The hidden politics of 'Annie'
Are politics getting you down? Are you in a funk about the direction our country is heading? Or maybe you’re just stuck in a day that’s gray and lonely?
Well, stick out your chin.
And saaaaaaaay — all together now ...
“Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, tomorrow! You’re always a day away!”
You may have thought "Annie," which returns April 15 to the Des Moines Civic Center, was just a story about a plucky little red-haired orphan. But that’s only part of it.
“There has always been something political about ‘Annie,’ and it’s intentional,” the show’s lyricist and original director, Martin Charnin, said over the phone a few weeks ago. “We were implying that as tough as things were when we wrote it (in the early ’70s) — with inflation, the war in Vietnam, the Nixon administration — we wanted to reflect Annie’s attitude and spirit and spunk.”
And get this: Remember Sandy? The mangy old mutt Annie finds on the street?
Sandy was a metaphor for America, Charnin said. “Sandy was a function of the condition the United States was in at that particular moment: in trouble, running away, scared and hurt.”
“We didn’t want it to be soap-boxy. We didn’t want to beat the audience over the head with it,” he said. “But we wrote that scene to allow Sandy to get rescued and saved by Annie, in light of all of the terrible things the dog had endured.”
Hmm. So he wasn’t just a flea-ridden sidekick after all.
“Annie” opened on Broadway in 1977 and came to Des Moines four years later. It was one of the first big musicals to visit the Civic Center, which opened in 1979, and held the record for ticket sales (42,479) for 16 years. (“The Phantom of the Opera” finally broke the spell with a five-week run in 1997.) The show’s visit next weekend will be its seventh to Des Moines.
It’s a new touring production — new sets, new costumes, new orchestrations — but the 19th “Annie” for director Charnin.
That’s a lot of “Tomorrow” renditions. He said the song still gets stuck in his head. It rattles around there, on repeat, until he listens to different music.
But you won’t hear the 81-year-old guy who wrote the world’s sunniest anthem complaining. He and the composer, Charles Strouse, wrote it in a day — "a really good day," Charnin said — but never expected it to take off like it did.
He was calling from the current tour's stop in Washington, D.C., where the original “Annie” played the Kennedy Center back in 1977 before jumping to New York.
In Washington, “we got these stunning reviews that sort of catapulted the show into icon status, or whatever you want to call it,” he recalled. “The morning after, the switchboard blew out because of all the calls that were coming in for tickets.”
The cast was still in costume after the opening-night performance when they boarded a bus and rode to the White House to perform a condensed 30-minute version for the National Governors Association. First lady Rosalynn Carter had invited them to perform a few excerpts after dinner.
“So we put together a sequence that included the Cabinet scene, in which FDR and Annie invent the New Deal,” Charnin said. “And we got our second standing ovation of the evening. The first one was at the theater.”
Since then, various casts of “Annie” have performed at the White House for every president except George W. Bush. They once performed at an official Easter egg roll for Nancy and Ronald Reagan, whose “Morning in America” re-election campaign could have come straight from the mouth of Annie herself.
“Tomorrow” is sort of “a tap on the shoulder of the cynics: Don’t worry. It’s going to get better,” Charnin said.
He has heard the song pop up in surprising places over the years. TV weather folks sing it a lot, especially in the winter, and the NFL Network used it in an ad after the Super Bowl.
“It was kind of wonderful, actually,” Charnin said. “All of the coaches and the players who had lost sang a line of the song. All of these huge, muscular quarterbacks and linebackers were walking around with grumpy faces, and then somebody starts singing the song. It’s a real wait-until-next-year moment.”
The Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni, who has trained dozen of Sandys over the years, was in New York two years ago for the filming of the African-American movie version of “Annie” starring Quvenzhane Wallis. A crowd gathered behind a barrier to watch Annie’s first encounter with the dog.
“There were probably 300 people. And afterward, right there in Harlem, they started singing ‘Tomorrow,’” he said. “It made me cry a little. That particular song and that particular scene, it still sparks optimism in America.”
Part of the song's appeal is its simplicity. Charnin wanted it to sound like something a little girl might actually sing.
“As much as you can make fun of it or say it’s too simple, everybody loves the idea of things getting better,” he said. “We all go through those awful moments when we’re depressed beyond belief, but something says, 'Wait. Get a good night’s rest and open the window tomorrow morning and the sun will be out.'"
And you can bet your bottom dollar you'll hear the same message in politics. Just wait until tomorrow.
“I have the feeling one of those candidates is going to launch into singing it," Charnin said.
Maybe Annie should toss her own hat in the ring.
If you go
When:If you go
Where: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St.