A revival of 'Annie' at the Hippodrome revives the musical's mildly revolutionary roots

City Paper

People get really attached to musicals. There’s something about show tunes—maybe it’s their connections to childhood theater experiences, their perceived wholesomeness, their often heart-on-sleeve,  even corny lyrics, but that music, those songs are sacrosanct in many people’s minds.

When the new “Annie” movie hit theaters in December, with Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) in the title role and Jamie Foxx as latter-day Daddy Warbucks Will Stacks, most critics hated it. It seems the filmmakers deviated too far from the beloved musical, gave the song-and-dance routines too short shrift, and Wallis, despite being a gifted actress, apparently didn’t have the pipes (and maybe the skin tone) for the iconic role.

But critics can be idiots, especially when they’re reviewing a kids movie. While the average critic’s rating was 4.4/10, audiences gave it an A-. My 8- and 6-year-old boys loved the movie—they’re still talking about that time Foxx spit out mashed potatoes all over a homeless guy’s face (you had to be there). It’s great when movies made for kids have a level of depth that appeals to adults—like “The Lego Movie” did last year—but it’s not a requirement. “Annie” (2014) was full of clichés and broad comedy and over-acting (cf. Cameron Diaz as a drunk failed starlet Miss Hannigan), but it was a fun movie for kids and there should be room at the googleplex for that.

The theatrical “Annie” that opened at the Hippodrome on Jan. 20, on the other hand, was a reasonable reminder that the original “Annie” play, itself based on the “Little Orphan Annie” comic that ran in newspapers from 1924 to 1974, had a lot more depth than the recent cinematic version and even than the 1982 movie with Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan and Albert Finney as Warbucks.

The cinematic versions pared down the play’s political and economic undercurrents—the recent version removes them almost completely. In the play, Annie, the other orphans, Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster, and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis are all part of the economic underclass, an angry, resentful mob struggling to survive amid the Great Depression.  One key scene from the play that didn’t make it into either movie shows Annie, after running away from the orphanage, taking refuge in a “Hooverville” encampment under the Brooklyn Bridge on Christmas Eve. The song, ‘We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover,’ also absent from the cinematic versions, is a cynical, angry New York version of revolutionary “Les Misérables” anthem, ‘One Day More’:

Come down and share some Christmas dinner
Be sure to miss us too
We got no turkey for our stuffing
Why don’t we stuff you!

We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover
For really showing us the way
You dirty rat, you
Bureaucrat, you
Made us what we are today
Come and get it, Herb!

Annie tries to impart some of her sun’ll-come-out-tomorrow spirit to the residents and one of them retorts, “There’s something I haven’t heard since 1928—optimism.” Soon, the cops come in and bust up the camp, snatching Annie and dragging her back to the orphanage.

In a bit of “Forrest Gump”-ian history, F.D.R.—who plays a much bigger role in the play than in the 1982 movie (no presidents appear in last year’s film)—is actually inspired by Annie’s positive thinking to create the New Deal, leading to another song you won’t see in the movies, ‘A New Deal for Christmas’—perhaps the only show tune to reference Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (and the rest of F.D.R.’s cabinet):

Santa’s got brand-new assistants
There’s nothing to fear
They’re bringing a new deal for Christmas
This year. 

On Farley and Perkins
On Ikes and Wallace
On Morgenthau and Cummings.
Fill our pockets with dollars
On Roper and Swanson

Opening night of “Annie” at the Hippodrome happened to be on the same night as President Obama’s State of the Union address, and it was impossible not to see the parallels between the play’s themes and Obama’s speech. The play, while sympathetic to the underclass and willing to air the anger rising off the streets, also makes villains of Miss Hannigan, Rooster, and St. Regis, who are jealous of Annie’s good fortune and engage in what today’s GOP would call “class warfare”: “It ain’t fair,” Hannigan sings in ‘Easy Street.’ “This here life is drivin’ me nuts! While we get peanuts, she’s livin’ fat!”

 Meanwhile, Republican billionaire Oliver Warbucks is a sympathetic character, the heroic self-made man who only wants F.D.R. to get his factories working again. And in the end, with the New Deal plotted, the whole thing works out like propaganda for the ruling class.

Little of which, of course, entered my kids’ brains. They sympathized with the orphans and the homeless, and hated Hannigan, as directed, but the more specifically political themes went unnoticed. Though there were sadly no mashed-potato antics, the tots laughed amply at the terrifically hammy Lynn Andrews as Hannigan and loved the songs and dancing. Issie Swickle was appropriately winning as Annie, and her forced New York accent was alternately adorable and annoying—just like real New Yorkers.

I continue to be impressed with the sets and production values of the Hippodrome’s traveling shows. I always find myself doing the math in my head and wondering how they make it work financially with such an impressive cast and production. It’s a good introduction to Big Theater for my kids, who have also enjoyed shows at Pumpkin Theater and other troupes who cater to families. 

Also, while I had no problem with the newfangled “Annie” movie currently in theaters (or the ’82 one, which I’ve also watched with my kids), I’m glad they got to see it onstage, which is always a richer experience than onscreen. No doubt, as an adult, it was a far more enjoyable and thought-provoking experience than I anticipated, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. 

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