Annie doesn’t quite rank as one of my favorite musicals, as my first experience with the show was decidedly less than stellar. So I admit I was somewhat reluctant to watch the 2006 documentary Life After Tomorrow, a chronicle of the actresses who played the title role and other orphans in various professional productions. The film was conceived and co-directed by Julie Stevens (Gil Cates, Jr. was the other director), who was an orphan in the original production and pulls together 40 or so alumni of the production together to talk about what it was like to be a part of the musical. In some respects the documentary is a sobering look into the world of professional theatre in the United States, in others it’s like watching a train derail. Annie is a significant part of these ladies’ lives, for better and for worse.
Interestingly enough, Andrea McArdle and Aileen Quinn – arguably the two most prolific actresses to have played America’s favorite redheaded orphan – were not involved with this documentary. However, other actresses were more than willing to talk about the experiences of performing the show, the burden of being prepubescent breadwinners and the reality check when they were abruptly no longer part of Annie. The girls were told they were too tall, too developed, too…whatever to continue in the show and were replaced. One of the women who plays Annie on tour talks about her last night, coming offstage and her replacement being whisked into her costume for photo call in the lobby as fans cheered the replacement and not her.
It’s rare that a musical becomes a cultural phenomenon. I’d say the biggest in recent memory would be Wicked, which has has found a solid fanbase in the same demographic that devoured Annie over thirty years ago. There have been countless television appearances, personal appearances, various professional productions all over the world, two film adaptations, a best selling original cast album and a woefully misguided sequel. The show of “Tomorrow” will long continue to linger on in public consciousness, quite possibly more than the comic strip upon which it was based.
The negative experiences had by cast members are particularly compelling, as they provide a sobering view at how show business isn’t necessarily all that appealing. Kristen Vigard, who was replaced by Andrea McArdle when the show was trying out in Goodspeed, has clearly not gotten over that career blow (and coming at such an impressionable age, it’s no surprise). History was repeated in 1997 when the 20th anniversary production replaced its leading actress with another orphan two stops pre-Broadway. However, it’s not all negative: one of the great success stories of an Annie alum is Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s gone to what is arguably the most successful career of any of the girls talks at lenght and at ease about being in the show. (Alyssa Milano and Molly Ringwald were also in productions, but they weren’t interviewed).
The experiences discussed run the gamut from fun (Henry Winkler visiting at the height of Happy Days) to the nasty (original cast member Robyn Finn was the recipient of an offensively anti-Semitic hate letter – from a fellow orphan!) There were tales of heckling hookers down the street, going to Studio 54 multiple nights a week (including seven year old Danielle Brisebois – where the hell were the parents?!). The parents could be problematic – going on the road and living it up, with affairs, partying and clashing. These same parents are discussed from varying degree from supporting and loving to cum laude graduates from Madame Rose’s school. There were no child handlers as there are these days, so the education was practically nonexistent. Chorus members and principles were resentful that these children were paid more than they, and took it out on them – one unnamed Hannigan actually hit the girls onstage.
Then there are the men. A replacement in the original production and a star of Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, Harve Presnell offers his insight from a professional’s perspective. Musical director Peter Howard, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist & director Martin Charnin talk about the musical with great fondness, but seemingly unaware the impact the show had on the girls after the fact. There is a brief look into the casting process, but not nearly enough for my liking. For many of these girls, Annie was the experience of a lifetime; something that was never repeated. Whereas for these men, it was another chapter in their long and varied careers of bringing shows to Broadway.
One of the more unexpected aspects of the entire film was Jon Merrill, who is considered the show’s number one fan. Mr. Merrill, who insisted he was neither gay nor a pedophile, talked about the impact of the show on him from “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and how it inspired him to start “Annie People,” a newsletter for fans of the show. He says he no longer wears costumes to the show, or stands with a clipboard at the stage door waiting for interviews, but still enjoys the show. It’s not odd to love a show, but he paints an unusual portrait of himself wearing Annie sweatshirts and surrounded by Annie memorabilia. I have to admit, it was odd watching him pull little girls’ costumes from the 1982 film out of his closet.
The documentary ends with the interviewees recreating “Tomorrow,” some quite exceptional, some clearly showing that longevity in show business was not guaranteed. They get together for reunions and reminisce, talk about their experiences – and they’re right: this is an incredibly unique bond that they share. The choreography and lyrics are muscle memory and they can step right back into “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” without thinking twice.
It’s a fascinating but all-too-brief 73 minutes. There is a lot here, but it seems as though there could have been a lot more. Personally, I’d be fascinated to hear more about McArdle’s experiences with the show, and also why she chose not to participated in this film. I was also curious to know about the actresses playing Miss Hannigan, specifically the one and only Dorothy Loudon, who bested McArdle for the Tony that year. Loudon isn’t even mentioned here and that, to me, is a crime. Other Hannigans of note include Alice Ghostley, Kathleen Freeman and June Havoc, who is seen briefly consoling one of the girls on closing night.
Annie turns 35 in 2012. A second Broadway revival is planned and I’m certain interest in the original production will once again surface. The cast will be coming out of the woodwork once again to discuss their experiences. Bet your bottom dollar – did I really just say that? – there will be some sort of national casting contest/campaign to drum up press. I do hope that those kids involved will be handled with greater care, and those in charge can learn from the past.
Oh – and one of the great things about this documentary is that it’s available to watch online for free: