Lights illuminate the towering red rocks of the American southwest, a tumbleweed rolls across the stage. Suddenly, we hear the strains of a guitar and the lights reveal a slinky saloon singer. Thus begins the musical prologue to this campy spoof of fifties westerns.
A tall stranger, Johnny Guitar, pushes through the swinging doors of Vienna’s Saloon and asks for the boss. Learning that she is busy, he goes to the kitchen for something to eat. Vienna, who hopes her lackluster saloon business will soon boom with the coming of the railroad, descends the stairs of her empty saloon singing soulfully, “Let it Spin.”
The sound of horses announces the arrival of Emma Small, who owns half the town and who has a long-standing rivalry with Vienna, fueled most recently by Emma fighting to keep the railroad out of town and off her land. Emma is followed into the saloon by McIvers (who owns the other half of the town) and Jenks, carrying the dead body of Len, Emma’s brother. Len was killed during a stagcoach robbery, and Emma is convinced that the dirty deed was done by the Dancin’ Kid and his men, who are Vienna’s friends. The Kid shows up, and Johnny re-enters, singing of course. The Kid and Johnny (who are both in love with Vienna) exchange unpleasantries, and McIvers gives them both twenty-four hours to get out of town. Vienna refuses to buckle to the pressure to leave, and Johnny vows to stay and help her. He and Bart get into a fight offstage, and Johnny displays his ability with a six-gun. Vienna sings “Branded a Tramp,” and we learn that she and Johnny have a history, as the scene ends.
As the lights come up on scene two, Johnny, Vienna and the cowboy trio sing “Old Santa Fe,” and Johnny and Vienna admit their feelings for each other. Vienna goes to the bank, which is owned by Emma, to withdraw her savings. The Dancin’ Kid enters, intent on robbing the bank, and Vienna tries to talk him out of it. However, Emma is convinced that Vienna came to the bank to assist in the robbery.
Vienna returns to the saloon where the Dancin’ Kid and his men meet her, as the sound of railroad construction blasting gets nearer and nearer. Meanwhile, Emma, McIvers and a posse are closing in on Vienna’s place, intent on lynching somebody for Len’s murder and other deeds. The Dancin’ Kid and his men decide the blasting has made it impossible to get through the pass and hide out at their lair, a cabin in the mountains. The posse and Emma storm through the swinging doors demanding the Kid and his bunch—and, as Emma gloats, Vienna. They take Vienna to a bridge, put a noose around her neck, and prepare to hang her. Suddenly, a rifle shot rings out, the rope is cut, and Vienna falls to the water below where she is rescued by Johnny, who takes her to the lair. Once there, Johnny and the Kid clash, and Johnny Guitar reveals that he is really that infamous gunfighter, Johnny Logan. The kid, of course, sings “The Gunfighter,” and Vienna sings “We’ve had Our Moments.”
The next morning, Emma and the posse show up at the lair. The time has come for Emma and Vienna to settle their long-standing feud. Thus, they face off with six-shooters as they sing “Bad Blood.” The shoot-out occurs and Emma emerges from the cabin and collapses.
The Dancin’ Kid is taken into custody, but there is nothing to charge Vienna with, so she is free to go. Because of the railroad, her saloon will soon make her a rich woman.