Never mind The Empire Strikes Back -- producers of the Broadway revival of Annie now have to worry about Joanna Pacitti striking back.
Pacitti, 12-year-old star of the 20th anniversary revival of Annie, who was fired and replaced by her understudy this week, went on network TV Feb. 27 and 28 threatening to sue the production for up to $50 million.
"It split my heart in two," Pacitti told the hosts of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" Feb. 28. She said the nationwide search in 1996 amounted to a contest, and she either wants her prize -- the lead in Annie -- or compensation. She said her parents are planning to sue for between $10 million and $50 million.
The producers say Pacitti was cast through a "search", and as such can be replaced like any other performer who is not working out.
Broadway's original Annie, Andrea McArdle, sided with Pacitti, and told "Good Morning America" that she will boycott the opening night in protest. Pacitti was replaced in the title role by 8-year-old Brittny (sic) Kissinger.
A Feb. 27 broadcast of ABC-TV's "Turning Point" program, which aired an hour-long documentary on Annie's Annie search, updated their story with these comments from Pacitti: "I just don't want this to happen to anybody else, to any other little girl. Becase I know it is hard to get through, and it breaks your heart, and mine's split in half right now. It's not gonna be me coming down the stairs in my Annie dress and my red wig."
Pacitti starts to cry, and then continues, "I'm a lot like Annie `cause I keep my chin up... Out of a hundred shows or more, I've got a standing ovation every single time, and if you went to the six cities that I went to, I think that they'll remember me as the real Annie."
Pacitti cried again, and then said, "It's just hard to think that it's not going to be me, and it's really heartbreaking. I just gotta try and remember that I'm the real Annie, and [the] sun will come out tomorrow."
For his part, Pacitti family lawyer Albert Oehrle said, "They can't do this to a 12-year-old kid and exploit her...by promising her that she would be Broadway's new Annie, and then taking that prize out from under her just like that. I am outraged by it. How anybody would have the heart to take a kid who's so great as this girl is and tell her that she couldn't have the prize that she has won is incomprehensible..."
Of the suit, Oherle said, "The premise of the litigation will be that Joanna participated in a contest...run in a way to achieve publicity for the production. She won the contest, and the prize for the contest was that she was going to be Broadway's new Annie, and that prize has been snatched away from her by the decision of the producers..."
Reached for comment, the Timothy Childs office referred Playbill On-Line to the Cromarty & Co. press office, where Hugh Hayes told Playbill On-Line, "We're not saying anything today [Feb. 28]. The producers released their statement yesterday."
In that statement released to Playbill On-Line by the producers, Childs writes, "It turned out the actress and the part never came together the way we felt they needed to." Fellow producer Rodger Hess said, "This has to be the hardest decision I have made in 20 years of theatre producing."
A source told the New York Post that Pacitti, at age 12, may also have grown out of the role.
Ironically, the original Annie of the original 1976 production at Goodspeed Opera House was fired as well. The Goodspeed Annie, Kristen Vigard, was replaced for Broadway by McArdle, who originally was cast as Pepper, one of the supporting orphans. McArdle went on to be nominated for the Tony Award in the role. Vigard was later hired by Charnin for his musical I Remember Mama -- but then released from that production as well.
Dorothy Loudon, the original -- and Tony-winning -- villainess of the show, Miss Hannigan, lived through the similar Annie crisis at the Goodspeed 20 years ago but told Playbill On-Line, "That wasn't quite the same because it was done in rehearsals; we hadn't gone anywhere yet. The little girl was wonderful but she really grew up. And the Pacitti thing wouldn't have been so bad if they'd made the switch earlier, when the show was really on the road. Why did it take so long for them (the producers) to find out they weren't pleased? They've been doing this for months."
Loudon, just coming off 11 months in the Chicago Show Boat and a weeklong stint in Encores!' Sweet Adeline, said she felt "terrible" for Pacitti: "When someone's let go, it's every actor's nightmare. It's never happened to me, thank God, but she [Pacitti] must be shattered. It's a terrible age to have that happen to her."
