Thirty-Five Years Young: Despite a Hard-Knock Life, Annie’s Hardly Showing Her Age

McArdle, Reid Shelton and Sandy the dog, from the original Broadway production in 1977.

THERE WAS AN Annie before the original 1977 Annie we all know and love—before its much-hyped 1990 sequel, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, crashed on takeoff and burned out of town at the Kennedy Center in 1990; before Annie Warbucks rose from those ashes for a redeemably respectable run Off Broadway three years later; before it celebrated its 20th anniversary Broadway revival with Nell Carter (and some newbie named Sutton Foster playing A Star to Be); and before its current resurrection starts previews today for a Nov. 8 premiere at the Palace, starring Katie Finneran as horrible Miss Hannigan.

Before all that—even before that purposeful, pupil-less little redhead in the matching red dress stepped out of the funny papers and onto the Broadway stage—therewas Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man, an hourlong CBS special that won 1970’s Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety or Musical Program and another for its writers. Anne Bancroft, in the title role, wafted about in various moods and guises among name-brand males like Jack Cassidy, Arthur Murray, David Susskind, Dick Smothers, Dick Shawn, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Merrill and even her hubby, Mel Brooks.

One of her guises came from “YMA Dreams,” a short story in The New Yorker by its humorist-in-residence, Thomas Meehan. He’d imagined a cocktail party hosted by Yma Sumac and peopled by Ava, Uta, Ida, Eva, Una and others of that ilk.

“Anne loved your story and would like you to adapt it for her special.” That phone call, in late 1969, was opportunity ringing, and Mr. Meehan deliberated one of his famous nanoseconds before climbing aboard. The caller was Martin Charnin, who produced the first special, and, four years later, directed its sequel, Annie and the Hoods. He then invited Mr. Meehan back for seconds, and it was during collaboration No. 2 that the prospects of a theatrical partnership started to gel.

Mr. Charnin was the original “Big Deal,” one of the Jets in West Side Story. When he had done that role more than a thousand times, he decided on a less strenuous line of work: writing lyrics. After two failed swoops (Hot Spot in 1963 and Mata Hari in 1967), he landed on Broadway in 1970, with Two by Two, starring Danny Kaye. TV specials helped him get back on the Broadway track, and he was pondering his next charge when he noticed a potential book writer in Mr. Meehan, who did nothing to discourage the notion.

“I’d been stage-struck all my life, but I’d never been involved in the theatre at all,” Mr. Meehan admitted. “Finally, a few months later, he called and said he had a great idea for a musical. I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘I can’t tell you over the phone. It might be tapped.’ So I came to his office, and he said ‘Little Orphan Annie.’” It wasn’t exactly thrilling. “I was thinking West Side Story, maybe My Fair Lady. I didn’t want to do a cartoony thing like that. I just shrugged.”

But Mr. Meehan told him two-time Tony-winning composer Charles Strouse had already agreed to do the music, “so I thought, ‘Who am I to tell these guys to take a hike?’”

A journalist first and foremost, Mr. Meehan took this impossibly silly idea seriously, went to the Daily News on 42nd Street and pored over a good 40 years of Harold Gray’s comic strip, then reported back to Mr. Charnin: “All the adventures were so bizarre and strange and—well, comic-strippy, really. There’s nothing in them but the richest man in the world and the poorest little girl and a dog.” But that was enough for Mr. Meehan, who let his love of Dickens and Democrats lead him the rest of the way.

“I’m a lifelong reader of Charles Dickens—definitely my favorite author—and this was an orphan, and that was Dickens country,” he reasoned. “I could write a Dickensian story, create a whole plot out of half a locket and some lost parents (Oliver Twist). That naturally came out of Dickens. The comic strip took place all over the world and not in any particular city, but the three of us—Martin, Charles and I—were New Yorkers, so we just made it New York.”

The time period in which they set Annie had a nostalgic aspect. “We put it in the Depression because, at the time, Nixon was president of the United States, and we were looking back to a time when there was a president who really cared about the people, so FDR came into it. The idea was to create this character Annie, who is a kind of symbolic representative of hope and optimism in hard times. Then, when she goes to the White House and sings ‘Tomorrow,’ she helps him invent the New Deal. By that time, she’s totally a metaphor and stopped being a person. It was sorta risky.”

