Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan's 1977 musical Annie is a bonafide classic and one of the most popular musicals ever written. Thanks to three Broadway productions, almost non-stop national tours and now three major motion picture adaptations, the show holds a place in the hearts of millions of fans. Let's take a look at how Broadway's most famous redhead came to be and how her musical has changed over the last 37 years since its Broadway debut.
Annie the musical is based on Harold Gray's comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," which itself was based on an 1885 poem originally titled "The Elf Child." At the poem's third printing, poet James Whitcomb Riley decided to change its title to "Little Orphan Allie" to memorialize the real-life orphan that served as inspiration for the piece. A printing error resulted in the work being titled "Little Orphan Annie," thus birthing the name of one of the most pervasive characters in all of popular culture.
Harold Gray's comic strip, which borrowed its name from Riley's popular poem, debuted in the New York Daily News Aug. 5, 1924. It followed the adventures of its title character who is invited to stay with the extremely wealthy Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks. Annie's biggest adversary in the beginning was Warbucks' wife, the evil Mrs. Warbucks. The plot was mostly formulaic. Generally, "Daddy" Warbucks would be away on business, and Annie would be cast out of the Warbucks mansion for some reason or other, often by Mrs. Warbucks. Annie would then have an adventure out in the world, eventually getting into a helpless situation with a seemingly unassailable villain, only to be rescued at the last moment by "Daddy" Warbucks.
The comic was popular with adults and children alike. Children seemed to connect with the scrappy and youthful Annie, while adults enjoyed the strip's political commentary. For instance, when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression in the 1930s, "Daddy" Warbucks lost his fortune and later died as a result of his disapproval of the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Fans familiar with the plot of the musical will appreciate the irony in this particular plot line.) The immense popularity of "Little Orphan Annie" as a comic strip led to the character making the jump to new mediums. In 1930, a radio show starring the plucky young orphan began in Chicago, going national later in 1931. Fans of the classic holiday film "A Christmas Story" will remember Ralphie eagerly awaiting the delivery of his decoder ring, which he uses listening to the "Little Orphan Annie" radio show. She also appeared in two movies, both titled "Little Orphan Annie," released in 1932 and 1938. Neither were successful.
The adaptation of "Little Orphan Annie" that audiences know today began in 1972 when lyricist Martin Charnin got the idea to write a musical adaptation of the comic strip. He pitched the idea to book-writer Thomas Meehan and composer Charles Strouse, both of whom thought it was a terrible idea. They ultimately were sold on the idea by the strength of Charnin's convictions. Charnin was drawn to, as Meehan later said, "the richness of the character of Annie herself – the lost, wandering child, brave, indomitable, a mythic figure in the annals of popular American culture."
Upon further study of Gray's comic strips, book writer Thomas Meehan quickly realized that the episodic and overly fantastic storylines could not serve as the basis for any musical that he himself would want to see. The team decided to use the main characters from Gray's comic strip as an inspiration, but to otherwise tell their own story made up of more three-dimensional fleshed-out characters.
Meehan decided to set the story in the 1930s, partially because all three writers had lived their childhood in the decade and would enjoy re-creating the feeling and language of that time.
However, there was another more interesting reason for Meehan's choice of setting. In the spring of 1972 when Annie was beginning to be written, the Vietnam War was ongoing, Nixon was President and the country was in an economic recession. As Meehan wrote in the New York Times shortly before Annie debuted on Broadway, "there was a growing sense of cynicism and hopelessness among millions of Americans, including me. And it struck me that Annie could in the musical become a metaphorical figure who stood for innate decency, courage and optimism in the face of hard times, pessimism and despair." By the time Annie made it to Broadway, times had gotten better for America at large, and the musical became, in Meehan's words, "a reflection of the current spirit of the country." One can see how this inspiration brought about the musical's most successful song, the optimistic and hopeful "Tomorrow."
