The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


May 21, 1982,  Columbia  127 minutes
November 7, 1999,  Disney/ABC  90 minutes 
December 7, 2014,  Sony  118 minutes
Mike Nichols has a lot to answer for. There weren't many who saw a Bway future for Annie when it first opened at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut that Bicentennial summer of '76. But Nichols, whose show-biz savvy was ridiculously accurate, took charge of the musical, not as director (his usual role) but as producer--in the old-fashioned, active sense, and not simply as a financial investor. Annie was, and still is, a cash cow, surpassed only by A Chorus Line and Grease as the biggest musical hits of the '70s. But its  most dubious distinction is in spawning an endless line of professional moppets; hooking pre-adolescent girls on show-biz as if it were heroin. Nowadays Bway is a factory of child performers, spewing histrionic tykes with the frequency once accorded showgirls. I, for one, would be very happy to never see another singing/dancing urchin. I find children quickly tiresome, and nothing about their care or raising interests me. But mostly I resent the steady infantilization of American pop culture, and the concomitant suspicion & disrespect of intelligence or higher education. But that's an awfully heavy load to lay on a  slick musical comedy that was among the twilight's last gleaming of the Golden Age.

Somehow I can picture the moment Martin Charnin came across the compilation volume of Little Orphan Annie, browsing in Brentano's. From such tiny acorns giant oaks grow. But Charnin took little from Harold Gray's actual comic strip, reconceiving a Depression-era Cinderella as a 10 year old who finds not her Prince but her Daddy. Thomas Meehan's libretto found all the right keys to sustain a rather feather-weight premise, but one with widespread resonance. Martin Charnin's direction & lyrics were satisfactory without being remarkable. Beyond question the show's greatest asset is the contribution of Charles Strouse--back in peak melodic form to the joy of all musical comedy lovers (tho alas without his lyric partner, Lee Adams--but what could Strouse do? It was Charnin's project from the start--and Charnin was only a lyricist up to then.) The show was written and fundraised for five years, tried out in a summer playhouse, and revised until it was  polished. It opens quietly on the heroine's wanting song, "Maybe," a gambit that works, tho it belies the huge production to follow. "It's the Hard-knock Life" is one of Strouse's signatures: the upbeat tune with unexpected syncopation  so distinctly his, no one else could have written it ("The Telephone Hour" in Bye Bye Birdie, "Gimme Some" in Golden Boy, "We Need Him" & "It's Superman" in Superman, "But Alive" in Applause). Strange too, that so specific a lyric wouldn't impede the song's crossover (but why "The" rather than "A Hard-Knock Life?") A punk version was done (by someone) in the '80s and Jay Z sampled it in '98. Somehow it has entered the wider cultural lexicon. "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover" is a lively cakewalk for a caustic comment on life in the Depression. With few exceptions the show is one up-tempo number after another yet each so finely calibrated there's little monotony or repetition. As it stands, the one true ballad, Warbucks' "Something Was Missing," is Strouse's only serious underachiever. "I Think I'm Going to Like it Here" and "You Won't Be an Orphan for Long" are lively if minor, but "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" and "I Don't Need Anything But You" are as bright as the brightest DeSylva,  Brown & Henderson songs. "NYC" is a slow-building production number that shines under Philip J. Lang's original orchestration. The OCR is one long song-fest that just keeps bubbling along. The musical's anthem and its biggest hit, "Tomorrow," borders on camp or at least annoyance by the lyric (especially belted by wannabe junior divas) but the melody sells it. (Tho not well known, Barbra Streisand's take on her Songbird album makes a case for a smoother, cooler interpretation.) Hannigan's two numbers are show-stoppers: her rattled "Little Girls," and "Easy Street," a sort of barrelhouse blues that lets her rip. You would think there'd be an 11 o'clock number for her, instead of a superfluous title song--the whole world doesn't have to sing Annie's praises--what is she, Mame? But I think my favorite is actually the finale: "(We're Getting) A New Deal for Christmas"--a joyous moment that I was able to sneak in and see repeatedly at the Curran, just as I'd get off work when the national company came thru town. I saw the show from the front row the first week and found myself in straight eye line with a lady cellist in the orchestra. Given my love of the instrument, my proximity to the orchestra and ability to savor Lang's orchestrations, I found myself watching this young cellist more than the show. Eventually my youthful obsession led to meeting her, but that's another story. (Needless to say nothing more than my fantasy transpired.) Of course I'd first seen the show while still living in NY, buoyed by the excitement of a real smash by one of my favorite composers in those fairly lean Bway years. The show never thrilled me in the way the music simply did. Staged by Charnin, it had little of the excitement I'd been spoiled to expect from the likes of Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett and Harold Prince. But play the album I did.

