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Trigger Happy Henner

The Actress Gladly Hits the Road, Again, to Star in 'Annie Get Your Gun'


It took a quarter of a century and a midlife return to the musical stage for Marilu Henner to get her gun.

She broke into the big time in 1972 in "Grease" and became a household face in 1978 as a member of television's "Taxi" gang. She has had her own TV talk show, gave birth to one of her sons on camera for a TV documentary, played in numerous movies on television and screen, and launched a side career as the author of a series of books on health, nutrition and parenting.

But the 48-year-old star says she never got to pull a trigger on camera or on stage until she came back to Broadway three years ago as showgirl Roxie Hart in "Chicago."

Boyfriend walks out, spurned woman plugs him with pistol shots, then beats the rap in the show's dark, cynical look at American justice.

Now Henner has moved on to rifles--fired with amazing artistry but no malice in a revival of "Annie Get Your Gun." She plays Annie Oakley, the target-shooting star of 19th-century Wild West shows, in a touring production that comes to the Orange County Performing Arts Center this week.

In preparing for the role last summer, Henner took her marksmanship seriously. During rehearsals, she went to a New York City rifle range--not to hone her aim, but to get the feel of a real gun's recoil so she could look authentic while firing shots on stage.

Using a rifle "as close as they could get me to what Annie Oakley would be shooting," Henner learned she had another talent to go with her singing, dancing, acting, schmoozing and writing.

"My first shot was a dead-center bull's-eye," she said proudly in a phone interview from a touring stop in Nashville. "I shot off 64 [rounds] from at least 40 feet away, and of the last 24 shots I had 22 bull's-eyes. I think I was channeling Annie for the hour."

Does that mean Henner has acquired a new hobby?

"Gosh, no. I write books in my spare time."

She says part of the appeal in going on the road for her July 2000 through March 2001 hitch as Annie Oakley was the chance to gather material for her next health book: "I wanted to see how Americans are eating." The verdict: "Better than I thought, but not as good as I had hoped."

But the main reason for returning to the grueling, eight-performances-a-week routine of the Broadway road show, Henner said, was her desire to revisit an enjoyable part of her youth--and do it while it still made sense from a family perspective.

"I had such a great experience early on, being on the road. If I'm ever going to do it, it should be when my kids are old enough to appreciate it, but before soccer practices take over."

Henner's sons, Joey, 5, and Nicky, 6 1/2, travel with her. She put herself and her husband, director-producer Robert Lieberman on the spot with her last book, titled, "I Refuse to Raise a Brat."

With a remarkable score packed with indelible standards, "Annie Get Your Gun" gives Henner plenty of opportunities to raise the roof--or to create lovely romantic moments.

"Chicago," with its Bob Fosse choreography, exploited her training as a dancer. Henner literally grew up in dancing school, because her mother ran a neighborhood dance studio out of the family's home on Chicago's northwest side.

Irving Berlin's great songs are the focus in "Annie Get Your Gun," although Henner said the revival features more dancing than the 1946 original, a showcase for Ethel Merman.

Henner said it has been a lark singing the fun, joyful numbers--"Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," "I Got the Sun in the Morning" and "Anything You Can Do."

She gets to renew intimate acquaintance with leading man Tom Wopat in the gorgeous romantic duet "They Say It's Wonderful." They appeared together in an episode of the mid-'90s TV series "Cybill," in which Henner played an ex-girlfriend of Wopat's character.

"I was 7 1/2 months pregnant with my son Joey. We had this big kiss in the show, and I almost went into labor. [Wopat] is a very good kisser, and now I get to do it, oh, about six times on stage every night."

"There's No Business Like Show Business" is the crown jewel of the "Annie Get Your Gun" score; Henner sings it in a reprise that starts out reflectively then builds. She said she often tears up during the number because it takes her back to her early days.

"It's the first moment Annie realizes she's really in show business. There's this huge poster of herself, and she takes it all in: 'How I wish the folks back home could only see / What's come to Annie, how proud they'd be / Gettin' paid for doin' what comes natur'lly, let's go, on with the show.' "

Henner said she had two kindred moments early in her career. One was in December 1972 in Boston, when she began her run in "Grease."

"I was doing the song 'Those Magic Changes,' my character on a chair with my back to the audience. I turned around and looked at the audience and went, 'Uh, I'm a professional actress.' "

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