Sarna Lapine imagines sharpshooter Annie Oakley was a nomad, a traveler at heart, restless in one place for too long — and loath to settle down, unless she found her home.
For 17 years, her home was with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where she traveled the world and became a star, and created her family of choice. For Lapine, the sentiment is all-too real, as a theater director who routinely finds herself connected to her cast and crew as if by blood, not only by heart.
Her most recent endeavor — a reimagining of “Annie Get Your Gun,” a fictionalized account of Oakley’s life and romance with her competitor, marksman Frank E. Butler — was no different.
Backed by a predominantly female creative team, Lapine has breathed new life into the Irving Berlin musical, offering a fresh take on an intimidating classic, she said, opening Tuesday at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
“Anytime I’m afraid to do something, and then I embark on it, I think I’m always changed by those experiences — because, frankly, it would just be easier not to take those risks,” she said. “But in taking them, I’ve certainly been changed. It’s a very unusual process because, at times, it really does feel like we’re creating a new musical and there’s so much to build and discover.”
Lapine was simply predestined to love “Annie Get Your Gun.” It was her mother’s favorite musical and one of the vinyl soundtracks to her childhood, in a record player rotation that included “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady” and the like.
“I think my mom has always been a little bit enamored with the western United States,” Lapine said. “‘Annie Get Your Gun’ spoke to the western mythology and fantasy and romance, and when we were kids, our parents took us out west on family vacations, and I remember instantly falling in love with the landscape.”
The myth of the American West is a complicated, dark and storied one, Lapine explained. It has seen a reinvention, from the circa-1800s Wild West shows to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns to the Coen brothers’ film interpretations of today. But its history is steeped in racism and misogyny, and not absent from “Annie Get Your Gun” — nor should it be, she said.
“I’m not looking back at the 1880s, or the 1940s, or the 1960s and saying, ‘Let’s pretend that wasn’t there.’ I’m looking back and saying, ‘Not only was that there, but where we are today is a product of those beliefs,’” she said. “So how are we interacting with the racist and misogynistic beliefs that have very much shaped the identity of this country? And where has that led us today?
“It’s a thornier way through. But the fact is, it’s a period piece and, in some ways, it’s an artifact, and you can’t reinvent where it comes from,” she continued. “I think it’s interesting to engage with its origins and to see if they can help us understand something new about ourselves.”
To fully grasp the roots of “Annie Get Your Gun,” Lapine requested every draft of the musical ever written, starting with the original first act and outline of the second act, as imagined by Dorothy Fields and her brother, Herbert Fields, before Berlin wrote any of the music and lyrics.
Next came the original 1946 production, the first revival in 1966 and the most recent Broadway revival by Peter Stone in 1999, she said.
“I worked through all the existing drafts, and then I felt like I could edit together the best version of those drafts. I was interested in distilling it down,” Lapine said. “In a way, I started that with the music, to find a way into a more elemental, sparse orchestration. Then, we brought the entire production down to its essence, so that all elements were as minimal as possible, including the set, the costumes, the size of the cast and, in some cases, the script, which is getting edited down to its most essential scenes and songs.”
Alexandra Socha leads the female-centered musical as Annie Oakley, supported by a crew of predominantly women: choreographer Sarah O’Gleby, set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, lighting designer Jiyoun Chang, costume design by Valérie Thérèse Bart, and sound design by Jane Shaw. Elizabeth Printz is responsible for wig, hair and makeup design, Lena Forman handled the props design, and Jane Pole acted as stage manager.
Music director Andy Einhorn and Erik Della Penna, on orchestration and music arrangement, are the two exceptions to the female-dominated team, which Lapine said was unintentional, but welcome.
“I think we’re all feeling, as a country, a little vulnerable about where we’re headed,” she said. “So I think when you’re involved with a creative process that feels truly more democratic and inclusive, you’re living the version of your life that you want to live.
“You’re believing in those ideals. You’re aspiring to build community from a place of love, as opposed to a place of fear and hate and violence,” she continued. “At the end of the day, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ is a story about the transformative power of love, if you can make yourself vulnerable.”
The “swift” rehearsal process in New York was a true exercise in trust — both in one another and the creative process, Lapine said during her lunch break with a laugh — which led to a “lot of discoveries on our feet.”
“Even when you’re really pressed for time, and even when you feel stressed out, and even when you think, ‘God, I need four to six weeks for something like this instead of two,’” she said, “to not back away from the ambition of it and to ask everyone to come along for the ride and to bring the same spirit to the table, it’s really gratifying when you have a group of people that’s all in and wants to do that with you.
“You realize, ‘Okay, this is bigger than all of us.’ There’s something here that’s compelling all of us to be this ambitious together.”
“Annie Get Your Gun” will open on Tuesday, July 30, at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor, as the final production of this summer’s Mainstage Season. This first performance only is “Pay What You Can” with a limited number of tickets available at the box office on the day of the show on a first come, first serve basis. Additional performances will be held on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and select matinees at 2 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. with select matinees at 2 p.m., through August 25.
Tickets range from $40 to $155. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.