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.
"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."
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