I can't say I was thrilled about the prospect of a movie, tho it wasn't hard to imagine one. Ray Stark bought the rights for Columbia. Since Funny Lady he'd produced seven Neil Simon films but no more musicals. Heads spinned when Stark hired John Huston, the blustery director of virile melodramas, who was now 75 years old, and had made many movies in the last two decades, but few of any consequence. Yet he proved he still had a masterpiece in him with The Man Who Would Be King in '75--equal to his heyday classics The Maltese Falcon,  Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen--all hyper-masculine epics. But John Huston and Annie? It seemed as ill-advised as Howard Hawks and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes--but then, that turned out rather well. Annie, as everyone knows, didn't.

You can't blame the cast. Or can you? Aside from the lead moppet, the show's only vivid character is Miss Hannigan (adapted from a Miss Asthma in Gray's comic), written to be played by a scenery-chewing star clown. Dorothy Loudon lucked into it after a lifetime of near-misses and outright flops, and Bway collectively cheered and gave her a Tony over the show's true leading player--for Hannigan is by definition just a supporting role. Loudon was a gawky comedienne with a brassy belt, a type owned by Carol Burnett at the time since her regular role on CBS's Garry Moore Show, and subsequent Bway debut in Once Upon a Mattress. When Burnett outgrew her subordinate role after three seasons, Moore chose Loudon to replace her, which put her somewhat in Burnett's shadow thereafter. So it was likely doubly painful for Loudon to see the movie's Hannigan go to none other than Carol Burnett; who post-Lucy won the mantle of America's  favorite  female  clown;
thus a solid commercial choice. After 11 seasons of her own variety show, Burnett had cultivated a gallery of hilarious, slapstick characters, as well as frequent over-the-top caricatures of old Hlwd stars, but reportedly had trouble finding her way into Hannigan. Huston told her to play it "soused," and she delivers a gargoyle of a performance, cartoonish in the extreme, which jarringly contrasts with the rest of the film's more "realistic" tone from the stage original. (Pauline Kael thought it macabre, but loved it.) What seemed a natural fit proved a surprising misalliance. 
A better choice might have been Bette Midler who was rumored to be under consideration. It's a juicy role. On the other hand, Oliver Warbucks, as written by Charnin & Sheehan, is a colorless "Republican" who too easily softens in response to a plucky redheaded orphan. The role was of such little consequence, a longtime minor player was hired:, Reid Shelton--who like Loudon rode this to a career peak, but left much less an indelible impression. Stark & Huston hired Albert Finney. which might seem a curious choice, but then with a shaved head it could just about be anyone who's mastered a gruff exterior. I find him strangely pleasing. Ann Reinking and Bernadette Peters were rising stars on Bway in the '70s, both making bids for film careers. Reinking was one of Bob Fosse's prime proteges. She ended up dancing his choreography in six shows on Bway, as well as appearing in All That Jazz, Fosse's thinly-disguised autobiographical movie, as a fictional protege and live-in girl friend. Peters was a Star without a smash, who had mixed luck in Hlwd, tho she was sensational in the dystopian Pennies from Heaven--which like many of her projects was woefully under-appreciated. As Lily St. Regis she's little-used support to a supporting player. Reinking's Grace is a larger role but more utilitarian than memorable. The two actresses could as easily have changed roles. Not long past his Frank-R-Furter days, Tim Curry is Hannigan's brother, the pencil-moustached Rooster, played with his typical seedy relish. Geoffrey Holder plays a costume called Punjab (a character rescued from the comic-strip, as was Asp--played by dancer Roger Minami--neither used on Bway) who gets to do little but make snake-charmer movements.
And then there's Annie. On Bway they struck the jackpot with Andrea McArdle; a juvenile pro with preternatural instincts rare in one so young. There've been countless Annies since (including an overeager Sarah Jessica Parker) but none who found such a perfect balance between mawkishness and adorability. For the movie Columbia conducted a nationwide search, and crowned Aileen Quinn the winner. Inevitably it's a matter of taste, but I find children this "cute" rather revolting. Bway's Annie eschewed her comic-strip look until the show's finale. 
