THERE’S No Business Like Show Business, that popular showtune from the classic Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun is being belted out in the rehearsal room - a new major UK tour of the Tony award-winning show is almost ready to hit the road.
Based on a true story - that of Annie Oakley, an incredible sharpshooter, and her romance with rival marksman Frank Butler - the musical tours to the Playhouse this week.
Both Oakley and Butler worked for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus. Buffalo Bill was an American soldier, bison hunter and showman. Hence the song.
This production is also a ‘show within a show,’ as the centre of the stage is the Circus Big Top where the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show takes place, while the remainder of the action takes place on the rest of the stage.
Director Ian Talbot OBE says, “It’s also got the most wonderful score, with one hit after another. Incredible to think that Annie was a real person, so ahead of her time.”
Annie, who sings Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better, was a 19th century proto-feminist. She is played by the equally gutsy Emma Williams.
Says Talbot, “Emma’s got all the right qualities to play the role of Annie Oakley. She’s feisty and has a voice to die for. She’s so conscientious she’s gone off and had trapeze lessons to give her a head start. It’s a hugely demanding role.”
Frank Butler is played by Jason Donovan. “The characters have a special chemistry,” Williams says. “We have been having an absolute blast. I have an array of weaponry in the show – rifles, pistols and I’m having a whale of a time playing with them. I don’t know if I’d trust myself with any real ammo.”
The two-time Olivier nominee adds that she aims to be ‘more ripped’ than I’ve ever been at the end of this tour.
“I am doing a lot of circus training at the moment – stilt walking, juggling. We’ve got a trapeze as well. Annie was a real trick shot. She used to shoot over her shoulder using a mirror and she could hit things without looking.
“Buffalo Bull decides that having a girl who can shoot fantastically and looks great, which was rare in those times, should be their star attraction.
“She does this amazing trick and unfortunately it’s the one thing that may make her lose Frank, the love of her life, when she thinks it’s going to be the one thing that will make him fall at her feet.”
Williams is very excited to be working with Jason Donovan.
“On the first day of rehearsals we were doing a song from the show called They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful. It’s a duet. It’s glorious.
“There’s this amazing swell in the music, then the director said, ‘This is where you kiss.’ We started the song, the swell of music happened, and he kissed me. Bear in mind I have known him for four hours at this point and I am thinking, ‘Jason Donovan is kissing me.’
“I was supposed to come back in but I forgot what I was supposed to say. Getting to work with someone who is as lovely as Jason is an absolute privilege and pleasure.”
Jason Donovan is excited too. He looks fit and relaxed, his eyes glinting. He is now a musical theatre veteran, so how would he describe Annie Get Your Gun to anyone who has never seen the show or film?
“It’s a love story, essentially and it’s about opposites,” he says. “Annie and Frank are complete opposite people; the tables turn and they end up falling in love, and he ends up becoming a bit of a puppy dog after her. But initially he’s a very confident character.”
Donovan is keen to point out the timeless appeal of the piece.
“It’s an incredible musical with some really great songs. There are lots of famous songs that people will recognise but not necessarily realise come from this show, so it will be good to show audiences how those songs tie in to the story of Annie Get Your Gun.”
A star so confident in his own skin, Donovan doesn’t even need to be the star. “The crux of this show is Annie Get Your Gun, not Frank Get Your Gun, and I have no problem with that. I think with musical theatre I have a currency and I hope my audience will buy a ticket.”
And with Annie Get Your Gun being a Western themed musical, there are plenty of dance numbers in the show, meaning that Donovan will be dancing as well as singing, which doesn’t faze him as much as it would have done in the past.
“I am more relaxed about choreography than I’ve ever been, thanks to Strictly.”
Interestingly enough, he hasn’t seen the original 1950s Hollywood movie based on the successful Broadway production.
“I try to avoid watching any of those things before I do a show,” he admits. “It moulds a particular image of how something should be in your head, and as an actor, you want to make a part your own.”
Casting Williams and Donovan means the actors are closer to the age of the characters they are playing and helps to bring the show right up to date for a modern audience.
Buffalo Bill is played by Norman Pace, known to many as half of the successful TV comedy duo Hale and Pace. Director Ian Talbot confirms he is an absolute perfectionist.
Pace laughs it off, saying, “My biggest contribution to the entire show is that I’ve managed to grow my own facial hair for the part. I’ve got one of those moustaches that you have to twiddle at the end and a long thin beard that is somewhere down to my knees.”
The original Buffalo Bill was a war hero and king of the Wild West. To train for Buffalo Bill did he have to shoot deer or pigeon? “No animals were killed during the making of this show. I don’t do any shooting. I’m in charge of the Wild West show and I make other people shoot on my behalf. At the time of the show – and it is based on real life – my shooting days as a character are over. I am an impresario.’
Buffalo Bill commissioned Annie Oakley to shoot eggs from poodles’ heads. “I just have to be in charge which befits a man of my years, although this is the first time I’ve ever been in charge of anything.”
Annie Get Your Gun, Playhouse, Greenside Place, tonight-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £13.40-£41.90, 0844-871 3014