Bernadette Peters, who came pre-curled, was Mr. Charnin’s first choice for Annie, and she was interested. But, Mr. Meehan said, as the three men worked on it more, “we thought, ‘Let’s try a real child.’ And we struck gold. Over the years, we’ve seen literally thousands of children to play Annie at auditions, but Andrea McArdle was in the first group of kids we ever saw—on the second day.”

They hired her, not as Annie, but as one of the other orphans, and cast the blonde Kristen Vigard as the star. “But, as soon as we were up at Goodspeed in Connecticut with the show, we realized that Annie isn’t supposed to be beautiful and here was Andrea with the biggest voice ever. It was a tough decision and very hard on Kristen, but we got her a job in our next show.” Ms. Vigard got to Broadway as Johanne, one of the kids in I Remember Mama.

Annie more or less rested on the strong lungs of Ms. McArdle, who, then 13 years old, was in almost every scene—andstill found herself in serious Tony combat for Best Actress with her supporting co-star, Dorothy Loudon, then 51, who would surface snarling with glee from time to time and gobble up what scene and scenery there was. Mr. Meehan provided her with a full quiver of poison-dipped arrows that would dampen the little ragamuffins in her care (“Do I hear happiness in here?”) or dismiss them altogether (“Why anyone would ever want to be an orphan, I’ll never know!”). Three guesses who got the Tony, but at least there was a Theater World Award for Ms. McArdle’s debut.

Now 48, with a couple of Miss Hannigans under her own belt, Ms. McArdle spoke fondly at Ms. Loudon’s memorial and revealed how the original Miss Hannigan came over so Loudon-clear: “First thing she ever said to me was, ‘Kid, if you ever move while I’m getting a laugh, you won’t make it to the curtain call.’”

In all, Annie took home seven out of 10 Tonys: Best Musical, Best Book, Best Songs, Best Choreography, Best Sets and Best Costumes—quite a trophy load, and they signaled the inevitable sequel. “When I wrote the book for Annie 2, we had a reading,” Mr. Meehan recalled, “and everybody said, ‘It’s better than Annie. It’s wonderful. They’ll love it.’ I was very happy, and they wrote some great songs. We thought we were on our way to a hit.”

The curtain went up at night in a women’s prison where Miss Hannigan sings a song about plotting revenge on Annie. “What it turned out to be was almost a parody of Annie, a send-up. It was much more of a comedy, but the audience that arrived at the Kennedy Center was all little girls in red dresses, and they were deeply disappointed in the show. So were the critics.”

THE THREE MEN SPENT three years retooling and retuning, and came up with Annie Warbucks—Daddy Warbucks is given 60 days to marry or he can’t keep Annie—but what tripped up that production, Mr. Meehan believes, was lowering the bar to Off-Broadway. “We did it—I have to say, against my wishes—downtown at the Variety Arts Theater, a little black-box theater. It was just the wrong place to do it—in the wrong part of town for the Annie audience—so I thought it was wasted. We had a chance for a Broadway production, but there were negotiations that might have taken a couple of more years, so we decided just to do it—and then, maybe, move it uptown.” But that never happened.

At 35, Annie is still as gosh-darn family-friendly a show as you could hope for—plus there’s now a whole generation of eyes to widen and dazzle. The latest production is helmed by director James Lapine, who comes to it fresh, having somehow managed to miss all 2,377 performances of the original and all 239 performances of its revival.

“I think everybody’s happy to have it back,” Mr. Meehan said. “I’m very excited about seeing what James Lapine is going to do with it. Charles and I likened it to having this beautiful apartment that everybody loved—big, beautiful, shiny—but then, after 35 years, you look around, and things need to be redecorated. That’s how we feel—we have a rethought-out new look.”

They’ve done some tweaks and updates to the dialogue, but in essence it’s the same old Annie that he brought to stage life three decades ago. “It was kinda strange when we had the meet ’n’ greet the other day,” he said,” telling everybody what we did. I ran around and said I was the original ‘Little Molly’ in the orphanage.”

Thirty-Five Years Young: Despite a Hard-Knock Life, Annie’s Hardly Showing Her Age