'Annie' is celebrated at Goodspeed - where it all began

With Sandy at her side, Sarah Jessica Parker performs as 'Annie' on Broadway in New York in 1979.
With Sandy at her side, Sarah Jessica Parker performs as "Annie" on Broadway in New York in 1979.

When Goodspeed Musical sent out invitations for a gala celebrating the 35th anniversary of "Annie" and honoring its creators, it got an almost immediate "yes" from one enthusiastic fan in particular: Sarah Jessica Parker.

Parker acted in the Broadway production of "Annie" when she was a girl who was in the company before moving up to the lead role. Her affection for the show - which was developed at Goodspeed Opera House in 1976 - remains strong.

At Saturday's gala at the Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station in Haddam, Parker said, "I think for the hundreds of us who were part of the show, whether it was the first or second generation or one of the countless generations beyond, it was a really special time in our lives. ... I was so happy to be here to celebrate with the creative team."

She was almost 13 when she took over the lead role, and she said, "I remember everything. The details are very vivid. It was a wonderful, unique (experience). ... I remember particularly feeling very lucky because I knew there were lots of little girls all across the country that would love to be doing what I was doing."

Parker, who looked elegant in a one-shouldered, fawn-colored gown, hasn't forgotten the experience, and neither has she forgotten the lyrics.

"I sing it all the time because I have two daughters, and we play it in the house. Before I had daughters, we played it for my son. My son saw a wonderful production that John Schuck did at Madison Square Garden probably four or five years ago," she said. "He was the perfect age. I understand my daughters will be the perfect age for the next production in about a year and a half - not to be in it but to see it. I think everyone should see a production of 'Annie' once in their lives. I'm not kidding. It's a perfect show."

Parker was among the crowd honoring the "Annie" creative team of director and lyricist Martin Charnin, composer Charles Strouse and book writer Thomas Meehan. Each in the trio received The Goodspeed Award for Outstanding Contribution to Musical Theatre.

The master of ceremonies was Conrad John Schuck, who made his Broadway debut as Daddy Warbucks and, as TV fans know, is a character actor who was a regular on "McMillan & Wife."

The event included fond recollections from people involved with "Annie," such as Connecticut animal trainer Bill Berloni, who described finding the original Sandy at a dog pound.

The anniversary provided an occasion for those involved to reminisce about the beginnings of what became an enduring hit.

Now, Meehan is a multi-Tony-winning writer whose luminous Broadway credits run from "Hairspray" to "The Producers." In 1976, though, he was a New Yorker writer who was working, for the first time, in musical theater.

Before the gala, Meehan recalled the inauspicious final dress rehearsal at Goodspeed - the literal hurricane before the sun came out, yes, tomorrow.

Said hurricane actually blew the theater's generator.

"We had to stop the rehearsal over and over again. We finally finished at 2 in the morning," he said. "I walked back in the rain to where I was staying, saying, 'This thing is hopeless. It's a disaster. All my dreams of the theater have gone down the drain in a hurricane.'

"Miraculously, the next night, it played beautifully at the very first performance. It was like down the elevator and suddenly up the elevator, those two nights," Meehan said.

Buoyed, Meehan responded happily when approached by a theatergoer after a later performance. The man asked Meehan if he had anything to do with the show. Meehan, excited, said yes. The theatergoer responded, simply, "It stinks."

"That was my first review," Meehan said.

The reviews, from critics and theatergoers, have been much kinder since then. "Annie" ran for 2,377 performances on Broadway from 1977 to 1983, making it the 23rd longest-running show on the Great White Way. It's scheduled to return to Broadway next year.

Back in the 1970s, Charnin was the one who came up with the notion of creating a musical stage version of "Annie." It didn't draw much interest from producers. Even Michael Price, Goodspeed's executive producer, was ready to pass until he found himself singing the show's songs while on vacation in London.

Charnin said, simply, "There would have been no development of 'Annie' without Goodspeed and the amount of time we were allowed to work on it."

They were allowed to see how things worked at a given performance and adjust it for the next night.

They shortened the show. They changed lead actresses, realizing that Andrea McArdle, who was originally one of the other orphans, had the right spunk and gutsiness for the title role.

And they had the time to experiment until they got other important elements right. One night, they tried switching "A Hard Knock Life," which had been the show's first song, and the plaintive "Maybe." That seemingly simple move somehow changed the entire show. Having little Annie sing up front about her lost parents allowed the audience to love and care about her immediately. The first night "Maybe" was the opening song became the first night "Annie" got a standing ovation.

Things seemed to be going swimmingly, until Walter Kerr gave "Annie" a bad review in The New York Times.

"Suddenly, all the New York producers who had been calling us weren't calling anymore," Meehan recalled. "It seemed like it was dead."

But then Mike Nichols came to see it.

"He came back afterwards and said, 'You guys are sitting on a million dollars here,'" Meehan said.

About 10 days later, Nichols called and said he wanted to produce "Annie" for Broadway.

"That changed everything," Meehan said.

Charnin has some theories about why "Annie" was a success right from the beginning in 1976.

"I certainly think it is because it's a rags-to-riches story, and we're all suckers for rags-to-riches stories. I think it also came at an opportune time in the history of the country," he said.

"We were really suffering. Vietnam was just over. Nixon was just over. The economy was lousy. Gas was, I don't know, higher than it had ever been before. There was a general cynicism that lived very close at hand," Charnin said.

"This is the musical that said, 'No, it's going to get better.' It was a touch of optimism. It was a tap on the shoulder to those cynics who said, 'Doom. Doom, doom, doom.'

" 'Annie' said, 'No, wait. Wait, wait. The sun will come out tomorrow. And there always is tomorrow.'"

k.dorsey@theday.com

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