There was a time when Hollywood played fast and loose with Broadway musicals. Many, if not most of the songs that charmed New York were discarded in the California studios. Anything Goes, Babes in Arms and The Boys from Syracuse were among the dozens of ‘30s titles that didn’t wind up sounding (or even looking) as they did when they played between 41st and 54th Streets. The ‘40s were barely better, as Cabin in the Sky lost plenty and Mexican Hayride shed all.
By and large, when My Fair Lady was deemed a masterpiece, Hollywood decided to do the show as is. But where the new Annie movie is concerned, we return to the era when the stage score is barely around. All right, there had to be some changes made, because this Annie is an update; we are more than eighty years removed from its Depression-era time and place.
So what’s there and what isn’t? “Overture” – Yes, which uses only the songs written by original composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin. But there will be new songs by Sia, Greg Kurstin and Will Gluck – whoever they may be.
“Maybe” – It’s there, sounding pretty much as it does on this cast album. So is: “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” – But this one is shortened and not as detailed. And while Miss Hannigan (the amusing Cameron Diaz) insists that the kids make the floors shine, she doesn’t refer to The Chrysler Building, which does make sense. The structure that had been completed in 1930 would still be on people’s minds then – but not now. “Tomorrow” – Of course it’s there. For the record, it has nothing to do with Annie’s finding Sandy and convincing the police officer that it’s genuinely her dog. “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” – Not at all, of course, for the thirty-first president has no place in a story that references Citi-Bikes, Google, Twitter and Facebook. “Little Girls” – Just a little. The first four lines are as we know them, but the rest of the song uses a completely different melody and lyric. That “girls” is now matched with “world” immediately signals that Charnin didn’t write the new lyrics. He’s always been a craftsman who strives for perfect rhymes and correct accents. Like everyone, he doesn’t reach 100%, but he sure scores higher than the triumvirate assigned to the new film. “Oh, yeah?” you grouse. “How about ‘smidge’ and ‘orphanage’ in ‘It’s the Hard-Knock Life’?” Actually, that IS a perfect rhyme, in that most everyone pronounces the latter word as “orphan-idge.” Now the lyric has been changed to rhyme “bit” with “kid,” which is so-near-yet-so-far from a perfect rhyme. “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” — For those who can’t stand their music with a backbeat, the original cast album rendition will soothe rather than anger. The B-section (“When you wake, ring for Drake”) is (sadly) eliminated. “N.Y.C.” – No, and how I miss that wailing saxophone that starts the number. There is, however, a new song that extols the virtues of New York, as seen from a helicopter ride that Annie takes with Will Stacks – the newly refashioned Oliver Warbucks. The new song’s okay, but “N.Y.C.” is decidedly better. “Easy Street” — A good show song is supposed to move the action forward, and this song has been doing that admirably since 1976. Now in this new film, it does not. As with “Little Girls,” only a few bars are used (and sung by Bobby Cannavale, yet) before a new melody as well as lyric takes over. “You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long,” in which Grace Farrell assures Annie that Oliver Warbucks will find her parents is M.I.A., too. One reason is that the new film puts far less time and effort into finding Annie’s folks. (Does that sound good to you?) “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” – There’s a, shall-we-say, smidge of the song in the film – mostly sung as a montage of scenes unfolds. Thus, there’s no Bert Healy and his Oxydent Hour of Smiles and no orphans adorably mirroring what he and his cast just performed. And needless to say, the film drops the Beau-Brummelly lyric, too. These days, only people who know Gypsy have heard of him. “Tomorrow” (reprise) – Well, yes, of course it’s reprised in the film, and while there’s plenty of talk about New York City politics, there’s no president on the scene; even if there were, he of course wouldn’t be President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which means we automatically are denied Raymond Thorne’s delicious imitation of the nation’s thirty-second chief executive. “Something Was Missing” is missing, too. Originally it was conceived as a tender waltz in which Daddy Warbucks showed he wasn’t afraid to be emotional face-to-face with Annie. (Most musical theater savants know that Strouse originally wrote its melody for The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a 1968 film in which it had a Charleston tempo and was called “You Rat, You.”) “I Don’t Need Anything but You” is there as the first of three finales. One of the other two is a new song, while the other, suffice to say, was in the original show. I’ll give you three guesses (and reduce it to two) as to what it is.
“Annie” isn’t there – meaning the song, of course, and not the actress playing the role. In fact, Quvenzhané Wallis is quite there and absolutely excellent; no other word will do. But as always, I must take off my hat and give a deep, deep bow to Andrea McArdle who gave one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen given by a child. I daresay that without her, Annie wouldn’t have made it, good as the material is. The musical crucially needed that riveting performance from a kid who could play smart, resilient and irresistible. McArdle did all admirably, and in sixteen subsequent trips from Massachusetts to Texas I’ve never seen anyone remotely as good in the role. Has there ever been another case such as this? Two performers in one musical – each nominated for a Tony — were not in those roles when the show began its tryout. Kristen Vigard and Maggie Task respectively were Annie and Miss Hannigan when the show debuted at the Goodspeed Opera House in the summer of 1976. The former didn’t even finish the East Haddam run – McArdle, playing the smaller role of Pepper, succeeded her; the latter did stay until the Connecticut closing, but never played it again. For Dorothy Loudon came in, thanks to new producer Mike Nichols, who’d worked with her and admired her. Alas, the comedienne had had quite the hard-knock Broadway life (the three musicals she’d previously done had lasted an average of 16 performances), but here she so dazzled everyone that she became the first and only Best Actress Tony-winner to best a performer who was the show’s title character. Finally, “A New Deal for Christmas” isn’t included, and for good reason: the film now takes place in what seems to be either a New York spring or autumn. Had they stuck with the Christmas motif, ‘twould have been fun to hear which names of current politicians they would have chosen to replace Cummings, Farley, Hull, Ickes, Morganthau, Perkins, Roper, Swanson and Wallace. Of course, the new soundtrack can’t offer you the bonus tracks now on the cast album: the demo recordings of Strouse and Charnin plying their wares at the backers’ auditions in hopes that their unlikely-sounding show could get on. Truth to tell, six of the seven aren’t nearly as good as the songs that eventually replaced them, which can be gleaned from the attendees’ applause that isn’t either loud or intense. But after Strouse finished playing and Charnin concluded singing “Tomorrow,” the heavier and swifter applause said in no uncertain terms “Now THAT’s a good song.”