946 cast recording, where Merman sang more gently and sweetly than the stereotype that people have of her. Even in 1966, when I saw her in the Lincoln Center revival, Merman surprised me with her velvet-soft singing of "Moonshine Lullaby" and "I Got Lost in His Arms."

Coon stresses his assertive and domineering character, and he neglects the romantic legato that's in his music. He should try more portamento, carrying over the ends of lines and linking them to the next line.

McArdle's every note is on pitch, and she acts well. The only thing missing is a joyous belt in her voice that could connect more solidly with her audience. These quibbles don't obscure the fact that McArdle and Coon are a very effective couple. Mary Martello is excellent as Coon's previous partner; her singing and comic timing are superb. Other supporting roles are decently played. Richard M. Parison Jr.'s stylish direction makes clever use of the aisles, pit and upper level platforms.

As a theater historian, I'm glad to see the show virtually uncut. But for most audience members, some trimming would be welcome. The show always had a problem by not introducing Annie Oakley until 15 minutes in. So, for more impact, Frank Butler's opening song could be sung just once, and its long dance excised, and then we could move more quickly to Annie's entrance.

This production follows the 1966 script which replaced 1946's cute but inconsequential "Who Do You Love, I Hope" with a great new Berlin duet, "An Old-Fashioned Wedding." That 1966 addition turned out to be the last memorable song of Irving Berlin's career.

[END]

 

Key Subjects: 
Annie Get Your Gun; Irving Berlin, Indians, Andrea McArdle, Prince Music Theater
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
December 2006
Subtitle: 
Is Irving Berlin's Classic Still Racist?