Broadway's new Annie, Lilla Crawford, says of her character: “She’s… (Joan Marcus / Palace Theatre )
NEW YORK — Anyone who's seen "Annie" — and that has to be about half the nation's population by now — knows exactly how the musical will start: half a dozen orphanage cots arrayed across the stage, each occupied by a singing waif.
But when the lights come up on the show's new Broadway revival at the Palace Theatre, all of the young orphans are crammed into a single bed, looking more like Dickensian tenement dwellers than happy-go-lucky strays.
Although it's an admittedly minor shift from the usual "Annie" opening, that hardscrabble staging underscores how director James Lapine and his cast and creative team have tried to dig the musical out from the high-gloss varnish that has been applied in thicker and thicker coats since the show premiered on Broadway 35 years ago.
Annie (played by 11-year-old Los Angeles actress Lilla Crawford) has ditched her cartoonish red wig. Orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan ("Promises, Promises" alumna Katie Finneran) comes across as more of a Eugene O'Neill washout than an outrageous lush. And although Oliver Warbucks (Australian classical music soloist Anthony Warlow) still sports a shiny bald head, he doesn't milk the part for easy, slapstick laughs. Even the show's stray canine, Sandy, is played by a rescue dog who was discovered just hours from being euthanized.
The musical about hard times, in other words, is essentially about hard times.
"I wanted to do a big show, but I didn't want to do 'Sugar Babies,'" Lapine said of that lighter-than-air burlesque review. "And when I read 'Annie,' it was talking to me about a lot of things I'd been thinking about, the times we are living in. I thought it was oddly topical. It's kind of amazing to me that we are going to be opening around the election."
Yet anyone worried about taking their young children to "Annie," opening Thursday, shouldn't fear a singing-and-dancing sisters grim.
Even with the show's Depression-era setting — the story unfolds in 1933 New York — coupled with Lapine's grittier direction, "Annie" is an upbeat story about a youngster overcoming adversity. The musical's rags-to-riches heroine still teaches Franklin D. Roosevelt and her future adoptive father that no matter how grim things might look, the sun will, in fact, come out tomorrow.
Thomas Meehan, who wrote "Annie's" book (the music and lyrics respectively are by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin), said he always intended the musical to be for grown-ups. "It's not a very well-known fact, but when we wrote 'Annie,' we did not write it for children," Meehan said.
He said he was inspired to write the show following the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. "It was our liberal Democratic protest against Nixon — to try to go back to a time when we had a more benevolent president," Meehan said. "In 1977, people recognized what we were doing."
The original Broadway production, starring Andrea McArdle as Annie, ran for 2,377 performances over nearly five years. It won seven Tony Awards, including best musical, and spawned countless national and international tours, school productions and a largely unsuccessful Broadway revival in 1997.
Meehan said the first entreaties from producers about another revival coincided with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. "They thought it had a new relevancy and would strike a chord," Meehan said, particularly because of the financial crisis.
Not long after Meehan was contacted by potential producers, Lapine started looking for a new project. In early 2010, Lapine had conceived and directed the "Sondheim on Sondheim" revue on Broadway, where he previously had staged "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Into the Woods," "Passion" and "Sunday in the Park With George."
The theater veteran somehow had never seen "Annie," adapted from the Harold Gray comic strip "Little Orphan Annie." "I just didn't really know it," Lapine said. "So when I read it, I was really impressed by it."
The show's musical vocabulary, while seemingly straightforward, is relatively ambitious and the book deceptively well plotted. In addition to having an array of indelible songs — chiefly "It's the Hard-Knock Life," "Tomorrow," "Easy Street," "Maybe" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" — the musical opens itself to plentiful interpretations.
Lapine immediately decided that Miss Hannigan, who was played by Dorothy Loudon in the original 1977 Broadway production, Carol Burnett in the 1982 movie, Nell Carter in the 1997 revival and Kathy Bates in a 1999 TV movie, should be depicted by someone younger who would perform less broadly, leaning toward naturalism and away from caricature.
"I just thought it was more interesting with a younger, sexier person," Lapine said. That way, the director said, when you see her running the orphanage "you can see that her youth is being stolen from her."