As musical smash Annie Get Your Gun heads North on tour Chrissy Iley meets the stars of the show – including Jason Donovan
There is a feeling of excitement, an urgency. I am downstairs in the caverns of an old church.
Above we hear dancing feet and the familiar tune There’s No Business Like Show Business, from the Irving Berlin classic musical Annie Get Your Gun.
It’s a major new six month UK tour of the Tony award-winning show – from the producers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, West Side Story and South Pacific – based on a true story of Annie Oakley, who was an incredible sharpshooter, and her competitive romance with rival marksman Frank Butler.
They both worked for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus. Buffalo Bill was an American soldier, bison hunter and showman.
Hence the song. And this production of Annie Get Your Gun 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,” Emma 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.”
Emma is a two-time Olivier nominee and says she aims to be “more ripped than I’ve ever been at the end of this tour.”
“It’s all part of maintaining a show like this, being physically strong.”
Emma is indeed sharp. She is a MENSA member who takes everything in her very capable stride.
“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.”
Can she win him back? “Like every good love story, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl loses boy, girl decides to shoot something.”
She laughs wholeheartedly. “Annie is feisty and strong and not prepared to be told she is just a little girl. She’s not cocky, just confident, and she doesn’t understand why she has to hide that.”
Is she similar to Annie? “We do look very similar but I’m a girlie girl in most respects.
“I am the sort of girl who wears dresses and heels which have been packed to the back of my wardrobe for the next six months while on tour in this show. I’m in jeans and boots every day during rehearsals to try to roughen up my posture.”
Annie is also meant to be incredibly beautiful and the audience is wowed to see her transition from cowgirl to stunning beauty in a gown.
“She is in this phenomenal gown but essentially she’s the same person.
“You can paint her face, polish her nails, brush her hair, but underneath everything is still Annie. It is non-stop and I like a challenge very much, as Annie does.”
Emma is excited to work 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, from Joseph to Priscilla.
So how would Jason describe Annie Get Your Gun to anyone who has never seen the show or film before?
“It’s a love story, essentially and it’s about opposites.”
“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.”
Annie Get Your Gun is a classic musical and Jason hails the timeless appeal of Irving Berlin’s writing.
“It’s an incredible musical with some really great songs such as There’s No Business Like Show Business and Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.
“There are lots of famous songs 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 Annie Get Your Gun.”
A star so confident in his own skin, Jason 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 Jason 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, Jason hasn’t seen the original 1950’s Hollywood movie that was based on the successful Broadway production.
“I try and 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.”
As Jason has already pointed out, the show is called Annie Get Your Gun and not Frank Get Your Gun, so how does Jason find working with Emma Williams, who plays the famous female sharp shooter, Annie Oakley?
“It’s all about good chemistry as performers. You know, we get along in abundance.
“I do think that a good emotional performance comes from the acting and that is the basis for me, and the chemistry. And yes, also the fact that she has an incredible voice and an incredible talent makes it a joy working with her.”
The clever casting of Emma and Jason means that the actors are closer to the age of the characters that they are playing and help 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 from the late 80’s and early 90’s, Hale and Pace.
Director Ian Talbot confirms he is an absolute perfectionist. Norman 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.”
Is he on a special show business diet?
“I think of the show as doing a fitness regime in itself. You prepare for the shows from the moment you wake up.
“You analyse how your throat is, how you are feeling. Your whole day is based around those two hours on stage.
“Musical theatre is especially disciplined because of the singing. It’s not the same as doing a straight play or stand-up. You have to look after the voice a lot more.
“I do sing There’s No Business Like Show Business. It’s when they tried to persuade Annie to join them.
“They sing to her to say you’re going to have a great time, this is what happens in show business.
“I spent the last 35 years doing it, so I have no trouble in believing the truth of it. It’s been a great journey for me.”
Annie Get Your Gun is at the Liverpool Empire from August 5-9.
For more information and tickets go to www.anniegetyourgunthemusical.com