Monday, November 05, 2012
The original Broadway production of Annie opened in late April, 1977, at the tail end of a season that featured a lot of very heavy, if also well-received, straight plays (including Mamet's American Buffalo and Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box), a lot of quickly forgotten, disappointing musicals (Ipi-Tombi, anyone?) and a few unspectacular revivals (Porgy and Bess and Fiddler, neither of which lasted terribly long). By the time Annie opened, critics had more or less given up on the season. As they did with Cy Coleman's I Love My Wife, which opened four days prior to Annie, a lot of the city's critics fell all over themselves with excitement upon encountering an original musical that was engaging, well-performed, upbeat, and reasonably entertaining. While I Love My Wife and Annie were vastly different shows--one was about partner swapping in Trenton, and the other focused on a redheaded orphan girl who finds a dog and gets adopted by a rich guy--they both quickly became big hits. Of the two, though, Annie easily took the cake: it ran for 2377 performances, and "Tomorrow," Annie's plaintive act-I paean to optimism, was positively ubiquitous through the rest of the decade.
What's funny is that really, if you think about it, Annie is hardly the greatest show in the world--it's got a comic book-thin plot, strange pacing, a lot of really corny jokes, and a strong but perhaps not iconic score. In retrospect, what helped nudge Annie into the Broadway canon was its timing: not only did it come along at the tail end of a disappointing theater season, but also at a time when New York City was slowly but surely recovering from a genuinely terrifying financial crisis that cast a years-long pall over the city and negatively affected just about every aspect of city living. When Annie opened, just on the brighter side of near-bankruptcy, New York was in the process of reinventing itself into a stronger, cleaner, more tourist-friendly city. Annie captures some of that. The musical is all about New York, after all--and not just any New York, but one that sparkles and dazzles, rejuvinates and inspires; one whose inhabitants' dreams come true, one whose resources and riches flow directly to those who deserve it. Annie's New York is a Christmastime fairly land; those of its characters who keep a positive attitude and don't try to swindle one another are justly--and, quite literally, richly--rewarded.
Clearly, audiences loved the shiny, happy version of New York that Annie presented them. One of my earliest theater memories was seeing the original production of Annie, probably in 1978, when I would have been around nine, with my parents and younger sister. I can't remember the entire show clearly, of course, but the number "NYC"--and, even more so, the audience response to it--was a real high point. The number was big and energetic, and it filled the stage, and when it was over, the audience wouldn't stop applauding. And applauding. And applauding. And applauding. I don't think I've ever since seen a musical number stop a show like "NYC" stopped Annie. Finally, I nudged my dad, who sat to my right, and asked him what exactly was going on. "It's been a really rough time for New York, honey," he whispered back. "People are applauding the song, but they're also applauding the city."
If timing is everything, then Annie has it all, because it's about to open in revival during another really rough time for the city it depicts so optimistically. The past week has been particularly hard on New York and its people, in a number of ways. Sandy--the hurricane, not the dog--has destroyed property, houses, and in some cases entire neighborhoods. People have died. Systems we take for granted have slowed or stopped in ways ranging from inconvenient to deeply unsettling. I recognize that a natural disaster is not the same as a financial one, but sorrow is sorrow, and my city is, at the moment, as it was in the 1970s, a little bit broken, a little bit tentative, and very, very sad.
Five long, mood-swingy, restless days after the hurricane, 38 of us--neighbors, friends, family members, and many, many children ranging in age from 4 to 13--took a trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see a matinee of Annie, which is currently in previews at the Palace, and due to open this coming Thursday, November 8. We are all safe and sound, and thus we are a lucky bunch, but getting from one place to the other was not quite as easy as it usually is: there's a gas shortage here, now, so driving was more complicated than it might have been. The subways are rapidly coming back into service, but were, on Saturday, running through Brooklyn and then again above 34th street in Manhattan, and connected by shuttle buses that were either really great or utterly disastrous depending on your timing and your destination. Small inconveniences compared with those who lost their homes, I know. I didn't stop thinking about this as I sat with my friends and my neighbors and my daughter, all of us watching the show together, up in the balcony of the Palace Theater on Saturday afternoon.
While the grownup consensus was mixed, I think our children loved the show. Midway through act I, I looked behind me where, two rows up, my nine-year-old daughter sat in the middle of a row of ten or more of her buddies; they were as rapt through "Hard-Knock Life" as I am sure my sister and I were back in 1978. Even our group's toughest critic--a very serious four-year-old boy in a tie and a suit jacket who gave Annie a resolute 'thumbs-down' at the curtain call--was, according to his mother, overheard singing "Tomorrow" softly to himself later that evening.
The show itself? It was fine. Maybe a little flat. Maybe occasionally miscast. Maybe less relevant than I was hoping it would be for its time. And I admit to some disappointment over the fact that "NYC" did not prove to be the same showstopper that was back when I saw Annie in the 70s. But then again, my memories of seeing Annie as a child were so enormous, and so weirdly formulative--how could any revival, ever, compete? I am no longer nine. And, at least at the moment, I am many shades of sad. No show-stopper, however extended and ecstatic, could make this past week go away.
My own nine-year-old will preserve her own memories of Annie, if she chooses to. And whether or not the kids we took to the theater on Saturday remember seeing the show at all, I am quite certain that they will all always remember the week that a hurricane completely shut down New York. Really, then, who cares that the revival of Annie didn't strike me as quite the same kind of balm that its predecessor did? Crisis or not, New York isn't what it was in the late 1970s. And crisis or not, perhaps our children don't need a highly optimistic, glitzily staged reminder of just how wonderful, strong, and resilient their city is.