By Bruce Buschel
Philadelphia, June 1977
East Haddam. Connecticut: June, 1976
Scene 1: Auditions
The scent is reminiscent of nothing. Though it is uniquely theatrical, few stagehands have ever had their nostrils filled with this odor that visits the legitimate theater maybe once a decade. It is the smell of Clearasil greasepaint and white Griffin shoe polish and lily of the valley perfume and prepubescent sweat. It is the smell of little girls auditioning for a big Broadway musical; little girls who have tapped and toed and trained for years; little girls who have these strangely animated appendages protruding from the centers of their shoulder blades—they call them stage mothers.
The stage mothers wear stark, steely smiles, as if they don’t mean to smile at all. They squirm when sitting, and they squirm when standing. And they are constantly looking at the hundreds of other mothers who are fussing with thousands of little curls and flicking a million imagined flecks of soot from their daughters’ eyelet lace. The mothers don’t talk much among themselves, but when they do they are quick to concur on one point—they hate pushy stage mothers.
These unpushy mothers have lugged their adorable daughters from Tallahassee, Florida, and Bangor, Maine and every other American town where Variety is delivered and Shirley Temple movies play the Sunday television matinees. They have invested time, money and dreams; they have passed untold hours standing breathlessly in the wings of recreation centers and neighborhood theaters. But today is the pay off, their chance of a lifetime. After all, how many Broadway-bound musicals call for adorable pre-teen song-and-dance chorines? They can count them on their bunions. But now there is Annie, a musical comedy based on Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip.
Annie is looking for six smashing little girls to play six ragtag orphans, and one sensational moppet for the lead role. At the audition, the director sifts through hundreds of kids. Most of them sing something precious from Oliver. The kids with craftier moms belt out showstoppers from Bye Bye Birdie or Applause, because their composer, Charles Strouse, is also Annie’s composer. Some of the girls are too tall or too small or too fat to be an 11-year-old orphan. Others are too embarrassed or too embarrassing. And still others are too professional to be believed. There are three girls from Northeast Philadelphia trying out and they are, chauvinism aside, uniformly excellent; they will eventually become half of the orphan chorus line.
But the big prize of the day goes to a little trooper from New York City. Her name is Kristin Vigard and she is an accomplished 12-year-old hoofer and crooner. One look at her on stage explains why she already has a couple dozen commercials and a half-dozen off-Broadway productions to her credit. That Kristin is the daughter of a professional actress was in no way a hindrance to her budding career. You can tell the professional actresses here because their last names are different from their daughters’.
“I knew instantly I had the part,” says Kristin. “It’s hard to tell when they don’t like you, but when they love you it’s easy. And I knew I would be Annie from the first second I walked out there.”
Yes, the intuitive Kristin Vigard wins the coveted role. She will be Annie in Connecticut this Bicentennial summer, again in Washington come spring, and eventually on Broadway for God knows how long. The intuitive Kristin Vigard dreams of being Annie until she is a sweet sixteen. Less than two months from now, her dream—and her childhood—will come to an end.
Scene 2: Theater
The Goodspeed Opera House has served as a half-way house for many a Broadway-bound show, but never one as frenzied as Annie. Rehearsals are a gruelling three weeks, from eight in the morning until collapse. Songs are learned and then rejected. New songs are injected and polished and then rejected as well. Composer Strouse has been through all this before—he has 50 songs in the can. Dance numbers are rehearsed, altered, scratched, revived, truncated, elongated. Dramatic scenes become musical, and vice versa. Whole scenes go by the boards. New ones are introduced. Lighting is modified, manipulated. Scenery is built, struck, and rebuilt. The stage is a minuscule 21 by 12 feet, making for claustrophobic pandemonium, totally inspirational insanity. There’s nothing quite like the birth pangs of a big musical comedy. Vulnerabilities are tested. Insecurities flow like wildwater. Everyone is loving/hating the experience, succeeding/failing brilliantly. Everyone except Kristin Vigard. She is lost in the sea of manic energies. She is having difficulty getting her character, and her temperament, to behave. There are violent arguments with director Martin Charnin. Arguments blossom into power plays, then downright feuds.