Despite the brickbats now being hurled at Director Martin Charnin, Loudon's memories are glowing: "He was wonderful, marvelous with those children. I remember one time Andrea [McArdle] was upset and crying. He put her on his lap, talked to her, soothed her and calmed her down."
Want to see how other Playbill On-Line readers reacted to the firing? Read Playbill Poll: Your Views on the Annie Firing in Theatre News.
The show is set to open March 26 at the Martin Beck Theatre on West 45th St, with previews beginning March 14. The revival also stars Nell Carter and Conrad John Schuck. Other cast members include Colleen Dunn (Grace), Jim Ryan (Rooster), Karen Byers-Blackwell (Lily) and Raymond Thorne (FDR). Thorne played Roosevelt in Annie's original Broadway production.
Spokesperson Peter Cromarty told Playbill On-Line that although Carter and Schuck remain firmly in place, the role of Sandy has now gone to Cyndi Lou, with Zappa demoted to understudy. "The change [of Sandys] happened weeks ago," Cromarty said. Asked if Zappa had a statement, Cromarty replied, "Arf."
The casting change is especially ironic in light of the Turning Point documentary about the casting of Annie, with Pacitti beating more than 2000 hopefuls chosen in a nationwide search. One can look for clues to author/director Martin Charnin's dissatisfaction with the applicants from the ABC-TV transcript. With one day left to announce the new Annie to the press, Charnin spoke with his colleagues, including composer, Charles Strouse. At first he seems against all those who have auditioned, then abruptly seems to change his mind:
CHARNIN: Gentlemen, it has to be today.
STROUSE: We have to decide now.
ROGER: We've spent 2 1/2 months, we've seen hundreds and hundreds of girls.
STROUSE: The Annie lookalike does everything.
CHARNIN: The Annie lookalike is great but -- she's a mimic, not an actor.
WOMAN: She's done it before.
CHARNIN: She's done it, but...she gives you back nothing.
STEVE: This is not because I'm the musical director, but they've been shrieking at me, I've been shrieked at. I think their acting was atrocious, I think there were better girls on the street.
CHARNIN: On the street, yes. I'm fine with there being another girl, but where is she? She's not here today. No, that's wrong. That's quitting, and I refuse to quit. This girl is great.
This revival of Annie opened at Houston's Theatre Under The Stars Nov. 29, 1996. Here is the remaining schedule of Annie's pre-Broadway tour:
Wallingford, CT (Oakdale Music Theatre): Feb. 24-March 2
Montreal, Canada: Mar. 3-9.
Broadway: Previews begin March 14; opens March 26 (Martin Beck Theatre).
Set in New York City, 1933, Annie tells of an 11-year-old foundling left in the care of villainous Miss Hannigan. When rich Daddy Warbucks decides to entertain a child for the holidays, he grows to love Annie and wants to adopt her permanently -- but Annie still believes her parents will come back for her one day.
Songs, with lyrics by Charnin and music by Strouse, include "Tomorrow," "It's A Hard-Knock Life," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile," "I Don't Need Anything But You" and the title number. Thomas Meehan wrote the book, Peter Gennaro suppliles the choreography.
For tickets ($55-$75, $35 students) and information on the Broadway Annie revival, call (212) 239-6200. You can also order tickets on Playbill On-Line.
Evening curtain times will be 7:30 PM to make the show more "family-friendly."
It has been a winter for firings and leave-takings on and off Broadway, from Jon Lovitz leaving Psychopathia Sexualis to Mercedes Ruehl bowing out of Good As New. Scott Wise was let go from Dream, Michael McGrath rolled out of Once Upon A Mattress, Caroline Seymour left Present Laughter, Julie Andrews took a month vacation from Victor/Victoria, then her sub, Liza Minnelli, missed most of her last week in the show due to illness, and Rob Becker left his own solo show, Defending The Caveman.
-- By David Lefkowitz and Peter Filichia