Casting the star of the new Broadway revival of Annie, which opened Nov. 8 at the Palace Theatre, had all the makings of a compulsively watchable reality show. Sample title: "Maybe: The Search for Broadway's New Annie."
Every week, musically inclined moppets could compete in show-related challenges such as floor scrubbing. (The one who can make the place shine "like the top of the Chrysler Building" wins, of course, a trip to the Chrysler Building!) They'd be graded on their ability to aggravate alcoholic orphanage matrons, melt the hearts of bald-headed billionaire father figures, and convincingly bring off the comic-book catchphrase "Leapin' lizards!" (For the uninitiated, America's favorite fictional redhead first spoke those words in Harold Gray's mid-1920s comic strip, "Little Orphan Annie.") And each week, the foreign-accented host would look down at one of the four-footnothing, saucer-eyed hopefuls and say, "The sun won't come out tomorrow. You won't be Annie on Broadway." Imagine the tears! Imagine the drama! Imagine the revenge-seeking stage moms!
But there was no televised drama behind this new production. (And perhaps Annie has had enough of that: The 1997 Broadway revival is remembered less for the production than for the nationwide talent contest that led to the hiring — and later very public firing — of young star Joanna Pacitti.) This time, director James Lapine, casting gurus Telsey & Co., and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler conducted their star search the old-fashioned way. Sure, it may have taken nine months and more than 5,000 auditions, but they finally found the right pintsize actress to play the (according to the casting notice) "optimistic, spunky, and wise-beyond-her-years" Annie: 11-year-old Lilla Crawford.
They didn't have to go far. An L.A. native, Crawford auditioned in, as one of the show's songs goes, NYC. With one Broadway show under her belt (she played the trashtalking Debbie in the closing cast of Billy Elliot in January), she's wanted to be on stage all her life — and pretty much has been. "I've just always had that intention to do what I'm doing right now," says Crawford, an outgoing girl with dark brown, Annie-esque curls. "The first musical I performed in I was, like, four or five. It was a production of Once Upon a Mattress and I was the evil queen. And I was like" — she adopts her best menacing 11-year-old-as-evil queen voice — " This is the pea that I'm going to put under her bed!" She giggles. "It was an all-kids production, obviously, because the evil queen wouldn't be five years old."
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Of the Annie job prospect, she explains, "When I found out they were going to hold auditions for Annie I was really, really excited, and I didn't care what part I would get. I just wanted to be a part of this show somehow." Like any self-respecting theatre fan, she was familiar with the 1977 Martin Charnin-Charles Strouse-Thomas Meehan musical. "When I was about six or seven I saw a tour that came to California. Then I saw it again…. One of the tours came back the year after that. And then I've seen the movie a lot," she says, referring to the much-derided yet much-beloved 1982 Albert Finney-Carol Burnett-Ann Reinking big-screen adaptation. Fun fact: Crawford has appeared in Annie previously — in another all-kids production. "I played Bert Healy, the radio announcer," she says. "It was really fun, 'cause I got to sing 'You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.'"
"My first audition" — Crawford stops to think— "June  was my first audition for Annie. It was about a week or two when they told me that I got a callback. And after that I got another callback. And after that one, I had the dance callback. And after the dance callback, [laughs] I had another callback. Then after that callback it was the final callback." Lapine actually saw Crawford "very early on," he says, confessing, "I kind of fell in love" — but, he adds, no decisions were made until the very end.
If all that auditioning sounds arduous, trust her, it wasn't: Crawford describes the process as "really, really fun." Lapine's secret: "I make it fun for myself, and then it's usually fun for everybody else," he says. "What I really wanted to do was get to know the kids — just piddle around, play games, talk to them. I didn't 'direct' them. I tried to keep the audition on their level."
The news of Crawford's casting broke at the end of April 2012, and the next thing you know, there she was at the Tonys, posing for photographers and performing in the opening number with host Neil Patrick Harris. "I love to put on really fancy dresses," she says with a girlish grin. "I don't know why—it's just one of my things!"
As for putting on the red wig, "I really like it," Crawford declares. "I mean, it's kind of like my hair now." She giggles again. "Yeah. I think I look cute."
(This feature appears in the November 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)