Thank heaven for little girls.
Annie is storming back onto Broadway, and if history is any guide, the Depression-era rags-to-riches tale of a girl and her dog will make as much money, and as quickly, as did its lucky heroine: the original ran for a staggering 2,377 performances, and touring companies and regional theaters have made the show ubiquitous throughout the ensuing years.
But what of the political fallout? Will Team Romney’s October Surprise be a carrot-topped cutie pie?
After all, beneath its irresistible melodies and exuberant choreography, Annie is at root the story of America’s ongoing attempt to grapple with the wealth gap—or to brush it aside. It’s last week’s presidential debate set to music, in which the economic vision of Mitt & Co. (a survival-of-the-fittest society in which only the pluckiest 47-percenters can improve their station) easily edges out Obama’s underfunded entitlement economy.
Even as it lionizes FDR, whose New Deal provides the show’s rousing finale, it offers up the most tender tycoon since Bill Gates, a HNWI with a heart of gold. Daddy Warbucks has his tax shelters—bet on it—but for the right orphan, he cheerfully opens his home and his wallet. And somehow the message about building a social safety net for Annie’s fellow orphans is always forgotten in the fairy tale of one little girl and her diamond-decked sugar daddy.
Annie is the perfect show for our dire economic moment, just as it was when it debuted: It alit on Broadway on April 21, 1977, mere months before the Bronx burned amid the blackout and looting that summer. The Clash had just released their first album, and Saturday Night Fever, a bleak vision of the outer-borough underclass, was among the year’s biggest hits.
When little orphan Annie belted out her big show-stopper, insisting that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow,” audiences could, at least momentarily, ignore the national economic and cultural “malaise” of the Carter administration and imagine a happy ending, however long in coming (there’s the rub: it’s always a day away). Annie’s chance encounter with a wealthy loner who eventually adopts her—having fallen in love with the ragamuffin after a single magical night in the city—represents the great American dream of transcending one’s circumstances not by dint of hard work (because that would be hard) but due to an innate spark of goodness that admits one into the charmed circle of wealth and power.
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.”
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!”