Once Charnin, Meehan and Strouse had been working on the show for a time, they began auditioning it for Broadway producers, none of whom decided to invest. Charnin decided to pitch it to a theatre in Connecticut that produced musicals, the Goodspeed Opera House. Executive director Michael Price, like the Broadway producers before him, rejected the show. It wasn't until a few weeks later, when he realized he couldn't get the Annie score out of his head, that he agreed to produce the show on Goodspeed's main stage, where the show opened Aug. 10, 1976.
The creators used the performances in Connecticut to focus the plot and work on the score. Many songs were removed and moved during the production, while new ones were also written. For instance, the spot ultimately filled by "Easy Street" was originally a song titled "That's The Way It Goes." Miss Hannigan's "Little Girls" was originally a duet with Annie, featuring completely different lyrics. It was called "Just Wait."
Perhaps the most major change that came during Annie's run in Connecticut, however, was in the casting of the leading lady. When the production began performances, Annie was portrayed by an actress named Kristen Vigard. Among the cast of orphans was a then-unknown young woman named Andrea McArdle, playing the role of "The Toughest." Two weeks after performances began, the creative team made the decision to move McArdle up to the title role. McArdle ended up continuing with the show to Broadway and earning a Tony nomination for her performance, while Vigard was hired as the Annie standby.
By the end of the run in Connecticut, the song list was beginning to look like the version of Annie that we're familiar with today. The original opening number, "Apples," was replaced with "Maybe," which had initially come a few songs into the evening. A new song was written for the Hooverville residents, "We'd Like to Thank You." "Little Girls" and "Easy Street" both made it into the show by this point as well.
Though some especially bad weather made it difficult to get producers up to Connecticut to see the show, Martin Charnin was able to convince his friend Mike Nichols to get to Goodspeed. He liked the show so much that he decided to produce a Broadway production, which opened April 21, 1977, at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon, and currently home to The Last Ship). On the road to Broadway, Annie got a new Miss Hannigan, Dorothy Loudon, replacing Maggie Task. There was also notably a new choreographer, Peter Gennaro, who had famously co-choreographed the original production of West Side Story with Jerome Robbins. The production was directed, as it had been at Goodspeed, by lyricist Martin Charnin.
The show was immediately a huge hit. It was nominated for 11 1977 Tony Awards, winning seven, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Choreography and Best Actress (for Dorothy Loudon). It went on to run a little under five years and 2,377 performances, spawning four national tours and several international productions.
Notable Broadway replacements in the title role include the later star of "Sex in the City" Sarah Jessica Parker, while subsequent Miss Hannigans included Alice Ghostley, Betty Hutton, June Havoc and Marcia Lewis. Laurie Beechman, who later became the first-ever woman to play the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, played several roles in the original ensemble, including the Star to Be. Gary Beach was a replacement Rooster, while Rita Rudner was a replacement Lily St. Regis before achieving prominence as a comedian.
The 1977 Broadway production of Annie also marked the Broadway debut of dog trainer William Berloni, who has gone on to become Broadway's preeminent source for animal actors. More recently, he worked on Broadway productions of Legally Blonde, A Christmas Story and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. He also trained Nana for NBC's recent broadcast of "Peter Pan Live." The opening night Playbill to the original Broadway production of Annie is available in the Vault!
A few years after Annie closed on Broadway, its creators tried something fairly unprecedented in terms of Broadway musicals; they mounted a sequel, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge.
While musical sequels are not completely unheard of, they have been largely unsuccessful. In 1981, Annie composer Charles Strouse opened a sequel to his 1960 hit Bye Bye Birdie entitled Bring Back Birdie. The production featured original Bye Bye Birdie star Chita Rivera opposite stage and screen star Donald O'Connor, but the production nevertheless suffered a run of only four performances. Andrew Lloyd Webber also mounted a sequel to his Phantom of the Opera, called Love Never Dies in 2010 on London's West End. It was planned to have a Broadway production, but that production went on to be repeatedly delayed and ultimately postponed indefinitely.
