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Annie

Annie

Loosely adapted from Harold Gray's comic strip Little Orphan Annie, the musical Annie opened on Broadway on April 21, 1977, eventually earning more than $100 million from its initial run of 2,377 performances and numerous revivals. Director and lyricist Martin Charnin was the guiding force behind this hit, with considerable assistance from composer Charles Strouse and scriptwriter Thomas Meehan. Annie also attracted a larger, more diverse crowd beyond Broadway: The cast album sold more than a million copies, the show was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 1982, and merchandise spinoffs included dolls and a line of fashion clothing for girls. Through countless local productions in schools and summer camps, the musical has become part of the fabric of American childhood, with Annie's signature song "Tomorrow" having become a standard.

Annie became a cultural icon through the adroit combination of strands that appealed to different audiences. For the elderly and nostalgic, the musical evoked not just the comic strip but also the simple and pure pre-World War II America of Shirley Temple movies. After the disillusioning eras of Vietnam and Watergate, Americans in the 1970s looked back with fondness to the past—a nostalgia that also fueled the success of The Sting (1974) and Grease (1972). As columnist Meg Greenfield noted in Newsweek, "Annie gangs up on you, and you experience the most unexpected sentiments: reassurance, a feeling of well-being, and an agreeable connection with a long-gone world—a life built on assumptions and simplicities you had forgotten about."

For the youngsters in the audience, especially girls, the main attraction was the spunky heroine, a two-fisted orphan who could more than hold her own in a rough world. As film critic Pauline Kael noted, Annie was ideal for children "from about four to about eleven … how often do they get to see a musical that features a little girl conquering all?" Appealing to the young and old alike, Annie became a Broadway success for all ages.

The plot of Annie has a folkloric simplicity. The Cinderella-like tale follows Annie, a frizzle-haired and freckled orphan, as she battles the cruel Miss Hannigan, who runs a wretched orphanage right out of Dickens. Searching for her parents, Annie constantly runs away, only to end up back in the clutches of Miss Hannigan. Annie's luck takes a turn for the better when she is temporarily adopted by the billionaire Oliver Warbucks. Although she wins Warbucks' heart, Annie refuses his offer of permanent adoption because she still longs for her natural parents. Warbucks instigates a nationwide search with a hefty reward. Enter Miss Hannigan's low-life brother, Rooster Hannigan and his floozy girlfriend, Lily St. Regis. Working with Miss Hannigan, these two schemers impersonate Annie's parents. Of course, all ends well, and Annie is happily reunited with Warbucks.

The relationship between Annie and Warbucks forms the emotional core of the musical. In explaining the appeal of the show, director Martin Charnin said, "I saw it as the story of two orphans.

One happened to be eleven, the other fifty-two. I wanted to know how they met and fell in love with one another." Annie and Warbucks form an interesting study in contrasts. Warbucks is rich, big, strong, and protective; Annie is poor, small, weak and in need of protection. But Warbucks is cold—he barely notices his attractive assistant Grace Farrell until Annie starts praising her. Annie's warmth and kindness helps humanize Warbucks, just as his strength and power help give stability to her life.

The musical wisely softened the harsh right-wing philosophy of the original strip, where the heroic Daddy Warbucks was a robber-baron munitions manufacturer who battled liberal do-gooders. In the musical, Warbucks is still conservative, but not rigidly so. Indeed, Annie is able to reconcile him to Franklin Roosevelt, helping to inspire the New Deal. This spirit of reconciliation played well in the early days of the Carter administration. Not surprisingly, a special preview performance was given at the White House in 1977.

Annie: The Movie fared less well than the theatrical production. Columbia Pictures paid $9.5 million for the rights—total costs were $40 million—and hired the legendary director John Huston, but the movie was an expensive disappointment. It did not make a profit, and earned lukewarm reviews despite a critically acclaimed hammy performance by Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. Aileen Quinn made a winning Annie, although she was nearly over-staged by the youngest orphan Molly, sweetly played by Toni Ann Gisondi. As a capitalist with a well-buried heart of gold, Albert Finney was a convincing Warbucks. The production team behind the musical has made a few stabs at a sequel, which have been tried out in regional theatres. Annie II (1989) was a flop. "We went over like a wet doughnut," said Charnin. Annie Warbucks (1993) was more successful but by decade's end had not yet reached Broadway.

—Jeet Heer

Further Reading:

Kael, Pauline. Taking it All In. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Sheward, David. It's a Hit! New York, Back Stage Books, 1994.

Smith, Bruce. The History of Little Orphan Annie. New York, Ballantine Books, 1982.

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