“Little Orphan Annie has been fighting social welfare, free education, universal suffrage, cultural reform and human love for years and years.”
“Harsh words were exchanged,” says Kristin, “but we were always friends. Then Martin started sending notes through third parties, passing along criticisms through other cast members. That really bothered me. A lot. But the main problem was that he wanted Annie to be tougher, extremely tough. He said I was just too sweet.
“Funny, no one has ever categorized me as sweet before.”
Scene 3: Animal shelter
Thomas Meehan wrote the book for Annie with the idea of lifting the story out of the comic strip genre and catapulting it into something resembling human reality, stage variety. So he left out Annie’s famed mutt, Sandy. During the rehearsals, it is decided that Annie just wouldn’t be Annie without her dog, so one of the Goodspeed actors is dispatched to find the perfect pooch. After a few days of wandering around, he walks into a humane society in Newington, Connecticut, where he is told that there is one particular mongrel whose parentage and past are, like Annie’s, unknown, and who is scheduled to be put to sleep the following morning. The mutt is already a year old, and therefore difficult to train, but the actor takes one look at him and is smitten with puppy love. He names the pooch Sandy, puts him to work, and makes him a star. Sandy is one of those rare dogs that is lovable without being terribly good-looking, or cuddly, or well-built; his face and his carriage reveal the tragic side of canine existence.
Both the dog and the circumstances of his employment quickly become a symbol to everyone involved with Annie. Each time they are wobbling on the brink of extinction (and those times come frequently), they remember the mongrel saved from the big sleep at the last moment. Something miraculous will always happen when they need it most. Something like Mike Nichols.
Scene 4: Cast Haddam bar
Annie opens to rotten reviews. The Connecticut critics find fault everywhere: the show is shapeless, humorless, illogical, and worst of all, not a whole lot of fun. With the icy reception, the producers get cold feet. Money is frozen. Death is in the air. Then someone drags Mike Nichols to a performance. Publicly, he says he loves the show. Cried twice. Privately, he says he wants to be rich. He meets with the director, writer, and composer in a little pub and simply says, “You guys are sitting on a goldmine. What’s up?” They tell him their story:
With Richard Nixon going crackers, what else can a poor artist do but write a happy-time musical comedy?
In 1972, Martin Charnin calls his old friend Tom Meehan, writer for The New Yorker, and says he has a terrific idea for a show. Little Orphan Annie. Meehan responds with a very literate “Yeccch.” Charnin then calls in composer Strouse, who has his own very musical reaction to the idea: “Yeccch!” Then the three men sit down, discover they are all liberals, all disgusted by the Vietnam War, the recession, and the aura of hopelessness pervading the country. They are also in great need of money. So they decide to make Annie a symbol of hope rather than campy nostalgia, a show of optimism instead of Broadway mindlessness. With Richard Nixon going crackers, what else can a poor artist do but write a happy-time musical comedy?
(As the three men get down to work, three little girls are entering Catholic school in Philadelphia. The girls never read Little Orphan Annie or the Washington Post. They are less concerned with the revelations of John Dean than with the revelations of St. John the Divine.)
Mike Nichols listens to the story, insists that, with a little work, Annie can make a fortune, and before you can say leapin’ simoleons, he calls some friends, raises some money, and is named the show’s producer. There are changes immediately. Little touches here, tiny edits there. Characterizations are beefed up, love songs are thrown out. Politics is excised, jokes are added. And certain people are fired.
Scene 5: Star’s dressing room
The show has run five weeks now and the cast is finally getting a long weekend vacation. Kristin Vigard rushes to her dressing room after the last performance only to find an executive producer waiting. He has Kristin’s walking papers. He tells her that it was Martin’s decision, but he thought he should be the one to tell her. The executive producer is very kind, expressing sadness about the sorry turn of events. Kristin is in shock. She says she can do it if they give her another chance—she can toughen up Annie and work extra hard. But there are no second chances for 12-year-olds when a million bucks is on the line.
Kristin takes it rather hard. She gets depressed and angry and disillusioned. She will probably always be beautiful and talented, but she will never be a kid again.
Exit Kristin Vigard.
