Before the show, we see a show curtain painted to resemble a nineteenth century lithographic poster. It heralds "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show" in bold letters across the top. Beneath is a picture of Frank Butler with the caption, "With Frank Butler, World?s Foremost Sharpshooter." Frank Butler appears, and starts THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS.
Charlie Davenport and Mac the property man begin to clear the lawn to prepare for a shooting match when Foster Wilson, the hotel proprietor, stops them. Wilson has just had a visit from Buffalo Bill's rival, Pawnee Bill, whose troupe caused havoc in the hotel and left without paying. No amount of persuasion (or bribery) convinces Wilson to permit a match between Butler and a local champion, and he marches back into the hotel. Enter Dolly Tate, her younger sister Winnie, and Winnie's beau, Tommy Keeler, who is carrying their bags. Dolly obviously objects to Tommy's attentions to her sister and threatens to have him thrown out of the show if he continues to see Winnie. Tommy exits. When Frank Butler enters, accompanied by several adoring girls, Charlie tells him that Wilson has refused permission to hold a shooting match on his front lawn. Frank talks Mr. Wilson into having the shooting match and a chance to make some money on it. The match is set.
Dolly, left alone, sits on a bench in front of a tall hedge. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and the stuffed bird on Dolly's hat goes flying. Annie Oakley enters, carrying an old rifle and two dead birds hanging from her shoulders. She starts to pick up the stuffed bird, but Dolly demands it back, explaining, "It's not an eating bird, it's a wearing bird!" Annie chides her by warning: "round these parts you'll have to keep sewin' it on, cause folks'll keep shootin' it off!" When Wilson enters, he is impressed to learn that Annie can kill quail, wild ducks, or grouse with just one bullet, rather than requiring buckshot.
She introduces her shy siblings, who have never before ventured out of rural Darke County: Jessie, Nellie, and Little Jake. Proudly, Annie explains, "We're in business together I pop 'em, she plucks 'em, she packs 'em, and Lila Jake is my bird dog." (on a small home-made wagon). Wilson agrees to purchase two dozen birds for twenty cents apiece, but, as no one in her family can count higher than twenty, Annie is willing to sell only twenty: DOIN' WHAT COMES NATUR'LLY. Wilson realizes that Annie is the perfect challenger to Frank Butler and goes off to tell Charlie he will allow the match on his lawn. When Frank enters, Annie, not suspecting he is the rival champion, is smitten at once by his good looks. He, however gently tells her that he prefers his women somewhat more scrubbed than Annie and "dimpled and rosy": THE GIRL THAT I MARRY. When he exits, she looks longingly after him, examines her own appearance, and dejectedly sits on a bench in a tintype pose: YOU CAN'T GET A MAN WITH A GUN. She exits.
With considerable fanfare, Buffalo Bill himself enters to announce the shooting match between Butler and the local champion. When he and the crowd learn that the challenger is a woman, there is much laughter. Bill introduces Butler's assistant Dolly, who executes a lavish bow and gun presentation. Awed, Annie introduces her own siblings to be her assistants; and they imitate Dolly and Winnie's gestures. After the preliminary rituals, Frank enters. For the first time, Annie realizes who he is. They shoot clay pigeons until Annie out shoots her celebrated rival. Annie hopes that he is not angry with her when he politely explains that anyone can miss a shot, she snaps back, "I can?t!" Bill and Charlie call Frank aside and tell him that due to increased competition from Pawnee Bill, their show's attendance is down. They suggest that a female partner for Frank could prove an attraction. Skeptical at first, he finally agrees. When the three make Annie an offer, she accepts at once in order to be with Frank. They explain that she is now about to embark on a new and wonderful career: THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (reprise 1).
Six weeks later--a Pullman parlor in an overland steam train at night. Winnie and Tommy reveal their plans to wed I'LL SHARE IT ALL WITH YOU. In order to impress Frank, Annie is taking reading lessons from Little Jake, who can hardly read himself. When Frank enters, we learn that he is finding Annie more attractive every day and is even thinking about taking her on as a partner. He returns to his car. Bill and Charlie enter and excitedly explain to Annie that Pawnee Bill is opening in Minneapolis against their own show and is trying to sign up Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux warrior. They urge her to perfect and introduce in Minneapolis an act she has been rehearsing. She is thrilled by the opportunity to impress Frank and agrees. The men exit to send telegrams to the press announcing the novelty act, when Annie's family return to go to bed. She serenades the children in her own particular fashion: MOONSHINE LULLABY.
A few days later at the fair grounds in Minneapolis. The scene is the main entrance to the show tent. Buffalo Bill?s entire company of whip crackers, ropers, cowboys and clowns is assembled and are busy - each rehearsing his or her own specialty act. Charlie stands to one side, supervising when Buffalo Bill enters. Right and left are two large posters - one is the old one of Frank Butler; the other, even larger, with a glorified depiction of Annie with her gun, proclaims: "Introducing Annie Oakley, the Greatest Female Rifle Shot in the World!!!"
Meanwhile Pawnee Bill himself and Chief Sitting Bull arrive. They tell Buffalo Bill that they have come to witness the new sharpshooter Annie Oakley and they exit. Frank, not knowing that Annie has been rehearsing a special routine, tells Charlie that he is quite dismayed by her extravagant billing, when she is going to perform only a few minor tricks. He insists that the billing be taken down at once in this and every town. When he angrily storms out, Charlie tells Bill that Annie must do her specialty at once to compete with Pawnee Bill.