Huston has her looking like a slovenly Shirley Temple--or more precisely, frighteningly like a circus clown--her orange perm never tamed, not even under the sartorial care of Warbucks' largesse. Carol Sobieski's screenplay eliminates most of her natural wisdom in favor of pluck & spunk--like a wind-up doll. She beats up a group of teenage boys at one point--unconvincingly. It all feels "acted" with a stubborn determination. Instead of Annie's escape from the orphanage showing us--and her--the realities of the street in the Depression, this incident serves no purpose other than to bring on the pooch, Sandy. It also means we lose the song, "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover." Instead we get a couple of unnecessary new tunes ("Dumb Dog" and "Sandy") that suggest the canine will figure more prominently in the story--but he isn't. More fatally negligent is the lack of any scene showing us how or why Annie melts the cold heart of Warbucks. Nor do I understand why Annie, who turns down Daddy's offer to adopt her until her parents are found, reacts so passively when they actually show up--with nothing to suggest anything fishy (tho of course they are Rooster & Lily). Wouldn't she be deliriously happy--at least for a minute? In total six songs are cut, replaced by five new ones, not one an improvement. "NYC" is scrubbed for a ridiculous "Let's Go to the Movies" sequence in which Warbucks rents out the entire Radio City Music Hall (wouldn't the mezzanine have been enuf?) to attend Garbo's Camille. It's a bizarre choice, because for one thing it's from 1937 and not 1933, but it's also irrelevant in every way to the story and isn't exactly a movie for kids. The sequence is so extended it seems to exist only to recreate the experience of going to Radio City--including a section, natch, with the Rockettes. But how is this an improvement on "NYC?" Sobieski also dumbs down the historic and politcal references--the filling that allowed adults to enjoy the show along with their kids. As if the story hadn't enuf parallels to Oliver Twist (and the musical, Oliver!) the movie ends in a chase sequence putting Annie in peril on top of a bridge; in lieu of the smarter, more satisfying, more adult, "New Deal for Christmas." But then who under 60 would know FDR's cabinet members? Bway didn't care: "let's educate them!" Hlwd wouldn't dare: "we're losing them!"
Equal to the disaster of Huston's direction, if not more so, is the musical staging of Arlene Phillips--a British choreographer of minor interest, whose previous assignment was the notorious Can't Stop the Music. If you ever wondered how off-putting dancing can seem when there's no relation to character, the tone of a song, or any rational sense, then here's a great sampler of such consequences. Beginning with "Hard-knock Life," where Phillips seems to have raided a suburban gymnastics class to have girls flipping their bods like Olympic aspirants, each number has a jarring dishonesty to its people, emotional context. or the music. Not only does "Hard-knock Life" look like a junior Cirque de Soleil, it features dozens of ophans in Hannigan's house--only six of whom we see thru-out the rest of the picture. There's more cartwheels and spinning kicks in the Warbucks house staff's welcome to Annie, you'd think they were "Going to Like it Here" more than she. The idiotic glee in "We  Got  Annie"   feels   equally  bizarre,   with   Reinking
making moves that suggest more A Chorus Line's Cassie than Annie's Grace. A new song written for Burnett & Finney ("Sign") is another false note--hard to believe Hannigan would vamp the Richest Man in the World, imploring, "Why can't you be mine?"  "Easy Street" was first filmed as a large production number on a expensive street set--which apparently was so incongruent, the trio was called for a re-shoot within Hannigan's walls (and none too good there either). The reconceived finale, now using  "I Don't Need Anything But You,"  is tarted  up  to a 
Gatsby-sized party, for what in essence is a Shirley Temple/Bojangles duet and tap dance. (Something Burnett spoofed to great acclaim in Fade Out Fade In.) But Finney (or Warbucks for that matter) is no Bojangles, and Aileen Quinn just another curly top wannabe. But does it make any sense for the unmasked Hannigan to be in attendance, and riding an elephant no less?
The movie opened at Loews Astor Plaza on May 21, 1982, and nationwide on June 18th. Critis were not kind, but that rarely hurts a pre-sold title. Bought for a record $9.5 mil and budgeted at $50 mil, put Columbia in expectation of Grease or Sound of Music-size grosses. But it earned only $35,181,000 in film rentals (despite its rank as the 10th top grossing movie of the year) and wound up in red ink. I saw it on July 4th in San Francisco, and never had need to see it again until now.

