As we approach January 16 – the anniversary of Ethel Merman’s birth – let’s look at her biggest triumph.
Merman often said Rose in GYPSY was her favorite role – and we can all understand why. Nevertheless, Irving Berlin’s ANNIE GET YOUR GUN was her longest-running hit. As Annie Oakley, she played virtually all of its 1,147 performances from May 16, 1946 through Feb. 12, 1949.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN’s original cast album, released on 78s, must have made those who hadn’t seen the show assume that it began with Annie singing “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.” That indeed was the first selection. In actuality, the show started with an Overture, followed by a chorus singing the praises of “Colonel Buffalo Bill” who then introduced his star attraction: Frank Butler, who admitted that “I’m a Bad, Bad Man.” But you’d never know it from that first release on Decca records.
Included, however, was one of Berlin’s weakest songs: “Who Do You Love, I Hope?” The title alone is somewhere between awkward and confusing. Perhaps Decca’s powers-that-be decided that including supporting characters Winnie and Tommy would make the album seem more representative of a musical and not just a Merman album.
And yet, Decca didn’t include Winnie and Tommy’s other song “I’ll Share It All with You.”
Such omissions occurred in the 1947 London album, where Dolores Gray didn’t even get to sing “I’m an Indian, Too.” The song has since taken a great deal of criticism for being insensitive to Native Americans; was England already aware of political correctness at that time? Chances are the excision occurred because so-called exotic Indian names didn’t mean much to Great Britainers. At least “I’m a Bad, Bad Man” got recorded on this one.
The film version, in which Betty Hutton gave yet another over-the-top-of-Kilimanjaro performance, yielded a soundtrack which of course offered fewer numbers; that’s what soundtrack albums of the era often did.
In 1957, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN was broadcast on TV with Mary Martin replicating her Tony-awarded performance. Not Tony-winning performance, mind you – Tony-awarded. There IS a difference, because Martin didn’t receive it in a competitive category; she was bestowed a Special Award in 1948 “for spreading ANNIE GET YOUR GUN to the country while the original performs in New York.”
So second-run Martin got a prize for her Annie Oakley while originator Merman didn’t. Surely The Merm would have easily won if the Tonys had started a season earlier, but the 1946-47 semester was the first for the awards. In those days, the season officially started on June 1; AGYG had opened sixteen days too early to be considered.
Martin’s TV co-star was John Raitt, and their resulting album did include an Overture and “I’m a Bad, Bad Man” but still no “Colonel Buffalo Bill.” Both of Winnie and Tommy’s songs went unrecorded; with a presumably high salary for Martin, there may have been no money for them.
A female chorus and a separate male one were brought in to enhance five of the thirteen selections. This was decidedly NOT a soundtrack album, but a studio job that comes across more as a series of Martin-Raitt duets collection. “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – the score’s sixth song – was saved as the final number of the album to give it a roaring finish.
That’s the way that the Doris Day-Robert Goulet 1963 album concludes, too. Day had been a pop recording artist since 1945 when her first two records hit Number One. In eighteen years, she developed a style that didn’t include much theatricality, but she does make for pleasant listening.
Although Goulet had Broadway stage dust on his feet from his stint in CAMELOT, he too had a pop career in mind, starting out with songs from SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING, STOP THE WORLD – I WANT TO GET OFF and MR. PRESIDENT. So while doing the Lerner-Loewe classic by night, he recorded the AGYG album in New York to tracks that Day had already set down in Los Angeles. His crystal-clear, utterly masculine voice well suits his character.
This was AGYG’s first stereo recording, which made it a major draw for sixties’ listeners. That Philip J. Lang orchestrated was a surprise; he was the show’s original orchestrator when the show opened in New Haven, but by then, some on the staff had expressed enough dissatisfaction that Robert Russell Bennett was recruited to replace Lang’s work. Thus, we must wonder if Lang’s orchestrations on the Day-Goulet album are his originals or if they’re new ones that were the result of his learning from his mistakes.
Luckily for theatergoers and armchair listeners, seventeen years after closing the original, Merman recreated her Annie for a production that started at Lincoln Center in the spring of 1966 and wended its way to the Broadway Theatre that fall. RCA Victor cast album guru Andy Wiswell got Merman and all the others (including Jerry Orbach in a small role) into the studio to make the best of the AGYG recordings.
Winnie and Tommy’s songs weren’t recorded because the production itself had dropped them. If any listeners complained, they made a whimper that didn’t even approach a noise. Everyone was too busy regaling in the unprecedented seventeen cuts and enjoying what would be the new and final Irving Berlin song ever released to the public.
Or should we say songs-plural? “An Old Fashioned Wedding” is one of Berlin’s trademark quodlibets – meaning that one person sings a melody, the second sings a different melody and then, when they sing them together, they complement each other.
The song actually suggests that Frank and Annie’s marriage may soon meet trouble. Already they have a distinct difference of opinion on the ideal ceremony. Frank desires something simple while Annie craves the spectacular.
“Spectacular” is a word that could be applied to the quodlibet itself. Take it from someone who saw the 1966 revival at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, the song got enough applause that it received six – count ‘em, six, and, yes, I DO mean SIX – encores.
Better still, when the CD was released in 1988, more than an additional minute of “An Old Fashioned Wedding” was included. The song has always been in every major revival.
In its own way, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN qualifies as a jukebox musical. Not in that it uses pre-existing songs that have been either eased or shoved into a new book., but so many of its songs wound up with cover versions in Wurlitzers and Seeburgs.
In 1946, two different recordings sent “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” – Annie’s defense of her lifestyle – to twenty-first AND twenty-eighth place. “The Girl That I Marry” – Frank’s wish-list that inform Annie that she’ll never be the person he’s describing – got Frank Sinatra to Number Eleven. On the other side of his record was “They Say It’s Wonderful” – falling in love, that is – which reached Number One. More miraculously still, the three other recordings of that song charted, too: at twenty-seven, twelve and ten.
The song has had great resiliency, for a famous artist has recorded it in every decade since: the fifties (by Charity’s favorite Jazz Quartet – the Modern one), sixties (John Coltrane), seventies (Dionne Warwick), eighties (Tony Bennett), nineties (Stacey Kent), aughts (Susan Lucci) and this past decade (Seth MacFarlane). Darius de Haas also did it in an episode of THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL.
Even the unlikely “I’m an Indian, Too” made it to the disco era, for it became a dance track in 1979 thanks to Don Armando. As late as 1996, Liza Minnelli was recording “I Got Lost in His Arms.”
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” made it to twenty-five in 1947 via Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. Although Merman had twelve records that charted – including “They Say It’s Wonderful” – “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was her signature song for at least a decade. It became the name of a 1954 film that used old and new Berlin songs; top-billed was Merman.
Today if you buy a DVD of it, you’ll see Marilyn Monroe and no one else on the front cover. But she’s still third-billed and hadn’t replaced Ethel Merman at the top.
Many believe that no one ever will replace her at the top in another sense, too.