Annie enters and sees herself on the poster for the first time. Breathlessly anticipating a chance to impress Frank, Annie contemplates the wonders of Show Business: THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (reprise 2). Frank enters and Annie confesses her feelings, "I been feelin' kinda funny lately": THEY SAY IT'S WONDERFUL.
Frank enters to explain that he does not want her to have such big billing all at once, but that she should slowly grow in reputation. She cannot reveal that there is a surprise in store for him that day. After she leaves, Frank confesses to the boys that he seems to be in love: MY DEFENSES ARE DOWN. When they exit, we hear Buffalo Bill start to announce Annie Oakley "Ladies and gentlemen, we now come to the surprise main attraction." Frank interrupts and does the introduction himself who is startled by Annie?s surprise trick.
At the fair grounds, everyone is gleeful over her triumphant act, except for Frank, who bitterly tells Charlie that he has been a "sucker" to be so double-crossed, and after he almost asked her to marry him! Not realizing that he has been offended, Annie introduces Frank to Sitting Bull as a star. Unimpressed, the chief announces that he wants to adopt Annie into the Sioux tribe as his daughter. Further, Sitting Bull will invest money in the Buffalo Bill show. Thrilled, she looks around only to discover that Frank has gone.
With Sitting Bull?s help they read Frank?s letter where he writes that he is leaving with Winnie and Dolly to perform his old act in the Pawnee Bill show. Sadly, she realizes that YOU CAN?T GET A MAN WITH A GUN (reprise): FINALE ACT I.
It is the deck of a cattle boat eight months later as Buffalo Bill's Wild West company approaches New York harbor. Buffalo Bill's European tour has been a dismal financial failure. As Bill philosophically explains to Annie, the "European tour was an artistic success. Twenty-six command performances!" to which Charlie adds, "They command, we perform." A messenger pulls up alongside the cattle boat and hands Bill an invitation from Pawnee Bill to a reception in their honor the following evening at New York's fashionable Brevoort Hotel. The messenger tells Annie that Pawnee Bill's show has been playing for three weeks at Madison Square Garden, and Frank has been a great success with New York's society ladies. Eager to see him, Annie longs for their reunion: I GOT LOST IN HIS ARMS.
The ballroom of the Brevoort, attractively decorated for a reception. Tommy enters and is overjoyed to greet his estranged wife Winnie, who believes that Tommy?s tour with buffalo Bill was a great success. Tommy and Winnie have other things on their minds, however: WHO DO YOU LOVE, I HOPE. Meanwhile, Frank tries to evade the attentions of Mrs. Potter-Porter, a society matron, and confides in Dolly that he cannot wait to see Annie. Dolly explains that Pawnee Bill has arranged the reception to encourage Buffalo Bill to merge their two shows. Neither knows the other's troupe is broke.
Annie makes a grand entrance in a fancy ball gown, her chest resplendently decorated with medals and ribbons from Europe?s crowned heads. She graciously shakes hands with the society women, knowing that each is a potential rival for Frank's attentions. When the two Bills discover the other is penniless, Charlie suggests a swift exit from the party, but Sitting Bull wisely points out to Annie that the two shows must merge, so that she and Frank can be together. Why not sell the medals to pay for the merger? Happy to be poor again, but with her true love, Annie agrees: I GOT THE SUN IN THE MORNING.
When Frank appears, Annie proudly tells him that she now wears perfume and is clean and polished. Frank tells Annie he wants to marry her. OLD FASHIONED WEDDING.
Frank graciously offers her his three modest medals as a pre-wedding present, but is dismayed to discover when Annie opens her wrap that her bosom is a veritable treasure chest of jewels and gold. Taken aback, he feels his paltry medals are too modest for the competition. When he proudly reads from the back of one, "To Frank Butler, the champion sharp-shooter of the world," Annie's ego gets the better of her, and she snaps back, "What world? The old world or the new world?" The competition is on again. Annie instructs Charlie to arrange a public shooting match to prove she is the better shot, Meanwhile, the merger is off. Frank, feeling deceived by Annie's outward feminine manner, sings a bitter reprise of THE GIRL THAT I MARRY.
Meanwhile in the property room, Dolly Tate sneaks in approaches Annie's gun case. Just as she is about to open the case, Charlie and Sitting Bull catch her. She confesses that she was planning to use a pair of pliers to bend the rifle sights, thereby enabling Frank to win the match. When Sitting Bull threatens her, she runs off. He reminds Charlie that the last time Annie won a match, Frank left her. As the merger depends upon Annie and Frank getting together, Charlie smirks, "S. B., why you old S. B. Get to Work."
At the shooting match Buffalo Bill announces the rules of the contest. Spitefully, Annie makes a private bet with Frank: All her jeweled medals "agin them tin badges." He accepts: ANYTHING YOU CAN DO. When the shooting commences, Annie begins to miss all her shots, but Frank generously offers her his own rifle. Her aim and her spirits are restored. Sitting Bull, however, quietly reminds Annie that she can't get a man with a gun and points to the damaged sights on her own rifle. Understanding his meaning, she takes back her own gun, shoots a few misses, and then pretends to give up the competition, admitting that Frank is the superior shot. His manly pride restored, Frank graciously allows Annie to keep her medals and announces the merger of the two shows. Frank and Annie kiss and offer a final reprise of THEY SAY IT'S WONDERFUL and head upstage into the sunset.
The entire company returns for the FINALE ULTIMO.
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