Film producers Craig Zadan & Neil Meron (Hlwd's Gay Mafia) sold Disney on the idea of a remake for TV after their re-dos of Gypsy and Bye Bye Birdie--corrections to the film versions, closer to their Bway origins. Annie qualified as a candidate to be saved as well from Huston's misfire. And tho it reinstated songs and scenes that were cut, ABC's Annie was still abridged--in Irene Mecchi's teleplay --to fit a 90 minute running time for a two-hour broadcast on November 7, 1999. Mecchi, who was part of Disney's stable of animation writers, pared the musical down deftly, tho Warbucks is won over by Annie even faster (and on less evidence) than the first film. And any and all political context is stripped away (Roosevelt reduced to the briefest of cameos--presented as just some long-ago president to millenial kids). But at least director Rob Marshall, recruited from Bway, has musical expertise and the show's numbers--in their staging, editing and new orchestrations --are given sparkling treatment, with only four cut (alas, "New Deal for Christmas" among them, again.) Casting was smartly Bway-centric, tho Kathy Bates was an Oscar-winning film actress, who carved out a Star career from a character actress perch. She doesn't mug or chew scenery the way Burnett or Loudon did but nails the part without losing any of the humor, and in many ways seems the best of them all. Victor Garber (looking like a young Uncle Fester) inhabits Warbucks with a surrealist touch, which makes it all the more a shame we don't get more of him. Audra McDonald gives Grace a sweet maternal love, and gets her own slow reprise of "Tomorrow," transcending the color line again--which says much more about the '90s than the '30s. For such a subordinate role, Lily St. Regis (named after the hotel--"which floor?" asks Hanningan; a joke I don't really get outside of its sarcasm.) attracts major players. First Bernadette, now Kristin Chenoweth--who justifies  her  stardom  by showing  how much  she can  do 
with so little. I can't say much against Alan Cumming either, tho he usually sets my teeth on edge. Alicia Morton, who beat out 3000 girls for the role, had some inside connection: she was friends with the daughter of Andrea McArdle, who was given a special cameo as the "Star-to-be" in the "NYC" number, now turned into an excursion to a Bway show, culminating  in  McArdle's moment on stage. 
Alicia is nothing like Aileen (nor Andrea); neither spunky nor "cute," she looks too refined, like a baby Claire Danes, or a future model. However she grew on me thru the movie (mostly by her underplaying) and she had me by the end. The sets & costumes are pitch perfect, and all in all a satisfying correction to Huston's movie.

Testament to the show's hold on the public imagination is Sony's decision to tackle the property again fifteen years later, after two Bway revivals in 1997 and 2012. (The first with Nell Carter as a big, black Hannigan, the second with a very mannered Katie Finneran.) But Sony's bigscreen remake (the first Bway musical since Show Boat to get multiple film versions) was a wholesale rethink, advancing it into 2014--employing modern tropes like twitter, viral videos, federally funded foster care, and YA movie franchises ("MoonQuake Lake"--starring Ashton Kucher, Mila Kunis and Rihanna). Warbucks is remade into Will Stacks, a Trump-like cell-phone magnate running for mayor, played by Jamie Foxx--a black billionaire in the '30s was unthinkable. Annie, as well, is now a post-Oprah black girl, originally intended for the daughter of Will Smith (who produced the project). but for whatever reason ended up with Quvenzhane Wallis, the youngest-ever Oscar nominee for Best Actress (in the bayou hysteric, Beasts of the Southern Wild) who sports a corkscrew afro and scrappy street-smarts as well as a self confidence  utterly  alien  to  foster kids.    I'm  not  entirely
bpthered by this updating; in some ways the script makes more rational sense. Stacks uses Annie for political points, which is far less random than Warbucks treating an orphan to a Christmas holiday. Annie finds real clerical leads to search for her parents, instead of walking the street asking total strangers if they'd seen them. Hannigan is changed even more radically to a one-time singer forced to take in foster kids to pay her rent. And bizarrely cast with Cameron Diaz who plays her like a hooker from Queens. In the end, she's not even the villain, giving that role over to Bobby Cannavale who plays Stacks' political advisor--who finds Annie's "parents" for a PR stunt. More sauve than in his usual thug or working class roles, Cannavale shows what a terrific Nicky Arnstein he could've been in Bartlett Sher's cancelled Funny Girl. As Grace, Rose Byrne shows a playfulness I've not seen in her before.

