It was a story with the twists and turns of a Broadway musical, the cast of characters from a comic strip, and the intrigue of a Hollywood melodrama. Last August, Joanna Pacitti, a 12-year-old Philadelphia girl, secured the title role in the $5 million Broadway revival of Annie by winning a highly publicized talent search that culminated with her anointment on a special edition of ABC’s Turning Point. On Feb. 24, the producers of Annie, saying only that Pacitti and the role were not ”coming together” during the show’s out-of-town previews, abruptly fired Pacitti and replaced her with 8-year-old understudy Brittny Kissinger (who had filled in for Pacitti when she fell ill). Before you could say ”Leapin’ Lizards,” the media seized on the tale as a prepubescent All About Eve.
But a funny thing happened to Pacitti on the way to her humiliation. Within days of her dismissal, the Broadway orphan had America — and, more notably, Hollywood — on her side, and her lawyer was threatening to file a $10-50 million lawsuit against the producers. She sang ”Over the Rainbow” on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and took meetings with execs from Disney and Warner TV. Television producer Al Burton (Charles in Charge) was so struck by Pacitti’s plight that he invited her to audition for a role in a new Family Channel sitcom.
In fact, Pacitti seems poised to join that elite club of wildly successful losers. ”Think Vanessa Williams. Think Susan Lucci,” says Joan Rivers, whose upcoming book, Bouncing Back, details her own public setbacks. ”This kid can use this thing to turn everything around for her too.”
Firing a star before a show hits Broadway is not unusual. Ironically, the first lead of the original Annie, Kristen Vigard, was replaced by Andrea McArdle not long before the opening. But Pacitti’s ouster (reportedly because the show’s producers were dissatisfied with her acting ability) was more awkward because of the dramatic nature of her selection. ”Jaws just dropped around here,” says Turning Point producer Ann Reynolds, who had followed the production since tryouts. ”We never saw any indication the producers were unhappy with her.”
Pacitti’s entourage — including her parents, her manager, her lawyer, her agent, and a publicist — moved quickly when they received a fax at midnight on Feb. 24 saying she was fired. Pacitti was scooped up at her hotel at 3 a.m. in Wallingford, Conn., and whisked to a friend’s home nearby. ”We wanted to save her the humiliation of seeing the cast the next day,” says manager Patty Claffy. Claffy also arranged for a local family therapist to visit Pacitti the next day. ”She cried when we told her,” says Claffy. ”It broke her heart.”
But Pacitti was soon wiping away the cobwebs and the sorrow. Rosie O’Donnell invited the youngster to appear on her show and later confided that she had been fired from a movie role. ”I asked her to do the Betty Rubble laugh and she did,” says Pacitti. ”I started to feel good.”
For their part, Annie‘s producers, despite sparking the outrage of former Annies McArdle and Sarah Jessica Parker, couldn’t have asked Daddy Warbucks to buy this kind of publicity. A check at the box office seemed to indicate that matinee tickets for Broadway previews were selling briskly (sales for evening shows were more sluggish). No matter how the production ultimately fares, Rivers advises Pacitti to think about tomorrow: “Forget that little red dress and just move on.”
(Additional reporting by Casey Davidson)