Unfortunately, the fate of Annie 2 was similar to that of most other stage sequels; despite numerous script and score changes, the show failed to win over audiences and critics out of town at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, where it closed, despite having been announced for a Broadway run at the Marquis. The show became a notorious flop in Broadway lore. However, in 2008, the creative team took the occasion of a 30th Anniversary studio cast recording of Annie to record to Annie 2 score. It features one particular song recorded three times with three different lyrics, commemorating the lengths the creative team had gone to during the D.C. run to make the show work.
In 1992, some of the material from Annie 2 was workshopped and re-purposed into a different Annie sequel, now called Annie Warbucks. This production ultimately played a short U.S. tour before playing an Off-Broadway production at the Variety Arts Theatre. The cast included Harve Presnell and Donna McKechnie. The production received some strong notices, but closed after a 200-performance run, failing to transfer to Broadway. This particular sequel does live on in amateur productions nationwide, with six productions currently scheduled through July of 2015 according to licensing agent Music Theatre International.
Turning back to the original musical, a 20th Anniversary production of Annie was mounted in 1997, which became the show's first Broadway revival. The production starred Nell Carter as Miss Hannigan and Conrad John Schuck as "Daddy" Warbucks, a role he performed during the original Broadway run as well. In the ensemble was a then-unknown Sutton Foster, playing the Star to Be. She would, of course, become a star herself in 2002 when she portrayed the starring role in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
The casting of the title role in this production had an unfortunate controversy surrounding it that harkened back to Kristen Vigard's firing from the 1976 pre-Broadway production. As part of a televised publicity campaign, Macy's sponsored a nationwide search for a young actress to play Annie. A young actress named Joanna Pacitti was chosen, and she played the role throughout most of the pre-Broadway tour. Three weeks before she was to make her Broadway debut with the production, Pacitti came down with a case of bronchitis and the creative team made the decision to replace Pacitti with one of the actresses who had been playing a different orphan, Brittny Kissinger.
Pacitti's firing became a publicity nightmare for the production. Pacitti discussed the controversy at length on several daytime talk shows, and Barbara Walters did a feature story about it on NBC's "Turning Point." Original Annie Andrea McArdle was quoted in that program as saying she thought Pacitti's firing was particularly sad because it wasn't about talent, but rather "crazy adults acting desperately because something wasn't how they thought it should be."
Pacitti went on to prominently play the role in a North Carolina regional production in July of 1997. Interestingly, performing as the Apple seller in the ensemble of that production was a then-unknown Clay Aiken.
The 1997 Broadway revival of Annie saw the return of original director Martin Charnin, choreographer Peter Gennaro (re-creating his original dances), costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge and animal trainer William Berloni. This production did get a fresh scenic design by Kenneth Foy, and a new song for Miss Hannigan, "You Make Me Happy." Sung as Miss Hannigan reluctantly agrees to let Annie spend Christmas with "Daddy" Warbucks, "You Make Me Happy" provided a showcase for Nell Carter's particular vocal gifts in a way that "Little Girls" and "Easy Street" did not. The song went on to appear with a re-written lyric and new title, "Don't Mess With Mother," on the 2008 30th Anniversary studio cast recording, but it has not appeared in any subsequent stage production of the show.
Unfortunately, even with so many members of the original creative team reunited, the 1997 revival of Annie failed to live up to the success of the original production, closing after only 239 performances, compared to the original's 2,377. Critics blamed the production's seeming lack of energy, particularly in the performances of Nell Carter and Brittny Kissinger.
Take a look at the opening night Playbill of the 1997 Broadway revival of Annie inside the Vault. Broadway's most recent production of Annie opened Nov. 8, 2012, at the Palace Theatre. This production featured completely new direction, choreography and physical elements. James Lapine directed the production, with Andy Blankenbuehler providing new dances. Lilla Crawford, soon to be seen in Disney's film adaptation of Into the Woods, made a splash as the title role, while Katie Finneran, fresh off of her Tony-winning turn in 2010's Promises, Promises, potrayed Miss Hannigan. Famed Aussie musical theatre star Anthony Warlow made his Broadway debut as "Daddy" Warbucks, and Brynn O'Malley, currently starring in Honeymoon in Vegas, played his secretary Grace.