Enter Andrea McArdle, a kid from Philly who, before this moment, was playing, not coincidentally, a character in the show called “The Toughest Orphan”—Andrea will be the new Annie.
Washington, DC: March 1977
Scene 1: The Eisenhower Theater
Annie is a sensation! The Washington critics rave! Bureaucrats cut red tape for Standing Room Only tickets! Audiences leap to their feet with thunderous ovations! All of Washington is aflutter with the wonder of Annie!
The cast is justifiably as high as Georgia pines. They rehearse all day and give inspired performances each night. But despite their individual and collective energies, the real star of the show is a gentleman who receives not a single line in the Playbill nor so much as a minute on stage. His singing and dancing may be a bit shaky, but his acting abilities are unquestioned. He will remain the unsung hero of the national capital’s smash hit of the year. His name is Jimmy Carter.
Annie is a Carter musical as much as Camelot was a Kennedy one.
When Carter came into office, he was, unwittingly, paving the way for Annie. There are so many similarities between the show and the President that it’s impossible to believe that the authors judged the mood of the nation so well so long ago. The steadfast optimism, the candor, the sentimentality, the sly humor. Like Carter, it is an old-fashioned show that beams with newness. If the Carter White House has a little girl and a dog and a self-made millionaire, so does Annie. If Carter is spouting rhetoric about morality and ethics, then Annie does likewise. And if Carter promises to lift the nation out of a fiscal and psychic depression, echoing the words of Franklin Roosevelt, then Annie not only makes the promise, but gives FDR a major role in the show.
The timing is nothing short of exquisite. Annie is a Carter musical as much as Camelot was a Kennedy one. Everything is there, right down to the last nagging doubts—even though you’ll vote for this man, this show, you’re not sure exactly why. After all, the music is only passable, the lyrics are simpleminded, and the message is wishy-washy at best. The same leap of faith is needed to trust Annie as it is Jimmy.
If there is one member of the cast who exudes every quality Jimmy Carter ever hoped to, it’s 13-year-old Andrea McArdle. After learning the role of Annie in two days, she has mastered the part and made it her own. She is cute without being cutesy, heartwarming but not heartrending. She is somehow never precious; nothing is forced or false; her toughness is completely natural. (Speaking of toughness, Kristin Vigard watches Andrea from the wings these nights, now that she has been hired back as Andrea’s understudy.)
Andrea McArdle is, in short, a fine little actress. No Method acting, not even great technique, just an out-sized sense of timing and self. She doesn’t have the gosh gee gooeyness of a Shirley Temple, nor the brooding introspection of a Patty McCormick. She is simply natural and understated.
And her voice was designed for a theater. She can sell a song to the balcony, and no one will remark upon her range or reach or enunciation—they will simply remember the moment. Andrea McArdle never draws attention to herself. She doesn’t have to.
There is one number in the show that brings the Annie-Jimmy analogy into sharp focus. Annie is sitting in on an FDR cabinet meeting—don’t ask how—and all the secretaries are giving bleak reports on the state of the nation. Annie stands on the table and sings the show’s theme song, “Tomorrow,” which says that tomorrow will be a better day if you just keep your chin up, work hard, and persevere. The lyrics could have been lifted from any one of Carter’s campaign speeches, if there had been more than one.
Ever media-minded, President Carter cannot let the parallels between this new production and the new administration go unheeded. Just to make the connection official, he invites the cast to perform the show in the East Room of the White House. When the evening is over, he turns to Andrea McArdle and says: “I chose my cabinet too early.”
Scene 2: The White House
Andrea McArdle is sulking. She doesn’t think her mother is being fair. After all, the President wears blue-jeans, why can’t she? Mother McArdle just doesn’t think it’s right to go to the White House in denims—even if you’re the guest of Amy Carter. Andrea gives in, reluctantly, and taxis over to the White House with the other kids in the show, only to be greeted by an Amy Carter in overalls. Overalls!
