With her pint-size stature, unruly red locks, and canine companion, Little Orphan Annie hardly screams ”Broadway heroine.” But on April 21, 1977, she danced into our hearts with the debut of her musical, Annie.
She was already an American treasure: Annie first appeared in 1924 as the star of a newspaper comic strip created by Harold Gray for the New York Daily News. Surrounded by a motley crew — including her gazillionaire adoptive father, Daddy Warbucks, and lovable mutt, Sandy — the optimistic orphan embarked on some 50 years’ worth of adventures. In 1971, those comics made director-lyricist Martin Charnin hear music, though his collaborators — composer Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie) and writer Thomas Meehan (who recently had a hand in The Producers) — were not so gung-ho. ”Ugh! It’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” said Meehan, no fan of ”strip” shows like Li’l Abner and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Admits Strouse, whose Superman never took off: ”It seemed like a bad idea.” Still, the frizzy-haired foundling stuck with the creators — all fathers of daughters — and by summer 1976, Annie bowed at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House.
Broadway vet Mike Nichols (The Odd Couple) saw something in Annie, and bet his bottom dollar New York audiences would too. With Nichols as producer, Annie arrived at the Alvin Theatre with little fanfare. But even the crustiest critics softened at the sight of Annie (13-year-old newcomer Andrea McArdle) foiling orphanage matron Miss Hannigan (Tony winner Dorothy Loudon), winning the heart of Warbucks (Reid Shelton), and sealing the New Deal with FDR—all while belting out ditties like ”It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and the showstopping ”Tomorrow.”
”Christmas and orphans and New York City,” recalls Sarah Jessica Parker, Broadway’s third bewigged girl. ”It reminds me a little of how it felt opening night of The Producers [which starred her husband, Matthew Broderick]. It had the same kind of magic, that old-fashioned Broadway feeling.” Annie ran on Broadway for nearly six years and reportedly earned upwards of $200 million in the U.S. Yet apart from a well-received made-for-ABC rendition in 1999, something was missing from future incarnations: The 1982 John Huston-helmed film with Albert Finney and Carol Burnett flopped; a stage sequel fizzled; and a 20th-anniversary revival starring Nell Carter as Miss Hannigan misfired. NYC’s favorite little orphan never found a home as perfect as her first.