The musical Johnny Guitar is Nicholas van Hoogstraten’s unabashed tribute to the “B” western, to the 1954 movie of the same name, and to Joan Crawford, its star. It’s probably no coincidence that the musical opened at the Century Center for the Performing Arts on March 23, 2004, Miss Crawford’s birthday.
Since then, Johnny Guitar has had international success, somewhat bewildering the critics, since at first glance, the musical seems a parody of a parody, with its larger-than-life characters, its amazing coincidences, its almost melodramatic emotions, and its musical homage to cowboy songs. But audiences love it, for obvious, and for some not-so-obvious reasons.
The women in Johnny Guitar fit right into the stereotypes of women in westerns, who tend to be of three types: the “nurturer” (as exemplified by Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), the outlaw (Calamity Jane) and the saloonkeeper (Miss Kitty of Gunsmoke fame). The lead character, Vienna, is a strong example of this last type. She owns a saloon in town and not only wants to keep what’s hers, but is also determined to bring the railroad to town. As such, she is a major threat to Emma Small (played in the movie by Mercedes McCambridge), not only as a business rival, but as a woman pursued by the man Emma wants.
The romance is set up as the main conflict: Emma is in love with the Dancin’ Kid, who loves Vienna, who loves the new guy in town, Johnny Guitar. The stage is set for what the New York Times calls “commercial and . . . [romantic] rivalries . . . [with] a bank robbery, a lynch mob and a shootout between the leading ladies” (Ben Brantley, New York Times, Mar 24, 2004, E3).
In the Johnny Guitar movie, the romantic battle between Emma and Vienna paled in contrast to their off-screen rivalry; most memorably “with a drunken Joan at one point throwing all of McCambridge’s clothes onto the highway.” (America’s Real Sweetheart: a Biagraphy of Joan Crawford, http://joancrawfordbest.com/biography.htm, January 2006) However, the musical uses the romance as a frame for a larger conflict—the battle between the old West and the new.
Van Hoogstraten mentions “[the] nostalgia for that anachronistic way of doing things” (Johnny Guitar, Authors’ Note), but his nostalgia is for the excitement of developing a new country, not clinging to a static past. His sympathies are with Vienna, whose objective is to become part of the bigger West, once the railroad comes in. Her love story is the more developed, she is the one who attracts both Johnny and the Dancin’ Kid, and she is shown to have moments of doubt and tenderness. Her desire for progress is reflected by her wish to settle down: “Are you lonely from too long out on the road? / Believe me, I’ve been as broken as you are. / So I’m sayin’, come on in, friend. Welcome home.” (Johnny Guitar, p. 54)
In contrast, Emma Small, the antagonist, is an updated version of the rancher’s daughter. She owns half the town, including the bank, and has no intention of relinquishing her position. Emma is single-mindedly determined to get rid of Vienna and what she represents, by running her out of town and returning to the status quo: “We were here first. . . . And before I’d allow anybody to steal / What we fought for and died for, / My heart would have to lie cold as a stone in my breast! / . . . Comin’ here acting just like they belong! / Who do they think they are? (Johnny Guitar, pp. 51-53).
When the bank is robbed, it’s as though Emma herself has been robbed. She urges hanging and murder as an immediate fix, and she’s willing to pull both rope and trigger, rather than listen to second thoughts from her supporters. Her love for the Dancin’ Kid almost seems an afterthought—does she want him because she doesn’t want Vienna to have him, or because he also represents the past?
Emma’s past is completely perfect—she won’t admit to any flaws, and is determined to keep the future from invading her reality. Vienna knows she’s been less than perfect, but will tolerate her mistakes in order to look forward to tomorrow.
Men aren’t in charge of the action in this Western; they serve as mirrors of the women’s enmity. Johnny and the Dancin’ Kid represent a warmer, more human side. Like Vienna and Emma they compete for the West’s future, but their conflict is centered on winning Vienna’s heart, rather than taking over the territory. Although the authors want the audience to be amused by the men’s argument over pots and pans, they’re also reminding the audience that building a home is essential to what all participants in the battle are after. We’re supposed to laugh at the idea of romantic illusion the men demonstrate but let them move us to side with Vienna, who also, at heart, wants this home.
As the women prepare for the ultimate showdown, we sense that Emma’s vision of the future is doomed to failure, because she wants to keep people out; Vienna wins because she typifies the welcoming, inclusionary spirit of the new West.