I fancy myself a tough guy. I while away weekends lurking in leather bars redolent with cheap beer, smoke, and anticipation. I have owned more

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Berlin stories

I fancy myself a tough guy. I while away weekends lurking in leather bars redolent with cheap beer, smoke, and anticipation. I have owned more than one harness in my lifetime and I'm not an equestrian. M�y Cre, Judas Priest, and Joan Jett figure prominently in my album collection.

But right now, I'm getting in touch with my dark side. I'm strutting around my bedroom, with my arms stretched wide, like a finalist milking a climactic high note in an America's Junior Miss pageant. And the music blasting from my stereo? The new Broadway recording of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, starring Bernadette Peters.

All men have secrets and here is mine, so let it be known: I am a closet show queen. Before David Bowie, before punk rock, and a lifetime before techno, my parents' Broadway cast albums (and the joy they brought me as I danced on our coffee table) defined my musical taste.

Annie Get Your Gun wasn't among my folks' collection. Instead, I grew up wearing out the grooves on West Side Story, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. But my familiarity with the latter two paid off in spades after college, when I landed a job at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, responsible for safeguarding the properties of the men who'd revolutionized musical theater.

Among the great songwriters they represented was Mr. "God Bless America" himself, Irving Berlin. I learned plenty about Annie Get Your Gun during four years of high school drama coaches drilling me endlessly about the show: Was the 1950 movie starring Betty Hutton available on video? (No.) Were there finished numbers cut from the score? (Yes—"Take It in Your Stride," available on the 1994 compilation Lost in Boston.) What had become of "I'm an Indian, Too," a ditty missing since the 1966 revival?

The answer to the last one is simple—ethnic gags that were funny in 1946 didn't age gracefully. I own a high-spirited 1979 cover of the song by Don Armando's Second Avenue Rhumba Band (part of the Kid Creole & the Coconuts mafia). And while the track is far superior to anything on Ethel Merman's disco album, the lyrics—which poke fun at Native American etymology ("Just like Rising Moon, Falling Pants, Running Nose/Like those Indians/I'm an Indian, too")—would steam PC wet blankets.

My knowledge expanded further when I assisted with research for Mary Ellin Barrett's Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir. One afternoon while digging through old correspondence, I came across a note from Judy Garland. This gay icon, "sick on pills and booze, a dazed wraith fired by M-G-M" (to quote Barrett) had originally been cast as the film Annie, and here I was looking at her original signature! I was too honest to do anything but refile it quickly. Today, dollar signs whirl past my eyes when I imagine the frenzy such an item might whip up on eBay.

But the 1999 Annie doesn't need any "lost" songs. The tunes that remain—"There's No Business Like Show Business," "I Got the Sun in the Morning"—sound as lively as they undoubtedly did half a century ago. Will we say the same of the dreck from Rent or Andrew Lloyd Webber's ponderous monstrosities? Fat chance.

This recording doesn't want for Garland or Merman, either. Peters makes the role wholly her own, a combustible combination of wildcat, coquette, and naif. And her singing! Neither flat-out belting, nor that annoying, tentative style favored by overly precious Mandy Patinkin types, Peters' finessed delivery ignites the lyrics with humor and sincerity. Her duets with co-star Tom (The Dukes of Hazzard) Wopat, "Anything You Can Do" and "An Old Fashioned Wedding," had me laughing out loud.

Forget Korn, forget Limp Bizkit, forget 2-Pac. You want to show the world what a tough guy you are? Go buy the new Annie Get Your Gun.

 
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