Audio tracks are embedded within each activity. A pronunciation guide and "Who's Who" chart can be found here.
ACT I It’s late in the afternoon in the Polka Saloon, the meeting place of a mining camp at the height of the California Gold Rush. Nick, the bartender, is preparing for the evening rush. Sheriff Jack Rance plays solitaire. Suddenly, the Polka comes to life as miners pour in, their workday done. They order whisky, play cards, sing, and gossip about Minnie, the saloon’s owner (Tracks 1–3). When Nick tells Sonora, a miner, that he’s Minnie’s favorite, Sonora buys cigars for everyone. When Nick next tells Trin, another miner, that Minnie has chosen him, Trin buys everyone a round of drinks.
Off in the distance, the balladeer Jake Wallace sings a sad song of home (Tracks 17–23, “Che faranno i vecchi miei”). By the time Wallace arrives in the saloon, with the miners all chiming in, the song has overwhelmed a homesick miner, Jim Larkens. In a show of community, the miners all chip in to buy Larkens a ticket home.
As evening continues to unfold in the Polka, a miner named Sid cheats at cards. Amid calls for his hanging, the sheriff argues that death is no punishment. He concocts a more potent sentence: Sid must wear a card pinned to his shirt—the sign of a cheater.
Ashby, agent of the Wells Fargo stagecoach company, shows up, asking for Minnie and bringing news of a Mexican bandit called Ramerrez. Nick passes around glasses of whisky—courtesy of Minnie, he says (Track 4). Rance declares his love for Minnie. Sonora challenges Rance. A fight breaks out, until Minnie herself shows up and breaks up the struggle by blasting her gun (Track 7).
Minnie’s take-charge presence changes the tone in the saloon. Minnie collects gold from Sonora and hides it away, teaches a Bible lesson, insists that the Indian Billy Jackrabbit marry Wowkle, the mother of his newborn son, and sells cigars (Tracks 5, 8–11). She fends off Rance’s amorous approaches, while explaining her vision of romantic love (Tracks 12, 13, 31, and 32, “Laggiù nel Soledad”). Minnie is plainly the life of the Polka.
A Pony Express rider arrives with a letter for the Wells Fargo agent. Ashby announces that Nina Micheltorena, an old lover of the bandit Ramerrez, has revealed his whereabouts. Other letters bring miners sad news of home. Then a stranger strides in, introducing himself as Johnson and claiming he comes from the nearby town of Sacramento (Track 6). Rance is suspicious. Minnie defends the stranger, recalling an earlier meeting. “Johnson” invites her to waltz—the first dance of her life. “Johnson,” we will learn, is actually the bandit Ramerrez.
As Minnie and Johnson dance, Ashby and a group of miners drag a bandit named José Castro into the saloon. Castro promises to bring the posse to the bandit chief—while secretly contacting Johnson with a plan to steal the Polka’s gold. But Johnson is falling in love with Minnie and ignores his gang’s signal, spoiling the theft. He promises to visit Minnie in her cabin that evening. He gives her compliments, then disappears, leaving a dazed and infatuated Minnie behind.
ACT II Wowkle is in Minnie’s mountaintop cabin, singing a lullaby to her infant son, when Billy Jackrabbit comes in. Following Minnie’s advice, he offers to marry her. Minnie arrives, hurriedly tidies the cabin and dresses for her dinner guest, Johnson. The date goes well. She describes her life at the mining camp (Track 14) and, before long, they kiss—another first for Minnie (Track 28). With snow falling thickly outside, Minnie convinces Johnson to spend the night in her bed; she will sleep on the floor. As they prepare to go to sleep, he assures her he has never met Nina Micheltorena.
All at once, Rance bangs on the door. He has come with a posse including Ashby, Sonora, and Nick, looking for the bandit. Minnie hides Johnson to shield him from this jealous suitor. Rance tells her that Johnson is actually the bandit, Ramerrez, and the lover of Nina Micheltorena. She doesn’t believe him. Sonora muses on the odd fact that Johnson could have stolen the Polka’s gold, but didn’t. Nick notices a cigar—proof that Johnson has been there—but chooses to hide the information from Rance. At last, Rance produces a photo of Ramerrez/Johnson he’s obtained from Nina herself. Minnie only laughs. She sends the posse away, then calls Johnson out of hiding to denounce him—not for his life of crime, but for stealing her first kiss. She throws him out into the blizzard (Tracks 15 and 29).
From a distance, Rance shoots Johnson. Minnie can’t help but bring the wounded bandit back inside. Rance returns, jealous and angry that he can’t find Johnson—until blood drips from Johnson’s hiding place in the attic. Rance forces the injured bandit out and prepares to arrest him. But Minnie has an idea. She offers the sheriff a high-stakes game of poker: If she loses, she will turn Johnson in and give herself to Rance. If she wins, the sheriff will leave them both. Cheating at cards, Minnie wins. Rance storms out. Minnie, crying, embraces Johnson, who lies motionless (Tracks 30 and 16).
ACT III Near the mining camp, Rance, Nick, and Ashby wait for their posse to return with Johnson. Though Ashby wants the bandit captured alive, Rance is prepared to hang him as soon as he’s brought to town. An offstage chase ends with Johnson’s capture, who asks the miners not to reveal his end to Minnie (Track 33, “Ch’ella mi creda”). While the miners denounce Johnson for his crimes, Nick secretly pays Billy Jackrabbit to delay in preparing a noose. The doomed bandit declares his love for Minnie, infuriating Rance. Just as the hanging is about to take place, Minnie appears. She reminds the miners both of their Bible lessons and of her many kindnesses toward them, and convinces all but Rance and Ashby to forgive Johnson (Tracks 24–26). Sonora frees Johnson in the name of the community. The lovers head off, never to see Minnie’s beloved California again (Track 27).