Jane Lynch, star of the TV's "Glee," helped elongate this revival's run as she became a summer replacement in the role of Miss Hannigan. Tony winner Faith Prince came in afterwards and finished up the run, which completed Jan. 5, 2014. With a run of a little over a year, this second Broadway revival of Annie played for 487 performances. While certainly an improvement on the 1997 run, this production also failed to achieve anything near the success of the 1977 original Broadway production.
Of course, Annie has not only existed on stage. The original production's incredible success made a film adaptation inevitable, and in 1982, a film adaptation was released. It featured a cast full of stage luminaries, including Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry and Geoffrey Holder. Aileen Quinn, a veteran of the stage show on Broadway and national tour, took on the title role.
The 1982 film was successful, becoming the 10th highest-grossing film of 1982. It had, however, taken several liberties with the plot as originally presented on Broadway. "We'd Like to Thank You" was removed along with "N.Y.C.," "You Won't Be an Orphan For Long," "Something Was Missing," "Annie" and "New Deal for Christmas." In their place, new songs were added. "Dumb Dog," "Sandy," "Let's Go to the Movies," and "Sign" were all written for the film. Interestingly, "We Got Annie," a song excised from the pre-Broadway production at Goodspeed Opera House, found its way into this film adaptation as well.
The 1982 film also added several elements from the Harold Gray comic strip, including the bodyguard characters of Punjab and The Asp, and a more action-packed finale featuring Tim Curry as Rooster chasing Annie up a raised drawbridge.
The show's creators, particularly Martin Charnin, have not had many kind words to say for this film adaptation, but the 1982 movie nevertheless made an undeniable impression on a generation of kids. It remains a popular movie today, with frequent showings on TV and several home video releases. In 1999, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron followed up their successful 1997 made-for-TV movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella with a made-for-TV re-make of Annie. The film starred stage stars Alan Cumming as Rooster, Audra McDonald as Grace and Kristin Chenoweth as Lily St. Regis. Victor Garber as "Daddy" Warbucks and Kathy Bates as Miss Hannigan were both known more for their film work, though both have performed on Broadway as well. The film also starred Alicia Morton, an actress who had previously shared the stage with Ricky Martin in Les Misérables on Broadway, in the title role. This movie production was directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, who, in addition to a rich career on Broadway as a director/choreographer, went on to helm the smash-hit film version "Chicago" and this season's forthcoming "Into the Woods."
This second movie version of Annie was much more faithful to the Broadway stage version of the property than the 1982 movie had been. Gone were Punjab and The Asp, as was the action-packed finale chase scene. The songs added for the 1982 movie were not reprised here, and "N.Y.C.," and "Something Was Missing" made their way back in. That being said, "We'd Like To Thank You," "You Won't Be an Orphan For Long," "Annie" and "A New Deal For Christmas" remained cut, while the White House reprise of "Tomorrow" was newly jettisoned.
In a special nod to the original stage version of Annie, the 1999 movie featured original Annie Andrea McArdle in a cameo appearance as the Star to Be in the "N.Y.C." musical number.
Unlike the previous film adaptation, this re-make was reviewed pretty favorably. Regardless, it has failed to catch on with an entire generation of children in the way that the 1982 edition did.
This week will see the release of an unprecedented third movie adaptation of Annie, this time in a version that boldly updates the story to modern times, deleting much (if not most) of the original stage plot and score along the way.
Broadway fans can look forward to seeing some actors with Broadway credentials appearing in the movie. Taylor Richardson, an Annie alternate from the 2012 Broadway revival production, appears as "Red-Haired Annie." Grace is being portrayed by Rose Byrne, currently appearing in You Can't Take It With You. Bobby Cannavale, star of last season's The Big Knife and Glengarry Glenn Ross, portrays Guy, a character new to this version of the story. Tracie Thoms of Rent fame appears as Annie's Mother. David Zayas, Eden Duncan-Smith, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Ty Jones also appear in the cast.
Want to spend more time with the history of Annie? Take a look at Playbill's Where Are They Now? feature covering all of the actresses who have donned the red dress and wig on stage and screen.