Original Broadway Production (1946)
The Broadway production was scheduled to open at the Imperial Theatre on April 25, 1946. The day before opening, a bolt that held a structural beam from which scenery was hung snapped. The Imperial's license was temporarily suspended until repairs could be made. An additional tryout booking in Philadelphia was quickly arranged.
The idea for the show originated with the lyricist Dorothy Fields. From the day she got the idea, she had Ethel Merman in mind to play Annie Oakley. Plans for the show fell into place quickly. She was to co-write the book with her brother, Herbert, and she would also write the lyrics, with the music to be written by Jerome Kern. Merman was to star, with Rodgers and Hammerstein producing. The Fieldses started work on the book. Before work began on the sccore, Kern died. Irving Berlin was then approached write the whole score. At first Berlin was reluctant to take on the assignment, feeling he was too much of a city person to write for a character from the backwoods like Annie Oakley. But within a few days, he wrote several songs just to see if he could manage the assignment. Everyone agreed that the songs he wrote in those few days were great, and he signed on to the project.
According to some sources, including Kathleen Riley's book The Astaires: Fred and Adele, Berlin asked Adele Astaire to return to the stage to play the role of Annie. She had retired in 1931 to marry the Duke of Devonshire. He had died in 1944. Adele, however, was intimidated by her brother, Fred's, success and was afraid of being unfavorably compared so she turned down Berlin's offer. Most sources, however, do not mention any consideration of switching from Merman to Astaire, and it seems highly unlikely.
The show was originally announced by mid-September 1945 at the latest. An announcement of the show, then titled Annie Oakley, appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 14, 1945. The article stated that Kern would write the music, and Merman would star. Kern died on Nov. 11. On Nov. 21, an article appeared in the New York Times announcing that Irving Berlin would take over from Kern, but writing the entire score, lyrics as well as music, himself. The article stated, as had earlier articles about the show in the Times, that Merman would be the star. It seems unlikely that with Merman already announced (and possibly already signed to a contract), Adele Astaire would have been contacted to instead play the role in the 10 days before Kern's death and the announcement of Berlin writing the score.
Perhaps Adele Astaire was approached to play the role in the London production. If that were the case, that might explain how the story that she was asked to create the role started.
When the show opened, Ethel Merman's standby was Marjorie Knapp. At the time it was rare for understudies and standbys to be listed in Broadway playbills, and Knapp was not listed. Fairly soon, Mary Jane Walsh took over as standby. She also was not listed in the playbill. Walsh was paid $750 to be the standby, which was likely the most anyone had been paid up till that time to be a standby or understudy on Broadway. As it turned out, Walsh was to go on a good deal during her time as standby.
Merman took a two-week vacation in August 1947, from August 4 through 16, with Walsh subbing. Six weeks later Merman was out on what was supposed to have been a two-week medical leave, but the leave had to be extended. She seems to have been out three weeks altogether.
When the show was approaching its second anniversary, Merman was ready to call it quits as she had found the role more demanding than any other she had played and she felt exhausted, but she was persuaded to sign for a third year to prevent the large cast from losing their jobs as it was expected that the show would close without her. But she insisted on a six-week vacation in the summer of 1948.
Merman's six-week vacation starting July 5, 1948. Receipts plunged sufficiently that producers Rodgers and Hammerstein announced the show was in danger of closing. This caused the cast to petition Actors Equity to allow salary cuts so the show would not close.
Equity agreed to let the salaries be cut on a temporary basis and that they would be restored upon Merman's return.
Merman does not seem to have missed many other perforamnces during the run, but she did miss at least two during closing week.
Although Twentieth Century Fox invested $300,000 (the full production cost) in the production, the studio did not make the film version. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid $650,000 (a record-high film sale at the time) to buy the film rights.
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