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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Annie Get Your Gun
NBC Television 1957 and YouTube   March 2024

Irving Berlin's 1947 Broadway smash hit featured what may well be the greatest concentration of great songs ever 'Doin' What Comes Natur'lly,' ' 'The Girl That I Marry,' 'You Can't Get A Man With A Gun,' 'Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,' to name-drop just a few and have I mentioned 'There's No Business Like Show Business'?

Not incidentally, it provided a signature role for one of the greatest stars in Broadway history, Ethel Merman, whose unique ability to bounce her voice off the back wall of the theatre with perfect elocution (and no amplification) will forever be echoed in anyone else's versions of those songs.

It was the common practice in those days for a hit show to send out a national touring company as quickly as possible, usually fronted by a solid B-list star. But in this case the producers (a couple of guys named Rodgers and Hammerstein) went for the top, with the only Broadway performer on Merman's level, Mary Martin.

And it is Martin, here paired with another Broadway A-lister, John Raitt, who stars in this 1957 television production.

The plot of Annie Get Your Gun (book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields), loosely based on the life of nineteenth-century sharpshooter star Annie Oakley, is serviceable without getting in the way. There are really three things to talk about the songs and the two stars.

The score was just one of those theatrical miracles. At 59, Irving Berlin, however extraordinary his back catalogue, seemed well past his prime, and wasn't even first choice for composer.

But he generated one classic-to-be after another, and in this slightly condensed television version they seem to come at you relentlessly, giving you barely time to appreciate one before the next is upon you.

While some, like 'Show Business' and 'Can't Get A Man' have become part of our genetic memory, others are likely to surprise you with their sweetness (They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful) or tartness (I'm A Bad Bad Man).

Mary Martin was at least as big a star as Merman, and something of a lucky charm for producers Rodgers and Hammerstein, here in 1957 midway between South Pacific and The Sound Of Music (not to mention Peter Pan).

Where Merman's personality and song-belting style made her seem like an irresistible force of nature, Martin's mode and style were both softer and more slyly seductive.

Her Annie is far more vulnerable than Merman's, and songs like 'You Can't Get A Man' have a touch of plaintive unhappiness Merman and most subsequent Annies somehow missed.

And Martin twinkles. Her flashing eyes and quiet smile flirt shamelessly with the audience and the camera, suggesting an intimate connection and secret joke between her and us.

(Indeed, with television's reliance on close-ups, a flirty persona and performance style that worked brilliantly onstage might occasionally seem a bit too much.)

The one weak link here is John Raitt. Handsome, manly, with a strong and attractive baritone voice, and a certified Broadway star (Carousel, The Pajama Game) in his own right, Raitt also carries what seems sometimes to be the baritone's curse of being wooden and personality-less.

What is evident here is that he performs in a vacuum, acting and singing to the audience and never really relating to anyone around him.

In their scenes together Mary Martin invariably looks at him while he sometimes literally turns his back on her to sing to the camera. (It is no surprise to learn that most of Raitt's later career was in solo concerts rather than book shows.)

The black-and-white recording is well staged for the cameras and of strikingly fine technical quality. Just for the fun of all those great songs and Mary Martin's hard-to-resist personality, this is well worth your time.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Annie Get Your Gun (NBC 1957)  - 2024
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