Theatre yesterday and today



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By Ron Fassler

Andrea McCardle and Sandy in a publicity photo from “Annie” (1977).

When we left off yesterday at Part One (I guess I can try and make this into a cliffhanger like the comic strip on which it was based), the creatives behind Annie were getting ready to regroup and recast for a move to Broadway. Would a musical set in the Depression Era 1930s and based on fifty-year-old cartoon characters speak to an audience in post-Watergate America 1977? Would a song like "Tomorrow," with its impassioned optimism, strike out or strike a chord?

Spoiler alert: it was the latter.

Having gotten mixed notices in its Connecticut run at the Goodspeed Opera House, any fears Annie would remain an orphan were dashed when Mike Nichols swooped in Daddy Warbucks-like and agreed to parent its Broadway production. Producing theatre for the first time, Nichols made sure its $800,000 budget was raised (quickly) and, with his skilled talents as a play doctor, supervise both major and minor procedures, tightening things as well as any Park Avenue cosmetic surgeon.

And what did Annie’s director and co-lyricist Martin Charnin think about this? Surely the fear that his authority might be usurped gave him a sleepless night or two, but (again, spoiler alert) Nichols respected Charnin at the helm and, though offering suggestions, he did not unilaterally come in and take over the reins. Not at all. In fact, in his autobiography Put on a Happy Face, Charles Strouse, the show’s composer states unequivocally that Martin Charnin “directed every word and note in Annie.” Supported as well by the show’s book writer, Thomas Meehan said about Nichols that “when he became producer, he came to the first rehearsal in New York and said, ‘I’m going to be the kind of producer I always want when I’m directing. Goodbye! You rehearse it and I’ll see you in Washington.’ And we never saw him.”

And Charnin agreed. “He was a terrific producer. He gave us notes in Washington. Some of them worked. Some of them didn’t. Part of the reason that this show got on was because of a name… Mike’s name. That made it work.”

One of Nichols’ suggestions that contributed mightily to Annie’s success was the casting of an old friend Dorothy Loudon as Miss Hannigan (she had been on the bill years earlier at The Blue Angel on the Upper East Side when Nichols was performing with his then-partner Elaine May). Previously played by an actress who didn’t mine anything close to the comic potential with which Loudon would strike gold, Miss Hannigan gave this underappreciated actress the one thing that had eluded her throughout her career: a hit. Annie was fifteen years after she made her Broadway debut in the one-week flop Nowhere to Go But Up, but as with that show, she was always the best thing in whatever she did (prior to Annie, her sole Best Actress Tony nomination was for The Fig Leaves Are Falling, a show that closed in four days). Surprisingly, Loudon did not leap at the chance to audition for Annie, even though she hadn’t worked in two years. “There’s an old saying,” she told the New York Times. “‘Never be in a show with kids, dogs or an Irish tenor… and this show had all three.” But Loudon’s husband persuaded her to give it a shot and the rest was kismet.

Dorothy Loudon as the boozy, brassy Miss Hannigan in “Annie” (1977). Photo by Martha Swope.

Once rehearsals began, bit by bit, Loudon started to make Miss Hannigan her own. She added laughs, yes, but also some sympathy, too. Audiences ate it up and though she nearly set the show off-kilter (it is after all a supporting role) the Tony nominators put her in the same category as Andrea McCardle in the title role. When the entire Tony membership voted for Best Actress in a Musical, it was Loudon who came up the winner and made a heartfelt and hilarious speech, met by some one of the wildest sustained ovations ever:

“I had a feeling if I ever got up here, I could work this room.”