Andrea’s pouting is soon given over to giggles and giddiness as she finds herself somersaulting down the ramp near the Oval Office, climbing into Amy’s treehouse, and missing strikes in the basement bowling alley. All the kids are having a bang-up time with Amy, but Andrea McArdle is enjoying it most of all. For this is the one thing she misses most—being a kid. Just having a stupid silly good time without all those adults around to crimp your style. She is amazed and relieved that the Secret Servicemen just blend into the woodwork, or the grass, or the automatic pin-spotter. She’s really had it with grown-ups.
Unlike the other kids in the show, Andrea is in virtually every scene, which means she rehearses while her friends play jacks and have shaving cream fights. And when the kids back home are passing notes in school and running around at recess, she is trading lines with Daddy Warbucks; when they are flirting or watching television at a friend’s house, she is making a couple thousand grown-ups cry. It can wear a kid down.
Even her non-stage time is filled with adults: tutors and coaches and mothers and agents and photographers and reporters; sessions with Richard Avedon, segments on the Today Show, and untold hours with journalists. She has been photographed and interviewed more in the last two months than Farrah-Fawcett Majors. From Jack and Jill to Ms, from the National Star to The New York Times. Every little weekly paper, rinky dink radio show, local television station in Washington, New York and Philadelphia are bombarding her with the same dumb questions. They ask her about acting and singing and working with a dog, while her 13-year-old head is filled with visions of boyfriends back home and the super-duper pinball machine she found just yesterday. If she weren’t fortunate enough to have two of her best friends in the show with her (Janine Ruane and Donna Graham) she would probably go nuts. Adults can do that to a kid.
Normal strikes me as a strange word to describe a nine-year-old girl, but I will hear the word used again and again in the coming weeks.
Nine hours a day in front of the foot lights, however, doesn’t faze her a bit. Ten years in the business has prepared Andrea for the grind. She has starred in dinner theaters in the Philadelphia area, made countless commercials, spent three years on the soap opera, Search For Tomorrow, for which she won an award as the best juvenile actress on television, and has filmed three unsold pilots on the West Coast. At 13, she may be a bit young to be called jaded, but once you’ve done a show with Louise Lasser, you’re not easily shocked. A few years ago, Andrea was cast as Louise Lasser’s daughter in a pilot. Andrea says that the star was so creepy that she made life absolutely miserable for everyone up to and including the cameramen—she ranted and raved and rewrote her part until it was unrecognizable by even the script writers. Andrea says it was a very funny show until Louise Lasser butchered it. Andrea won’t even watch Mary Hartman.
She also pays little attention to commercials. She has seen how they’re made and doesn’t believe a word. Andrea once did a spot for Prell Shampoo. Her hair came out so limp and lackluster, she says, that they had to wash her hair with Johnson’s Baby Shampoo before shooting the final take. No, Andrea McArdle has seen too much to be sucked in too far. All she really wants these days is some unbridled fun with the girls. So this day romping through the White House with Amy Carter is special. And when it’s over the most lasting impression she carries around with her is of Amy, and all she has to say is that Amy is pretty normal.
Normal strikes me as a strange word to describe a nine-year-old girl, but I will hear the word used again and again in the coming weeks. By all the girls from Philly. Normality seems to be their prime goal in life at the moment, and it may also help explain why Andrea is so self-contained—God forbid a childlike outburst should be misinterpreted as abnormal behavior. “She will speak to any subject with equal portions of candor and prolix, but when you brook the topic of child stars who grow up to be something other than normal—on the bottle, on the needle, or up on a shelf somewhere—Andrea becomes strangely muted. Her eyes lower and her posture shifts: she becomes shorter than her usual 4’7”. She says she talks to her mother about such things, but no one else. Only her mother.
Scene 3: Unique Hotel
Mother McArdle is on the telephone. The receiver seems to be an enlarged earlobe after a while, for Mother McArdle is perpetually on the telephone. Setting up interviews, accepting congratulations for her daughter, apologizing for the dearth of orchestra seats to new-found friends and old neighbors. (She does, however, purchase a block of seats for the faculty of Andrea’s school, Presentation BVM.) Mother McArdle says that this whole Annie adventure is like a crazy dream, but she handles it so well, down to every detail, that one suspects she is loving every damnably hectic minute of it. And she will be first to agree—if not for the expense, she would be on the road with her daughter every minute.
Oh, the problems of money, how they plague Mother McArdle! When not talking about her daughter or guessing someone’s astrological sign (usually wrong), she is talking about money. All the mothers in Washington obsess on the matter of money, as if they just can’t understand how they can be losing so much of it when their daughters are so successful.
As one of the orphans in the Connecticut production, Andrea made about $600 a week: $400 in salary, $200 for living expenses. Then she had to pay for a hotel room for herself and mother, six meals a day, 15% to her agent, $15 an hour to her daily tutors, train trips for her brother and father on weekends, minor shopping sprees, singing coaches and an endless stream of quarters for various pinball machines. At summer’s end, Andrea was $2,000 in debt. If Washington is just more of the same fiscal woes, then the thought of New York prices must be increasingly driving Mother McArdle to the pocket calculator she now carries around. Since New York is considered home base by the producers and the actors’ guilds, the $200 for living expenses will be dropped. And because apartments in the theater district are scarce, the McArdles will live at the Howard Johnson’s. Of course, if the show’s a hit, Andrea’s agent will negotiate for more money, but the other two girls will remain in the same bracket.
“No, I am not a wicked stage mother and my daughter is perfectly normal and happy and if she ever got cocky or conceited, I’d beat the crap out of her.”
“The money on Broadway isn’t like commercials,” says Mrs. McArdle, aka Phyllis. “The producers say they don’t make anything for a year or two, and so they don’t pay very much. You can’t get rich doing musical comedies, that’s for sure.”
To cut costs while in Washington, the McArdles share a suite at the Unique Hotel with the Ruanes, Janine and mother Kathy. The two mothers take turns shuttling back and forth from Philly to D.C. on three-day shifts, thereby dividing their time and expenses. That the parents have been friends for 25 years, and the daughters were best friends before Annie came along, goes a long way in solving many problems of life on the road. When you consider that the third little girl from Philly, Donna Graham, is also a member of the Northeast gang, you start to respect the wisdom of someone in the front office—accidents like this just don’t happen. Kids and animals are reputed to be the worst hazards in show business, and making arrangements like this is just good sense. Even Sandy, the mutt, has a traveling companion, another mutt they named Arf.
Phyllis McArdle, a former hairdresser, is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed ball of fire. She has nothing but rave reviews for the private lives of the adults in the cast, saying they are much more civilized, much less decadent than she was led to believe. Everyone treats the kids splendidly and the mothers are welcome all the time. But Phyllis has the same complaint her daughter does: the reporters. They show up uninvited at the hotel, then pry answers out of Andrea that are none of their business, and take up three hours of her valuable time only to write a two-column story. And worst of all, they always ask Phyllis the same question: so before I can get around to it, she says point blank, “No, I am not a wicked stage mother and my daughter is perfectly normal and happy and if she ever got cocky or conceited, I’d beat the crap out of her.” There’s that word again, normal. Phyllis emphasizes the point that Andrea is a pinball addict, a jacks freak, and is well-liked by her friends back on Disston Street. Phyllis will gradually wear down and concede that many kids on the stage are not so normal, and it’s a natural question for anyone to ask. She points to the other kids in the show and posits this remarkably illogical, yet believable, theory: “It has something to do with Philadelphia—all the kids from Philly are down-to-earth, honest kids who just happen to be talented. When they’re not on stage, they’re just like any other kids. I don’t know why this is true, but everyone in the cast agrees with me.”
Kathy Ruane handles the touchy topic differently. She doesn’t credit Philadelphia for her daughter’s sanity or success; she hangs it on Phyllis McArdle. “I have to say that Phyllis was the first, she got the ball rolling, learned the ropes, made the contacts. Everyone in the Northeast comes to her for advice about how to get their child into show business.” What sounds at first blush as a compliment, will soon sound like a search for a scapegoat, though, because Mrs. Ruane is not sure what she’s doing to her daughter Janine.