Aside from its up-to-date technologies, the movie has a familiar slickness that defines a Hlwd style hard to differentiate over the last three decades. Written and directed by Will Gluck, the former sitcom writer also used a heavy hand in the film's scoring. The show's  music isn't just edited, it's butchered. Under revision from songwriters Greg Kurstin and Australian singer Sia Furler, Strouse's score is haphazardly "sampled"; rearranged into more percussive, less lyrical songs, pop as defined by a dumbing down. Some songs are reduced to merely repeating their title ad nauseum: "I Think I'm Going to Like It Here," "You're Never Fully Dressed..." "I Don't Need Anything But You." Others pick & choose parts of Strouse & Charnin, around which they veer off wildly ("Little Girlsl" "Easy Street"--which starts off on something utterly unrecognizable.) Only two songs, "Maybe" & "Tomorrow" remain intact. Even "Hard-knock Life" misses inclusion, for its bizarre clipping of the last four bars of the bridge, for which there's no compositional justifcation. Why? Granted Charnin's lyrics aren't sacred--"Smidge" is an awfully arcane word from the mouths of babes, but then what're you gonna rhyme with "orphanage?" So it's not a bad idea to change the line to: "No one cares for you a bit," except to follow it up with "When you're a foster kid." False rhymes abound in the revised lyrics, but then that's the coin of the realm these days, another degradation of a higher art. The movie opened nationwide December 19, 2014 to strongly negative reviews. but milked the holiday family audience to a $85,900,000 gross--no great shakes by present standards, and surely below expectations for this diversity-themed remake.

