Annie is by now an American sacred text, a retelling of the beloved fantasy that class in America is not largely fixed, that the poor, through whatever miraculous turn of events, can actually become rich overnight. It’s a notion that still animates our politics today, torn as they are between a democratic vision in which citizens “feel entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” as Mitt Romney put it in that infamous video, and a conservative alternative, in which the state gets out of the way and lets the market do its thing.
By the time the show’s original run ended, Ronald Reagan (accompanied by his own curly-haired gal in a red dress) had convinced the nation it was “morning in America.” There was no more need for Annie’s old-fashioned tale of upward mobility. That future of prosperity was here (and it expressed itself, on Broadway, in frivolous, Baroque bombast like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, ever-more-expensive entertainments for young children, the music of a nation amusing itself to death).
One can trace the shifting national mythology of personal improvement by looking at how Annie’s story changed over time. The original, “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley, was intended as a moral fable instructing children to be good; Annie, in Riley’s telling, is an industrious junior charwoman. “Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay, / An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,” he wrote. She bettered her circumstances by getting herself a job, not by becoming cherished as a family member, and her industry was rewarded: Annie was the only child in the verse not snatched away by goblins.
Years later, the poem formed the basis for the comic strip (which ran from 1924 to 2010), with its famous, uncanny hollow eyes, zombie-ishly free of pupils. Interestingly, creator Harold Gray was deeply critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he viewed as an inappropriate incursion of government power into private life—a notion that will sound eerily familiar to anyone who caught the recent GOP convention. Gray turned Annie into a traveling street urchin and added the character of Daddy Warbucks, among others; meanwhile, he gave up on teaching children about good behavior and instead focused on indoctrinating an obsession with the power of a wealthy man. In the funny pages, Warbucks’s wicked wife takes Annie in and exploits her, leaving it to Daddy to come to her rescue, at least when he’s in town. (More often, he’s off producing munitions and, it has been speculated, bonding with other Freemasons.) So much for Annie working her way up with her broom and dustbin!
That version of Annie also seems unrecognizable now, although her humble beginnings have remained constant. The stage incarnation of Annie will eternally be associated with the compellingly dingy orphanage at which she begins her tale, but she seems out of place there, and not just for her fiery red hair; necessarily, whichever little girl plays Annie will be the most charismatic by a mile. (The show is now in previews; we’ll wait for the opening to evaluate this production.)
Annie’s hollow eyes have seen a great deal, but she remains the eternal little girl, an emblem of Americans’ inability to shake off childish hopes. She’s even confident enough to speak to the president! The show is “a great message of hope in the worst circumstances,” Katie Finneran, who’s playing Miss Hannigan in the current production, told The Observer. “Right now, people are having trouble feeding their families. People feel like they’re not being heard, and this is the story of a little girl who goes into the White House. It’s obviously a fantasy—but it’s about being heard.”