She will explain, at length, and without prompting, how easy this whole gambit really is. Just get an agent and a manager (the Philly trio share the same management), hand over a stack of 8 by 10 glossies, and wait for the phone to ring. Nothing to it. No prodding or pushing by mothers necessary, no needling or nudging required. As far as landing a part in Annie, Mrs. Ruane credits a larger presence than a mere city, a more powerful entity than Phyllis McArdle—she lays the credit at the feet of no less a force than Fate itself. Yes, it was Fate that deigned her daughter to take bows every night to standing ovations. But did Fate foot the bills for all those years of dancing and singing lessons? Did Fate accompany Janine to the auditions last summer? Does Fate commute to Washington every week?
And if Fate is not enough to remove the responsibility from Mrs. Ruane’s shoulders, she will explain how enriching the Annie experience has been for the whole family: traveling to different cities together, pulling for a common cause together, suffering through trials and tensions together. What Mrs. Ruane will not say is that she is worried. She has read too many horror stories about teenage stars not to be worried. But what she perhaps does not understand is that Janine is far and away the most level-headed, straight-shooting kid in the cast, and no one need worry about her head becoming unscrewed.
What Mrs. Ruane further doesn’t understand is that such reservations are commonplace among stage mothers, for to feel anything less than serious concern would be a betrayal of her maternal instinct and human kindness; indeed, these fears and suspicions are, pardon the expression, absolutely normal.
Scene 4: The Eisenhower Theater
Mike Nichols is pacing the rear of the theater during a performance. He is chomping on chewing gum like a crazed hydraulic pump and chain smoking and whispering into the ears of nervous women who materialize little flashlights and scribble notes in the dark. Mike Nichols is a raving wreck. If he could find anything else to stick in his mouth, he surely would. He is oral, especially when he’s worried. And tonight he’s good and worried. Though the show is moving along briskly, he sees ten errors in every scene. He shakes his head, takes a drag, chews his gum, and paces. His head is compact, flat and featureless. Exceedingly Russian. When he shakes it, it looks like a suitcase teetering on one of those airport baggage carousels.
During intermission, a woman approaches him and mentions something about an interview. He shakes his head no. Long drag. Then a stream of little boys, with mothers in the not-too-distant rear, ask him for autographs. Mike Nichols shakes his head again. And again. One little boy asks him innocently if he is, in fact, the famous Mike Nichols. He shakes his head and disappears behind a curtain.
The rave reviews are greeted with fright: if these Washington hillbillies, goes the thinking, praise the show, then the New York critics will have to exercise their independence and pan it.
Mike Nichols, director, writer, comedian, and now producer, doesn’t like confrontations, planned or otherwise. He thought he could avoid them by being just a producer for the first time in his life. After all, he has described his duties as a producer like this: “There are only three things a producer ever says. One—the shoes are wrong. Two—cut out the earrings. Three—call the press agent and ask why I wasn’t in the Variety item. I’ve tried to fill one and two, not three.”
Mike Nichols, show business’s Renaissance Man, is being modest. His presence has turned the show around, converting an inchoate concept into a stunning presentation. And yet, Mike Nichols is worried. Paranoia is everywhere. The rave reviews are greeted with fright: if these Washington hillbillies, goes the thinking, praise the show, then the New York critics will have to exercise their independence and pan it. If the hick fans love the show, then the Big Apple sophisticates will have to hate it.
Yes, craziness is running high, anxieties have gone amuck. All glories garnered by Annie are viewed as tragic events.
Meg Greenfield devotes an entire column in Newsweek to the various triumphs of Annie. She lauds it on every conceivable level, even short-circuiting the possible political barbs (since the cartoon’s right-wing Warbucks has been perverted into a lovable liberal) by writing: “Annie is a sudden reversion to the concept of fun. Yes, fun. And ease. And simple things. And happy endings.” So how do the producers and backers of Annie respond to this full-page endorsement in a national magazine? With terror! Pure, unadulterated terror. As one of the money men says, “This broad Greenfield has just wasted all the original ideas one could attribute to the show. What the hell can Clive Barnes write about now? What is Marty Gottfried going to do, for Chrissakes, quote Meg Greenfield? This is horrible, just horrible. She doesn’t know anything about the goddamn theater anyway!”
The closer the show gets to New York—the only city that really counts—the crazier everyone is getting. Valiums are ingested by the handfuls. Neuroses are bubbling over. Judgement Day is nigh and everyone knows that the reviews of the morning following the opening night will inexorably alter their lives. Six years of labor could go down the theatrical tubes or up in heavenly history. St. Peter is receiving a lot of frantic, long-distance calls these nights.
Scene 5: Cemetery
Six feet below the headstone marked “Harold Gray,” the old cartoonist is having anything but a peaceful rest. He is turning over slowly and screaming, “Look what those liberal sonuvabitches have done to my Annie—they’ve made her a goddamned flower child!”
And so it is. Annie has humanized and liberalized the characters of Gray’s comic strip beyond recognition. Only the names remain the same. For shortly after the strip’s debut in 1924, it became the voice of conservatism, corporate capitalism and the status quo. Daddy Warbucks had received his name from his profession—ruthless war-profiteering. In his tuxedo and sparkling diamond pinstick, he sang the praises of the wealthy elite and their right to run the nation. He taught Annie the evils of creeping socialism and the dangers of helping your neighbor. As a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, he employed two henchmen (Punjab and Asp—absent from the show) to kidnap and kill anyone who vaguely threatened his American vision or his businesses. Every month in the strip, 20-odd heretics were either murdered or maimed by his patriotic goons.
Annie herself became the symbol of self-determination, standing alone against the wicked masses. Loneliness was the price of freedom; human compassion was democracy’s death knoll. Or, as the New Republic wrote, “Little Orphan Annie has been fighting social welfare, free education, universal suffrage, cultural reform and human love for years and years.”
So it’s no wonder that Harold Gray is struggling through restless nights nowadays. In the musical version of his creation, Daddy Warbucks is a warm, emotional chap who feels empathy for the underprivileged and is motivated by his big bleeding heart. At one point, he even tells Annie he loves her and needs her. And Annie, rather than espousing capitalistic supremacy, goes around spreading joy and cheer among the down-and-outers of the Depression. She even sings a sentimental peace-on-earth, goodwill-toward-man showstopper on Christmas morning beneath a 20-foot evergreen. The entire tone and message of the show is probably as far from its author’s intention as possible. Harold Gray summed up his feelings quite succinctly when telling another cartoonist to “buy a house in the country, build a wall around it, and get ready to protect yourself. The way things are going, people who earn their living are going to have to fight off the bums someday.”
Well, in Annie’s second incarnation, the bums are the heroes and they are heading not for the isolation and purity of the country, but right smack dab into the dark heart of the big, bad city.
NEW YORK: APRIL, 1977
Scene 1: Gallagher’s Steak House
Gallagher’s is right down the block from the Alvin Theatre, where Annie is packing in the preview crowds. In the window of Gallagher’s hang fresh steer carcasses, all pinkish and veiny. A carnivore’s delight. Inside, the meat-eaters are stalking and smacking their lips at the sight of young and tender flesh. Columbia Records is throwing a party for the cast of Annie, whom they wish to put on vinyl in the near future. Opening night is still a week away, but Columbia smells success. It is padding its traps with visions of gold records and long-term recording contracts.
The place is packed with important people. I know, because I am not one of them. Two luscious ingenues approach me at the bar, ask me my business, and upon hearing the word Philadelphia, say, “Oh, you’re a nobody,” and vanish into the crowd to find Martin Charnin or Thomas Meehan or Charlie Strouse. If Annie fulfills its advance notices, these will be very important people. Somebodies.
“My mom says if you can make an audience laugh, you’ll run for a year. If you can make them cry, you’ll run for two. But if you can make them do both—you’ll run forever. Annie is going to be here a long, long time.”
As the night wears on, mounting tensions finally break and all the stored-up enmities and envies come pouring forth. Actors debate who will get the best reviews, who will be famous first, who will have to forsake Annie to star in their vehicle. There are tipsy fights about billing and the order of bow-taking and whose bios are longer in the Playbill. Backstage intrigues and trysts are swapped over meatballs and chicken legs, with side orders of over-baked hostilities.
