This weekend we went to see Annie at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Even though it’s based on an adventure-filled comic strip, I wouldn’t typically talk about Annie here. There are bad guys, but it would be stretching to call it an adventure story. Hopefully it’s saying something that I want to tell you about it anyway.
This was my first time seeing a live performance, but as it’s performed in the couple of movie versions I’ve seen, Annie is more or less just a schmaltzy rags-to-riches tale with some extremely memorable musical numbers. CTC is known for quality productions, so I should have guessed as much, but I knew we were in for a different take on it as soon as I opened their program.
Right away, you notice that they’re grounding their version in a specific, historical time and place. The two movie versions are set in the ’30s of course, but that’s just flavor. “Times were tough, yadda yadda, let’s get to the songs.” Maybe that’s not fair and I need to see those again, but CTC’s program immediately got me thinking about the Great Depression, Hoovervilles, and what it would be like to have to hand my son over to a government-funded orphanage because I couldn’t afford to take care of him. And of course about the similarities between that time and ours today.
The play reinforces those thoughts as soon as the curtain goes up (figuratively speaking; CTC doesn’t use a literal curtain). The first person on stage is homeless and begging for change from passers-by. A wealthy couple on their way to or from the theater (ouch) goes around him, a young sailor and his date laugh and cavort through him, and a policeman eventually shoos him off. As he leaves the stage however, a woman – dressed not much better than the beggar himself – gives him a coin and a sympathetic smile.
This kind of thing goes on throughout the performance. When Warbucks (Lee Mark Nelson) takes Annie (Megan Fischer) out on the town during the “NYC” number, he buys her a hotdog. Annie immediately turns around and gives it to a hungry person in the crowded street scene. The poor are among us. And while the play reminds us that this especially was true during the Depression, it also reminds us that it’s still true today. That awareness puts an entirely different atmosphere over a group of parentless children singing “It’s a Hard Knocks Life.”
Panu Yang as “Molly,” Megan Fischer as “Annie,” and Jade Moné Stumon as “July.” Photo from the Star Tribune.
Not that the production is devoid of any joy or hope. On the contrary, that’s it’s theme. “It’s a Hard Knocks Life” is still a fun, thrilling number with the girls’ banging mops and brushes on the floor in time to the music; I just believed what they were singing in a way I never had before. I wanted to adopt Molly, the littlest girl in the joint (adorably played by Panu Yang) myself. She shouldn’t be in a place like that. But it’s only by selling the despair these people were in that Annie’s optimism means anything.
I’d also never noticed the change in lyrics between the first time “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” is sung and its reprise at the end of the show. I’ve always remembered its last line as, “You’re only a day away,” but the first time Annie sings it, it’s “always a day away.” I imagine it’s written that way in the book, but I’d never noticed it before. I did this time though because I was so keyed into the hopelessness of her situation. She’s trying to be optimistic, hoping for a better tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes. It’s always a day away. That’s freaking sad. It’s not until the end of the story that she changes it to the much more expectant “you’re only a day away.”
Palpable despair also changes the nature of her relationship to Warbucks. At the beginning of the play, she’s the only girl in the orphanage with any reason to hope that her parents might one day come back for her (which also, by the way, grounds her optimism in something real instead of allowing her just to be that way naturally). That hope in reuniting with her parents is what drives her, so that when it’s dashed towards the end, she’s lost everything. It’s at that point that she realizes how important Warbucks is to her. Not because he’s wealthy, but simply because he loves her. The wealth is just fantasy to make the story more thrilling. You could replace Warbucks with a homeless man and the heart of the story would still work. It would be melodramatic and not nearly as cool, but it would have the same point: that love conquers despair. When Annie and Warbucks sing, “If tomorrow I’m an apple-seller too, I don’t need anything but you,” I believe them.
Like I said earlier, I haven’t seen the movie versions of Annie in a while. Maybe this is all there in them too. Maybe my noticing it now has a lot to do with where I am in life and where the world is economically. But it’s also to do with some very specific choices CTC made with this production that allowed me to connect with these characters in a way I never had before. Enough so that I’m anxious to get the original comic strips and spend some more time with them. I don’t expect that that will replicate the experience I had at the theater, but by God I want it to.
Megan Fischer as Annie. Photo found at abcnewspapers.