Apparently there are a lot of people around who are sicker of Annie than I am. The 1977 musical based on the comic-strip moppet, which won seven Tony Awards and ran for nearly six years, has been revived only once on Broadway (a short-lived 1997 production) but has been a staple of community and high school theater productions for years. The thought of another shrill 11-year-old belting out “Tomorrow” is enough to spark evil, Miss Hannigan thoughts in even many kindly theatergoers. But not me. I’d seen the show only once, in its original Broadway production, and I welcomed the chance to discover how the show holds up in a new era.
The new revival that opened on Broadway last week is returning, of course, at an unusually poignant time. When the frizzy-haired orphan first made her appearance, the breadlines and Hoovervilles of the Great Depression were safely bathed in nostalgia. Today, with the nation still trying to emerge from something close to a second Great Depression, the sight of a sunny little kid helping the President of the United States find a way of getting people back to work — and let’s call it a New Deal! — seems less like nostalgic fantasy and more like a viable political strategy.
In many ways Annie looks better now than it ever has. The Charles Strouse–Martin Charnin songs are as winning as ever — simple, perky tunes that are more infectious than they have a right to be, with clever lyrics neatly balancing satire and sentiment. (Though, in “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” the Depression President for some reason is no longer a “plutocrat” — “You dirty rat/ You plutocrat” — but a “bureaucrat.” And just when plutocrats were getting hot!)
James Lapine’s direction is brisk and bright, without overdosing on cuteness. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography too is admirably human scale and individualized, especially for the little girls in peppy numbers like “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.”
As Annie, Lilla Crawford adopts an unnecessary New York City accent (“My folks are nevah gonna come fuh me!”), like a Broadway kid who has listened to too much early Barbra Streisand. Still, she’s got the pipes, and the stage presence. The only misfire in the cast is Katie Finneran, a Tony winner for Promises, Promises, who blows one of the surest roles in the Broadway canon by turning the little-girl-hating Miss Hannigan into a sour lush on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Annie is the ultimate feel-good show, but its comic-book origins are what keep it from being a great one. It’s a musical with lots of sentiment, but no real emotion: a fairy tale with plenty of bad guys but no danger, a story about an orphan girl who finds a new father in Daddy Warbucks, but missing any real family feeling. It’s the only major musical I can think of where there isn’t a single romantic relationship, even among the secondary characters. The show gets plenty of “awwws” — especially when Annie’s dog Sandy is onstage, following her cues — but nobody in their right mind can shed a tear over Annie. It’s fake, and proud of it.
Annie opened on Broadway in April 1977. A month later came the premiere of another pop-culture milestone, the sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars. The two were harbingers of a new comic-book aesthetic, a generation of movies and musicals marked by cartoon characters and stories, a tone of irony and facetiousness, the simulacrum of emotion rather than the real thing. On Broadway, Annie opened the door to tongue-in-cheek retro musicals like 42nd Street and Nice Work if You Can Get It, as well as a host of self-parodying, irony-drenched spoofs, from Hairspray to The Book of Mormon. In the movies, there followed scores of comic-book heroes, cartoon special effects and psychological treatises on that issue faced by so many troubled young people: how to cope with supernatural powers.
Poor Annie. She didn’t create this world. She probably wouldn’t care much for Spider-Man, and she’d have to plug up Sandy’s ears for the bad language in The Book of Mormon. But the little tyke created a tomorrow that won’t go away.