The little girls from Philly, meanwhile, are wandering around looking pert and quite lost. They drink orange juice and grenadine (dubbed an “Annie”) and try to avoid the ever-watchful gaze of their respective mothers—the kids don’t want to retire too early tonight and miss all the fun. Ho, ho. If they only knew. If they could only hear the gossip being flung around like so much horse dung. Like the story about Daddy Warbucks (Reid Shelton) throwing a chair across the footlights when he found Andrea playing jacks one day during rehearsal. As the chair was in mid-flight, Daddy Warbucks was screaming something about no little brat ruining his first starring role. Or the story about So-and-So’s affair with a chorus girl who has never set foot on stage. Or the drinking problem of You-Know-Who. Or the time Dorothy Loudon, who practically steals the show, demanded the immediate dismissal of a young chorine because her voice was so overpowering that Ms. Loudon was worried about being upstaged.
Rumor, and good sense has it that the young lady Ms. Loudon wanted banished was Laurie Beechman. Laurie is 23, a native of Philadelphia, and may possess the biggest voice on Broadway since Ethel Merman. Laurie Beechman also cringes at the comparison to the first lady of musical comedy, for Ethel Merman is thought of as the archetypal backstabbing, insensitive Broadway bitch. All voice and no heart. And Laurie Beechman has spent much time and energy eschewing the analogy—ever since that day in acting class at NYU when her teacher asked the class to perform some absurdist exercise in the nude. Laurie flatly refused. And her teacher summed up all his resentment and animosity with two two-syllable words: “Eth-el Mer-man!”
Laurie’s smallish, but memorable, performance in Annie has also been compared to Barbra Streisand’s sensational debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. And it may be more apropos. Both women suffered through childhood with an ugly duckling complex, both spent years playing noisy one-nighters in flea-bitten cabarets, and both possess the perfect blend of neuroses and talent that will allow them to stop at nothing short of stardom. Given her undauntable ambition and the instrument to back it up, Laurie Beechman has run into a lot of petty jealousies and profound psychodramas during her first try at the big time. How has she fared? Well, the Annie program lists her character “A Star To Be.” In the trade, this is known as typecasting.
Scene 2: The Metroliner
The cast has had a long weekend at home to celebrate Easter. Andrea and Janine and Donna meet at the train station in Trenton. Andrea is wearing a white terrycloth outfit. She asks her friends if it’s too summery. They say it’s just fine. The girls board the train and find three empty spaces. A half a car away from their mothers. They talk about their mini-vacations and the Beach Boys’ new album.
Andrea has brought along a bag of freshly sliced lemons. Janine suggests a lemon-sucking contest: who can suck on a lemon slice the longest without making a face. Lemon slices are distributed and placed into position. The contest fizzles out after ten minutes when the girls discover their lemon slices have all but disintegrated. So they talk shop.
Everyone agrees that “Hard Knock Life” is the best song in the show and Andrea starts to sing a few bars. The other two girls join in, and by the second chorus, they are going full tilt. It is a Monday afternoon on a solemn Metroliner packed with serious businessmen and frazzled commuters somewhere in the marshes of New Jersey and these three adorable little urchins, who are heading back to New York to star in a Broadway show, are belting out, in perfect Beach Boy harmony:
It’s a hard knock life for us
It’s a hard knock life for us
Instead of treats, we get tricked
Instead of kissed, we get kicked
Oh, it’s a hard knock life….
Scene 3: Opening night
The standing ovation is the longest and loudest yet. Four curtain calls. The roof at the Alvin Theatre has been slightly dislodged. Tomorrow’s papers will make Annie the official toast of the town. Each review is better than the last. The Times, the Post, the Daily News, the Village Voice. All will hail Annie as a supersmash.
Andrea McArdle is presently taking her third bow to a crescendo of bravos. Kristin Vigard is watching all this from backstage. She is clapping politely and holding back the tears. With a little bit of luck, that could be her out there. And she knows it all too well.
“I bet this show will run a long, long time,” she says with the applause in the background. “My mom says if you can make an audience laugh, you’ll run for a year. If you can make them cry, you’ll run for two. But if you can make them do both—you’ll run forever. Annie is going to be here a long, long time.”
And every night, Kristin Vigard will be wishing that Andrea McArdle would break a leg. Just for luck.