Of Annie on stage may be said what was said of the British Empire on hers: the sun never sets upon it. There is an Annie company performing somewhere on every continent right now, and at some point the year will bring a road show production of this phenomenally successful theatrical in virtually every major American city. Now, the movie is before us, with Carol Burnett and Albert Finney in the adults' roles and approximately the annual budget of, oh, Belize, accounted for in the production costs of the film. What was elegantly gaudy and nostalgically seedy on stage has become a Hollywood period extravaganza to rival anything this side of Ben Hur.
Annie richly deserves its honors, among them seven Tony awards in 1977 and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best musical in the 1976–77 season. Lesser honors flowed in shortly thereafter, and then another biggie: the 1978 Grammy Award for best-cast show album. The little comic strip that had long since grown stale and nearly disappeared from America's funny pages inspired a musical of near-universal appeal, spawning a minor cottage industry in Annie items—this even before the movie, which has opened nationally—and, incidentally, breathing a bit of life back into the comic strip itself; well, not really into the strip, but into readership for it.
"Tomorrow," little Annie sings, that old sun'll come up tomorrow, and you can bet your bottom dollar that there's hardly a dry eye in the house by the time "Tomorrow" is reprised with Franklin Roosevelt, Daddy Warbucks, and the entire mid-'30s Cabinet joining the waif to sing us merrily into the New Deal as well as into Annie's bright future. And "Tomorrow" is only one of nearly a dozen songs that work perfectly in their contexts and still carry over to your breakfast the next day. This is an upbeat show, but cleverly and wittily so, and there's much of the reason for its success.
From the theatrical audience in America outside New York, the sad though useful lesson has in recent years been decisively learned: except for the occasional masterpiece of serious drama, except also for a rarity like Deathtrap, of which more in a subsequent column, theater offerings must be bright, expensive musicals to succeed. Increasingly, the offerings to America beyond the Hudson River are the standard items on a revolving wheel of tried-and-true musical hits: Camelot and Peter Pan and A Chorus Line and the like, and of course Annie; and after it's milked New York a bit longer, Dream Girls will wander across the land to join its fellow splashy attractions. But Annie has something that almost none of the other recent Broadway musical hits has: total victory for the good guys, just deserts for the bad.
Annie touches us where we wished we lived: in the world of punishments fitting the crime and nice guys finishing first. Once, almost all of the major American musicals presented a worldview akin to Annie's; now, few do, and of them, fewer present it so unabashedly, almost gloatingly. We might well recoil from a stage show glorifying, say, the capitalist work ethic, or the United States of America as a state of mind—the failure on Broadway of Little Johnny Jones after one day in front of audiences says something both about the show's piquant thinness and about the critical disesteem for the nakedly patriotic—but with the same message neatly tucked into the coy little corners of Annie, it passes muster.
Who wins? Oliver Warbucks, billionaire, wins; Daddy Warbucks, who in the show is almost too busy to spend time with FDR but gets suckered into inviting the president to dinner, then tells his secretary to "call up Al Smith and find out what Democrats eat." FDR wins, too, since he is on hand not only to hear the orphan girl sing "Tomorrow" and lend spirit to the New Dealers at their lowest ebb, but also to enjoy Annie's delight and the villains' come-uppance in the last scene. Annie wins, but that's a given. And the American value system wins, too, if by that we mean the system that admires above all else wealth and what wealth can do, and power—Warbucks has J. Edgar Hoover in his pocket, for just such emergencies as turning the FBI into an agency to help find Annie's folks—and, with wealth and power, good cheer and fair play.
Who loses? Only the evil Miss Hannigan, who runs the orphanage and isn't cheerful and doesn't know from fair play and who survives the little girls she loathes with a daily dose of radio soaps and frequent swigs from her bottle. Miss Hannigan's slimy brother, Rooster, also loses, because Rooster Hannigan wants to get something for nothing—namely, the Warbucks reward for proving that he's Annie's father—and with Rooster, his bimbo, Lily. Lily's not a bad sort, actually, at least not in the play; she's just the sort of blonde tart in a tight dress who eases naturally into the orbit of such as Rooster, but she's a bimbo just the same. Bimbos lose. Daddy Warbucks's private secretary, who is A Lady, wins.
The audience wins another chance to see come brilliantly to life on stage everything we've been taught in grade school about the American way of life. Annie is gorgeous, Annie is sentimental, Annie ties up all its loose ends beneath a Yule tree as big as the Ritz, on Christmas Day, no less, and Annie says to us that the sun will come up tomorrow and that we certainly ought to be willing to bet our bottom dollar on that. The dollar, after all, is as sound as an innocent orphan girl's heart, or didn't you know?
With this column, contributing editor David Brudnoy begins a regular look in these pages at the theater. Brudnoy is the arts critic for WNAC-TV (CBS) and WRKO-AM (ABC) in Boston, and he hosts a nightly talk program on WRKO and writes on film for the Boston Herald American. His thrice-weekly newspaper column is syndicated nationally, and he reviews books for several journals. Copyright © by David Brudnoy.