More now than at any time since the 1970s, we seem to be taking comfort in the notion that somehow the future will be better, even if tomorrow just keeps getting further away and the safety net looks increasingly threadbare. While the show gives an explicit endorsement of Roosevelt’s efforts, its real message is that charity begins at home. After all, Annie is saved by a super-rich capitalist hero, whereas the orphanage, presumably part of some Big Government program, is a social-services nightmare run by an administrator, Miss Hannigan, who makes the Republicans’ worst idea of a ACORN pencil-pusher look like Mother Teresa. Daddy Warbucks may be able to phone up the president, but he’s hardly emblematic of the Depression’s shared sacrifice: in a startling number, Annie meets dozens of hardworking maids and butlers at the Warbucks mansion and declares, “I think I’m gonna like it here!” (James Whitcomb Riley made Annie’s servitude seem virtuous, whereas the musical frames true virtue as being served.) For a poor girl, the kid certainly seems to the manor born—the hauteur of the wealthy is easily learned, given that plutocrats, then and now, are the object of national fixation.
What, exactly, Warbucks does to make his fortune is unspecified in the show—he’s the sort of job creator whose extraordinary good luck makes him seem like the wisest man in the room. Annie composer Charles Strouse told The Observer that he couldn’t recall why Warbucks’s occupation had been changed from the comic strip—but that it was fortuitous, given that in the post-Vietnam era, turning out armaments looked a lot less like doing one’s patriotic duty and a lot more like showering napalm on innocent villagers. “He was kind of, in today’s liberal attitudes, a real villain,” Mr. Strouse noted of the comic-strip Warbucks. “He made money from war and things like that.”
What makes Annie’s story appealing is not that government aid helped her better her lot but that she was one chance meeting away from fortune. It’s a nice fantasy—that the next elevator pitch or audition or the scratch-’n’-win ticket will finally be the winner, if not today, then tomorrow. The character of Annie owes something to the work of the 19th century children’s novelist Horatio Alger, whose characters’ fortunes were also often dependent on the kindness of wealthy benefactors. But where the typical Alger boy must still work hard to make his fortune, Annie gets hers handed to her—which is perhaps why we’re still watching Annie and no longer reading Alger.
These days, Annie has more competition than ever: tales of everyday Americans who transcend their social station clog the airwaves, even as their fans seem to fall ever deeper into debt. As the economy tanked, unemployment rose and foreclosures skyrocketed, we soothed ourselves with decade’s worth of survivors and American idols plucked from assembly-line jobs or cruise-ship singing gigs and handed small fortunes. If Jay-Z can move from the projects to global fame in a single lifetime, maybe there is something to hope for. After all, Hova sampled “Hard-Knock Life” on his third album, and now he’s playing a shiny new arena of which he’s part owner. As he boasted on “Umbrella,” he has more than enough money to ride out any global recession: “When the clouds come, we gone / We Roc-A-Fellas / We fly higher than weather.” (Then again, he’s said to be a Freemason too!)
But even he can’t hold a candle to Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, the baby-faced pageant queen and newly minted TLC reality powerhouse, whose charisma and indomitable optimism has enabled her, like Annie, to transcend her humble circumstances. Alana’s family would seem the ultimate exemplars of the American dream deferred: Mom, who assists young Alana in her pageant habit, has become a master of couponing to make ends meet and entertains her family with such diversions as a “redneck slip ’n’ slide” (baby oil on a plastic tarp in the backyard). Like Annie and her fellow orphans, the Thompson clan seems to have struck a nerve because, despite their apparent struggles, they keep on smiling, facing life with all-American pluck and good humor. They might not be glamorous, but then neither was Annie, especially. “People loved her because she was direct and confident,” Ms. Finneran pointed out. “It wasn’t because she was a beautiful princess.”
Like Annie, Alana Thompson is living out a classic fairy tale, being transformed before our eyes from long-shot pageant contestant to cultural touchstone and TV superstar, whose newfound wealth will change her life if not her giddy personality.
Favored myths are endlessly cyclical: audiences first met Alana in Toddlers and Tiaras, the reality series about the world of preadolescent beauty pageants that owes more than a little, when you think about it, to the breathlessly hyped audition cycle that brought the world the original Annie. Young Andrea McArdle was the lucky contestant back in 1977, beating out some 150 other girls for the role of a girl so appealing that Daddy Warbucks loves her practically on sight. Another former Annie: Sarah Jessica Parker—who was still seeking her Mr. Big a few decades later.
The winner this time around is 11-year-old Lilla Crawford, but no matter how well she puts over numbers like “Maybe,” she’s likely to be passed over for the new screen adaptation reportedly being prepped by Will Smith, who himself once played a tough-luck kid with a rich benefactor in TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (Like any good plutocrat, he is hoarding wealth, and is said to be building the production around his progeny, daughter Willow.)
Still, she’s gotten her golden ticket with a starring role onstage. The real challenge is how long she can make it last. In Annie, the curtain falls before the sort of recriminations that tend to accompany get-rich-quick stories kick in: the Alger lad who has to keep up his hustle or fall behind, the American Idol winner whose debut album tanks, the voter who realizes post-election that, well, the rich really are different from you and me.
But if Annie and Alana can keep hope alive, well, so can we. “The poor man would like to think that there’s a munificent rich man out there,” said Mr. Strouse, when asked about the appeal of the musical he helped to write. “But I don’t know!”
He was certain of one thing: “I feel blessed by it!”