In the three years between the release of Hair and Annie, Bway musicals were MIA in Hlwd. Tho a few original film musicals bucked the trend they did little to revitalize interest in the genre. Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, dazzled critics at the end of '79--stealing thunder (and Oscar noms) from some better pics earlier in the year (namely Manhattan). It was almost incidentally a musical--tho being about a man who creates musicals would pretty much guarantee song & dance on display. The best--and instantly classic--is the "On Broadway" sequence, which thru Oscar-winning editing pares away a dancers cattle call of auditions to a single chorus line, all riding on the grooves of the Mann/Weill/Leiber/Stoller song. Fosse again showing his adeptness and brilliant understanding of the difference between film and theater--and a master of both. John Kander provided some facile tunes with some sleazy Fred Ebb lyrics for the sexualized tuner being assembled by Fosse's stand-in, Roy Scheider. With his id laid bare, Fosse hadn't much left in him to express, and his further projects in both Hlwd & Bway were anti-climactic. It was a brilliant, one-of-a-kind movie, not a blueprint toward new directions. Fame, which came along  in the summer of  '80 
found easy excuse for musical numbers as it was set in the Times Square High School for the Performing Arts, which burst its doors frequently out into the streets. Fuled by youthful talent & energy it transformed quickly--via a television series and touring-but-never-quite-Bway musical--into a cliche. But director Alan Parker (who made the kids-as-gangsters tuner, Bugsy Malone, and would later film Evita) had a good eye for music and the film was a minor "lifesaver" to me at the time; a reminder to refocus my ambition and get on with my professional life. Popeye was a Robert Altman musical, 
which sounds as odd as a John Huston musical, but Altman's is an original property at least--and one with some genuine ambition. The script was by sardonic cartoonist Jules Feiffer and the score by pop-rock songwriter, Harry Nilsson--arranged by Van Dyke Parks. It was a heady affair, with a picture perfect Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, and the film debut of Robin Williams; with a ramshackle fishing town set (shades of Paint Your Wagon) that's theme-park spectacular. Interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying. It flopped as a Xmas movie, coming after the double downers of John Lennon's death and Ronald Reagan's election. America was no more receptive the following Xmas, '81 for another expensive, original musical, that despite the youthful appeal of Steve Martin & Bernadette Peters was more old-fashioned in tone  than any of the others.  MGM's 
Pennies from Heaven was a bigscreen remake of British scribe Dennis Potter's acclaimed BBC serial--which contrasted the drab lives of a couple in the Great Depression with fantasy song numbers conjured up by pop hits from the '30s heard on the radio--and lipsynched by the cast. Set in England, MGM hired Potter to reset it in the American midwest, and pumped the songs into lavish production numbers worthy of the studio's past. Despite its modishly dark framework, some felt it overblown (which I think was the point) and it bumped up rudely against the zeitgeist. Even less impact was registered by Francis Ford Coppola's studio-set, hugely over-budget Vegas musical, One from the Heart, resulting in bankruptcy and the back hand in Hlwd for Coppola--an egregious and undeserved response, in direct line with the classic snubs of Von Stroheim, Chaplin and Orson Welles. 
I can appreciate how acquired a taste it is, but this is my kind of caviar. I kept going back the few weeks the film was still in empty theaters (and in the cut never seen again) and fell in love as with a drunken sailor. Coppola's pioneering video techniques were thrilling and the film was a visual feast in paint and neon. But that's not to discount the soundtrack, which has a one-of-a-kind song-cycle written and performed by Tom Waits (with Crystal Gayle) that captures the lazy insouisance of a Vegas still blooming in the desert. My kind of town. The score is so hypnotic, I would place the album among the top ten I couldn't live without. Waits was the sole talent the Academy recognized with a nomination, but he lost to the film below--proof,  if needed,  that a hit  floats more boats. 
Victor/Victoria, arrived two months before Annie to happy acclaim. It was a musical in night-club numbers only, but one which brought Julie Andrews back to prominence, and 15 years later was adapted for Bway, with the Henry Mancini & Leslie Bricusse score intact--a sad mediocrity that was poorly expanded for the stage. With Robert Preston as a funny old queen (winning that Oscar nomination, finally--even tho you can't quite believe he's gay), and a funny Lesley Ann Warren, it was one of Blake Edwards' sharper scripts, and better films. Altogether a short list of movie musicals, reflecting the true death of the genre in Hlwd. My own interest in Bway had seriously ebbed as well.

I started the '80s under a grand illusion that I was going to marry a crazy NY woman eight years my senior, "K" (the one Diane Keaton channeled in Manhattan), move her to SF and rise on the local scene as a stand-up comic. After an insanely romantic, wild & sexy '79 Xmas holiday in New York for a combustible reunion, I was as they say, affianced. After six unbearably long-distanced, over-analyzed months it was over the moment I returned to NY to collect her. With surprising relief, I went back to stay with Laura on Sullivan St. It felt like home. I sought solace on Bway, but Barnum didn't do it. I went to the Zeigfeld to see Fame. It felt like the stirrings of new life. I returned to SF and applied myself to writing anew. In short order I started doing coke with my downstairs neighbor, the vaguely German, slightly white trash, Linda. We began sleeping together. After another six months I dropped Linda and ended my gram-a-night habit cold turkey; my sinuses in full-flood detox the night John Lennon was shot. And I finished my first screenplay.

