“Two nights after Obama was reelected, you could feel it in the audience,” says Thomas Meehan, 83, the Tony Award winner who wrote the book to the 1977 musical Annie, which recently opened in a new revival on Broadway. “In 35 years, I never saw such great applause for the White House scene before.”
Obama’s campaign slogan was “Forward.” Annie’s hopey-changey number is, of course, Tomorrow. And, in case you’ve forgotten, her showstopper is the most overtly political number you may ever see at a Broadway theater that also sells tiny pink T-shirts. When the big-hearted moppet reprises her vague-as-a-politician promise about the sun coming out, she’s standing on a conference table in the Oval Office of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Like Annie, I’ve just decided that if my administration’s going to be anything,” he says, “it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country!” He conceives a New Deal on the spot.
In the context of fundamental clashes over the role of government, Annie is “close to the spirit of Obama,” says Meehan, though almost nothing has changed about the musical since its premiere 35 years ago. Like the original, the revival includes an anti-Herbert Hoover number performed by the homeless. In the finale, A New Deal for Christmas, the chorus sings, “Fill our pockets with dollars.” You hear that, Paul Ryan?
Annie might seem like merely a cute moptop, but she’s been a child soldier in the culture wars for almost 90 years. Her current incarnation would have disgusted cartoonist Harold Gray, who created Little Orphan Annie in 1924, hated liberals in general, and loathed FDR in particular. The Annie introduced in the Chicago Tribune was a scrappy populist who outsmarted con artists, crooks, and gangsters. Her protector, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, was the self-made embodiment of all that was best about American free enterprise. As the economy collapsed, Gray became ever more conservative: Annie and Warbucks began to spar with unions and tax men. In one sequence, Warbucks and a scientist discover Eonite, a polymer that promises to revolutionize manufacturing—but a lefty columnist incites a union to burn down Warbucks’s factory, destroying the world-saving invention. Little Orphan Annie became so overtly political that it was denounced in 1935 in the New Republic as “fascism in the funnies.”
The 1977 stage version threw out everything but the rich man, the upbeat girl, and the dog. It was practically a prequel—an origin story that added Annie’s search for her parents, that locket, and her role in founding modern liberalism. “When we three New Yorkers wrote it, way back in the early 1970s, it was more of a protest against Nixon,” says Meehan, referring to himself, lyricist Martin Charnin, and composer Charles Strouse. “There was a feeling that the government didn’t care. We wanted to harken back to a time when the White House was dedicated to the welfare of the American people.”
But the version most people know is the John Huston film, starring Carol Burnett and Albert Finney, released in 1982. With Reagan in office, the director cut the musical’s three most political songs. Meehan says the musical fell out of favor and tours dropped off in the 1980s as Reagan cruised to reelection, “then suddenly with Clinton, we were back again.” In the years since, Annie has proliferated throughout the world, taking on new meanings everywhere it goes. In Japan it’s been playing for 30 years uninterrupted—with Asian actors dressing up as FDR, the man who bombed the country in World War II. In Mexico, Annie’s cute dog, Sandy, is played by a Chihuahua. In 2014 there will be a new wave of Anniemania: Will Smith is developing a vehicle for his daughter, Willow, who’ll be the first black Annie on film. The movie and its music will be co-produced by Obama supporter Jay-Z, who sampled It’s the Hard-Knock Life in his 1998 hit Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).
“I loved how Jay-Z caught the spirit of Annie and brought her right back into the mainstream again,” says Meehan, adding that Jay-Z’s team gave them a “Godfather offer” they couldn’t refuse for the film rights. Charnin thinks the play’s optimistic liberalism will endure. “When we wrote the show, we were thinking about Watergate and Vietnam and the financial crisis, but, not to sound cynical, there’s always going to be something to complain about, and there’s always going to be an answer. There’s gotta be. That’s what Annie is all about.”