My First Time

Well, at least it was the first time I judged. My earliest show memory is a vague recollection of a local production of Peter Pan. However, my earliest memory of seeing theatre, processing it and making a discerning opinion about it was a local semi-professional production of Annie when I was eight years old. Or at least I think I was eight. Whenever it was, the details surrounding my seeing said production aren’t as important as the impact it had on me.

I spent nine years as a student in Catholic elementary school. I was a pretty good student who was especially taken with music, something not lost on the music teacher, this terrific nun named Sr. Rose Marie. Had she not been called to the convent, I think she would have been a major Broadway soubrette, standing by for Angela Lansbury in Mame, etc. (If I think of one, I usually think of the other – they both are altos with distinctive timbres). I later learned that she was also a big fan of musical theatre, having seen the original production of South Pacific, among others, and she gave me some of my first cast albums (yes, records). She encouraged me to learn about music, watched as I started to play piano by ear and challenged myself to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also joined the school choir, which she directed. She has had an enormous impact on who I am as a person, and as a student of music and theatre.

Oh, and some fun trivia: Sr. Rose Marie was part of the chorus that sang for Richard Rodgers when the composer visited Manhattanville College to research liturgical music for The Sound of Music in 1959.

But I digress… Anyway, my first year in the choir we were treated to a Christmas field trip, as a sort of thank you for all the holiday singing we’d been doing (the perennial favorite: the nursing home & senior center circuit). In fact, where we were going and what we were doing was a well-hidden secret from all of us. We didn’t really care much, as you can expect – getting to skip class and leave school is always a joy.

Well, details surrounding the production are sketchy. I was familiar with “Tomorrow” (is anyone not?) and had heard of the comic strip. I’d never seen the movie and was never into the strip itself (those Annie characters creeped me out with those dead eyes…) and would still rather read Calvin and Hobbes¬†and Peanuts. The musical also explained to me for the first time why Annie was living with Oliver Warbucks.

So, the show got underway. Nice overture – still a knock-out with those trumpets. There were orphans, and an earnest redhead girl who couldn’t have been much older than myself who came out to sing what I would later learn was “Maybe.” Almost immediately I felt this sense of disdain; there was something about this that didn’t strike the right chord. She was the heroine, but why didn’t I like her? My disdain started to grow to sheer dislike as the first act progressed. Perhaps she was too cloying, too sweet for this orphan (if you look at Andrea McArdle’s performance from the Tony telecast, she at least supplied some sass). I cannot explain with clarity what it was about her performance that I disliked so much, the most vivid recollection is the garish wig they shoved on her at the finale (I’ve seen fake clown wigs that were more effective).

However, I knew the show wasn’t a total loss when this slatternly middle-aged woman, clasping a flask, whistle around her neck, entered and started tearing things up. Suddenly I was paying attention. The impression this woman made on me – an actress of whom I have no recollection. (My ticket stub and program are long lost). But it was she who single-handedly saved the afternoon from being a total bore. She had the best lines, the comic delivery and in the battle of Annie vs. Hannigan, I wanted Hannigan to win. I don’t know if that speaks more about this production or myself, but c’est la vie.

When all was said and done, I didn’t have much to say about the score, the book, the performances – except for this actress. And since the show was a surprise and essentially a group Christmas gift, it would have been rude for me to speak up and say I didn’t like it. On the bus ride home, I have what is my earliest memory of experiencing a headache. Coincidence…?

So much did I dislike the musical, I didn’t bother with either film version nor have I seen the show live. However about ten years down the road, the Broadway’s Lost Treasures series started airing on PBS and one of the clips was the original Broadway cast performing on the Tony awards. That was when I first experienced the magic of the late, great Dorothy Loudon, and made it a point to familiarize myself with the score, which has grown on me. I’ve always been so impressed that she took what is a comic supporting role and made it a star turn (not to mention winning the Best Actress Tony over McArdle).

If it weren’t for Miss Hannigan (and the long-forgotten actress that played her), I may have given up on stage musicals all together. Well, perhaps that’s not quite correct… if it weren’t for Miss Hannigan and Sr. Rose Marie.