Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: ANNIE
I thought throwing out my Annie CDs would be easy--I thought I only had one! Obviously that would be the indispensable Original Broadway Cast Recording with Dorothy Loudon and Andrea McArdle. How wrong I was! I knew that, as a kid, I had the tape of the 1982 movie soundtrack with Carol Burnett and Aileen Quinn (and an all-star supporting cast!), but I didn't remember buying it on CD. And when the hell did I get the CD of the 1999 TV version (with Kathy Bates and an all-star cast)? And, oh yeah... I forgot about this studio album from the 90s with studio cast queen Kim Criswell--I think I bought back in the day somehow convincing myself Ruthie Henshall was playing Annie. (Spoiler alert: She plays Grace.) Oh, and I do remember this "30th Anniversary" deluxe production with Chicago area diva (and original star of the sequel, Annie Warbucks) Alene Robertson as Miss Hannigan plus a lot of bonus material. To add insult to injury, I also have a Blu-Ray of the recent Hollywood remake with Cameron Diaz. I don't even have a Blu-Ray player! This thing is definitely going into the trash along with all the audio, but I will listen to a few tracks online for my edification.
The 1977 Broadway hit Annie is kind of a strange perfect storm. I guess the intentions were originally a more satiric piece--at one point Bernadette Peters (well into her mid 20s at the time) was considered for the titular role. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) I imagine something akin to a "Laugh-In" sketch. The creative development process eventually yielded a piece with more earnest heart than that, although sharper strains remain in the show, particularly in the characterization of Miss Hannigan and especially as created on Broadway with feral growls and grunts by comic genius Dorothy Loudon.
The blockbuster success of Annie, though, seems to owe more to the appeal of the children in the show and their appeal to children in the audience. Timing-wise, this was right on the precipice of the explosion of the heavily commercialized pop culture of the 1980s with so much product marketed toward children and families. In fact, the 1982 movie of Annie, while bombed by critics and derided by fans of the Broadway production's edgier tone, went on to watershed sales in the new frontier of home video.
Even before the movie and certainly afterward, Annie became a top ten staple of the musical theater repertoire in regional, stock, amateur and school productions--and has never fallen from its place. There aren't many showtunes more ubiquitous than "Tomorrow" and much of the rest of the score has also become a lasting earworm in our collective consciousness. In addition to the aforementioned big and small screen adaptations, there have been a couple of Broadway revivals and there are sure to be many more incarnations across all media.
But for the show queen, the theater nerd, cast album collector, or whatever we're calling ourselves today, there is most importantly an extremely tuneful score with memorable lyrics and an infectious joy. It is quite sincerely a pleasure for me today to sit down and relisten to all the tracks on all these recording. As in the best musical theatre material, these songs give actor-singers a chance to shine and it's delightful to experience the different ways so many have.
As Miss Hannigan in the original production, Broadway veteran and general show business trooper Dorothy Loudon finally had the hit she'd been waiting for her whole life and she won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. As wonderful as she is on this album, you really have to watch clips of her to understand how inspired and enthralling her performance was. The old adage goes "never work with kids or animals" and Loudon seems to be simultaneously bemoaning this fate and celebrating her hard-won victory over it in every single moment.
In the '82 movie, Carol Burnett's Hannigan is wonderful in a wholly different manner. Appropriately for the medium, it's no longer a vaudeville turn, but instead a camp villainess that we love to hate (with a strong emphasis on the love). As a kid, I would stomp around the house in my mother's bathrobe swilling ginger ale in a martini glass as Carol belted out "Little Girls" and "Sign" on TV.
(Side note: How much do we love the Hannigan/Warbucks duet "Sign" added for the movie?)
It's almost unfair to compare any other Hannigans with these two musical comedy titans Loudon and Burnett, but compare I shall. In the TV movie, Kathy Bates brings a star charisma, hearing her voice form words feels familiar and gives her credibility and she sings well, but she doesn't have the style or dexterity to sell a number like our favorite ladies. On the Anniversary recording, Alene Robertson is fun--angry as hell and very enjoyable, but not sexy like Carol and Dorothy. On the studio album, Kim Criswell sounds good as always if not special enough to draw me away from any of the others. And ooooooomg you guys, I listened to the Cameron Diaz version--what a joke! She sounds like the popular girl at your high school who got the part, but can't act.
The worst thing about Dorothy Loudon winning the Tony for Annie is that she didn't tie for the award with Andrea McArdle. It's crazy listening to all these Annie recordings all at once and hearing just how in a class by herself Andrea is. It's like Andrea McArdle is Judy Garland as Dorothy and the rest of the girls who ever played the role are munchkins who understudied her. Andrea's voice is so beautifully brassy and simply shines belting out her first song, "Maybe." There's an undeniably youthful brightness laid on top of a throaty wisdom that tells you this kids knows the streets. You can hear the unfiltered Luckys she smoked in the alley behind the orphanage even when she sings "Tomorrow." She gives the sometimes saccharine anthem teeth and no one has ever come close to touching her on it.
I suppose it's only fair to talk about the guys playing Warbucks since he's a lead too. I love the late, great Albert Finney in the '82 movie and his sweet little reprise of "Maybe," but Reid Shelton's handsome baritone is great on the Broadway album singing the song that originally went in that spot, "Something Was Missing." Ron Raines sings the role real pretty on the studio cast too, if you're into that. On the TV movie soundtrack, Victor Garber brings a star vocal presence and on the Anniversary recording, you get Conrad John Schuck as Warbucks, which is cool to hear because he played the part in many productions including the 1997 Broadway revival opposite Nell Carter. Now why wasn't that recorded?
My favorite song in the score has got to be "N.Y.C." I wish people sang it more often out of context as another anthem to the Big Apple. Then again, give it a shot in karaoke and you'll realize Warbucks's part is harder to sing than it sounds when Reid Shelton or Ron Raines sings it. Anyway, the best part of the song is the "Star To Be" solo, which is a verse given to a woman in the ensemble where she plays an actress fresh off the bus to make her dreams come true. It was originally played by gone too soon goddess Laurie Beechman and it's incredible how much of an impression she makes on the original cast album with that one little moment to shine. The song has been performed many times by great people (including Sutton Foster in that '97 revival and poetically Andrea McArdle in the TV movie), but no one will ever give it the guts and gorgeousness and stellar soulfulness that Laurie Beechman did. You must watch Seth Rudetsky deconstruct it.
The TV movie also struck gold casting Audra McDonald (back when she only had three Tony Awards) as Grace and grace is exactly what she delivered in the added short reprise medley of "Maybe" and "Tomorrow" you didn't know you needed.
The cavalcade of stars in these movies continues with Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters divinely decadent as Rooster and Lily in the '82 film. Curry is so lewd it's subversive and Bernadette reminds you what a truly brilliant character actress she was before we recruited to her be the Leading Lady of Broadway.
If there were justice in the world, we'd have a proper recording of dearly departed Gary Beach's Broadway replacement Rooster, but it's fun to have his two tracks of cut numbers on the Anniversary recording. Stand back, he spits while he chews the scenery!
Looking ahead, there are bound to be more revivals and remakes and I am here for all of them. I actually dream about staging a "Downtown" production with alt cabaret superstar Bridget Everett finally realizing the original idea of an adult as Annie and with Kiki & Herb: Alive On Broadway Tony nominee Justin Vivian Bond as Miss Hannigan. Who knows if it would work, but I'd be happy to die trying.