In its way, High Fidelity was a musical, tho not in the usual sense. More than anything it was a catalog of the music I was listening to during these exile-from-Bway years: Springsteen, Patti Smith, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, The Cars and most obsessively, Elvis Costello. The songs were part of the character's lives; the soundtrack of their emotions, as well as their ambitions, looking for careers to live off the music--if anything it was ahead of the curve about to explode as MTV. Tho not really about me, there was much of me reflected in the pain of 20-somethings searching for love, sex, career and meaning at the dawn of the '80s (in a pre-AIDS San Francisco). Had I been there twenty years later, I could have simply made it. Story of my life: too late for Bway's Golden Age, too early for the High-Tech film revolution. Five months after my romantic misadventure, I returned to NY (but not K), and began a semi-annual (spring & fall) pilgrimage for most of the decade--sometimes for as long as two weeks; usually staying in Laura's one-room apartment in the converted nunnery on Sullivan Street, around the corner from an all-night deli, where I'd often stop on my way home at 2 or 3 A.M. and get a ham & swiss on rye to eat before bedtime--washed down by a Squirt. What cast iron stomachs we had then! I wasn't yet 30, and my times in NY now were consumed by many things other than theater. I'd go to the movies as much, if not more; but mostly I socialized, flirted with the long-nosed Italian and Jewish boys I never sought when I'd lived there, and went out for long nights with Laura and her many new pals--tho of course I'd drop by for some Russian meals at Baba's as well. But I had no desire to see 42nd Street, or Woman of the Year or Ain't Misbehavin' or Dancin'--shows any true devotee would find obligatory. My choices were few and selective: Evita, Fifth of July, Cloud 9, Amadeus, Woody Allen's Floating Light Bulb, Merrily We Roll Along, the racially diverse revivial of West Side Story. I was still thinking of myself as only a playwright, not a librettist, and indeed one visit in particular was the seed of a play that would consume me for several years thereafter. The idea came from a gathering of friends I attended in the East Village on election night in 1980. Being young, progressive urbanites we could scarcely believe America would put Ronald Reagan in the white house, and were even more floored when it was decided so quickly, so overwhelmingly. I had only to recount the characters we were and our ruminations that night to fuel my most passionate play, State of the Art. We had all lived and grown-up in the radical, chaotic, liberating, disturbing, exciting '60s & '70s, and we knew it was suddenly all over. There was a new corporate energy in the air--and of course as any intelligent student of history knows this was but the slippery slope that systematically dismantled much of the common good. When a certain faction of the public cries to "take back" America, they're usually mistaking the Reagan years for the Eisenhower era--when prosperity and the greatest rise of the middle class in history boomed (as did we babies). Much of Annie's power is its recollection of Bway's Golden Age musicals. I doubt we've seen the last version of Annie. You've got to hand it to Charnin, for unearthing and unleashing a character that's become as iconic as Oliver Twist.

Next Up: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Report Card:   Annie  (1982)
Overall Film:  C
Bway Fidelity:  B--
Songs from Bway:  7
Songs Cut from Bway:  6
Worst Omissions: "NYC"
               "A New Deal for Xmas"
New Songs: 4 (by Strouse & Charnin)
Standout Numbers:  Not a one
Casting:  Good on paper, flat on screen
Standout Cast:  None
Cast from Bway:  None 
Direction:  Sluggish, uninspired, stodgy
Choreography:  Astonishingly off-kilter
Scenic Design:  Surprisingly dull
Costumes:  Adequate
Titles: Dull graphics over sung "Tomorrow"
Oscar noms: 2: Art Direction, Scoring

Report Card:   Annie  (1999)
Overall Film:  B+
Bway Fidelity:  (cutting only)
Songs from Bway:  10
Songs Cut from Bway:  4
Worst Omission: "A New Deal for Xmas"
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  "It's the Hard-Knock Life"
               "Little Girls," "Easy Street"
               "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here"
Casting:  Solid, Bway-centric
Standout Cast: Kathy Bates, Victor Garber,       
              Kristen Chenoweth
Cast from Bway:  Andrea McArdle (in cameo)
Direction:  Brisk, efficient
Choreography:  Lively, balanced, appropriate,
Scenic Design:  Studio quality
Costumes:  Terrific
Standout Sets: Times Square, NY Street
Titles: Lovely colored street scenes/overture

Report Card:   Annie (2014)
Overall Film:  C+
Bway Fidelity:  D
Songs from Bway:  8
Songs Cut from Bway:  6
New Songs:  4 (by Greg Kurstin)
Standout Numbers:  "Easy Street,"
               "Tomorrow" (finale)
Casting:Unobjectionable, unexciting
Standout Cast: Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale
Sourthumb Cast: Cameron Diaz
Direction: Slick but undistinguished 
Choreography:  Hip-hop-ho-hum
Scenic Design: Hi-Tech, Brooklyn-chic
Costumes: Contemporary dullness
Titles: End titles with boxed film clips
Oscar noms: None

No comments: