Show biz is my life. Or at least a big part of it lately. My talented and smart kid has introduced theater and, especially, classic American musical theater to Mom and Dad by way of his enthusiastic thespianic occupation, avocation, obsession, all of it.
It's both perhaps typical of an eleven year old but also impressive in its mature and sophisticated intensity. And since I am learning both a lot about an important art form and how to learn from your own child, I am pretty darn excited (Leapin' lizards!) about a local production of a play I confess I once wouldn't have thought twice about but which now, happily, gives me a chance to wax revisionistic and appreciative about, of all things, Annie, which opens next weekend at South Coast Repertory, and features the Little Bibster in a cast of talented young people who are doing their best, as so many across America, to celebrate the New Deal, even here in Amnesia County, NarcissismLand, LibertarianVille, USA. So, mea culpa, and on with the show.
Annie, it turns out, is much performed by young people all across our great and weird land. And in Orange County, too. Imagine, thousands of school kids singing songs, dancing, cracking wise, and performing revisionist Left history all over their culturally Reaganoid parents and grandparents. I mean, maybe it takes a mature (old) parent to ask this, but have you actually read or listened to Annie the musical lately? It's got Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, singing. It's got Annie herself basically inspiring the New Deal, or at least the name. It's got lighthearted yet also so very mean attacks on Herbert Hoover. It's got an at-first anti-New Deal arms merchant (Daddy Warbucks) working with FDR or, you might argue, being coerced by him. And it includes some amazing one-liners that so perfectly send up the clueless conservative ethos that each time I hear the soundtrack played in the car on the way to rehearsal I have to laugh: “Why a kid would ever want to be an orphan I'll never know.” Too rich, as they used to say back in the day, before we had Glenn Beck to mouth this variety of kooky, and only Father Coughlin.
Too rich, indeed. This fantasia of political wishful thinking is about class and family and a nation, and how an intrepid, naive, optimistic, plucky, self-propelled, resilient, lucky (help, stop me!) little girl finds herself bringing together the wealthy elites, liberal and conservative, to not only change history but, yes, change the history lesson. Some background for the kids. (My own has been studying, part of his researching of the part of Dogcatcher.) The original Little Orphan Annie cartoon strip was written and drawn by Harold Gray, likely turning over and over in his grave since 1977, when his odd characters–the arms dealer, the dog, the iconic pupil-less orphan girl–were repurposed (my newest dumb trendy vocabulary word) by the trio of writer Thomas Meehan, composer Charles Strouse and libbretist Martin Charnin. Reviewing the musical for the New York Times nearly 40 years ago, Clive Barnes wrote that the play was based on the famous strip, “but not all that seriously.” No kidding. The plot involves what appears to be a fairly transparent PR effort by Oliver Warbucks, “world's richest man,” who wants to sort of rent an orphan (all of this is chaste and not Michael Jacksony) for about two weeks for
the holidays. It's 1933, and Prohibition is over, inflation is high, the Depression is making everybody feel low, or at least mildly depressed if you are Warbucks, who seems to have some serious emotional issues himself, orphan and abandonment-wise. The history, by which I mean chronology, is actually wrong, not factual, or maybe just right by way of wedding the New Deal to Christmas. And because I have just given up trying to avoid talking about it, I need to once again invoke Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel that I will just not shut up about seeing as how my reading, my kid, events conspire to point out its influence on nearly everything. (Or maybe it's me.) Ragtime, the novel not the movie or the musical (both of which I have avoided so as not to change my relationship to the novel, which I have practically memorized) is a retelling of the Era, with real-life characters whose journeys tell the kind of “people's history” (see Zinn, Williams, Takaki, et all) which the Great Man or national pride or other narratives did not, and which was so very welcome in the mid-seventies. To some. And not. See above what appears to be a grumpy Annie either mouthing the tired Party Line of Mr. Ryan, Gingrich and Reagan or, just maybe, only observing in the cutesy way kids do, unclear about a critique. My own sense is that if Annie grew up she would be Oprah or some other all-things-to-all-people sort of person.[But yes, here comes historical intervention in Annie-land, obviously, with a political switcheroo where the generally reactionary Gray's characters (or just confusing and confused and reactionary) are messed with by the at least liberal if not progressive trio of Annie transformers. Of course, it's so important to note that I am writing about – and the kids of Orange County, California are singing and dancing about – the actual play, not the film version, from which entire plot lines and songs are excised. Puh-leez.
I think Mr. Barnes is proven wrong as regards his judgment about the lyrics being bland.
Plenty of wit, funny and irony. It is somehow not cruel, instead adopting a kind of amiable, gently corrective tone. Of course, the story is still a picaresque, with our little rascal (see Ragtime, above) and our gang (ditto) of orphans doing their best to bring down the nasty Miss Hannigan, who enslaves them, and escape the "Easy Street” kidnap plans of her hoodlum brother. And there's the dog, Sandy. And the dream-come-true of a new life at the Warbucks mansion, where the obvious potential for a new, real, maybe better family awaits.
My own favorite number is, naturally, the old radio show bit, with Annie singing on "The Oxydent Hour of Smiles,” starring the Boylan Sisters and emceed by Bert Healy, and introduced by Jimmy Johnson, "radio's only masked announcer” (which is damn funny) and full of other casually sly nods to the period, its jokes, fun and idiom. There's FDR doing his thing with the cabinet, and the sarcastic mimicry of the lovable orphan chorus and, yes, the romance between Daddy Warbucks and, well, I think you already know but it is another sweet story of class warfare challenged by love and humanity.
I am eager to see what the audience takes from the SCR performance, masterfully directed by veteran actor-teacher-dramaturg
Hisa Takakuwa, the whole production lovingly and professionally organized by people who care about art, theater, history, kids. As you can see, I have once again learned a lot, not to mention having to add, happily, musical theater to that list of things I once kind of avoided but now found it necessary not only to embrace, but booster. So, thanks. But then it seems this play turns out to have been written for me. Not quite Cradle Will Rock, Mark Blitzstein's radical real-time Depression-era public theater project (that's another story), but a liberating and fun and imaginative romp which rocks the cradles in maybe a different way.
Annie on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory August 10, 11, 17, & 18. Performances at 1 and 5 pm. For tickets visit the SCR website.
Broadway Musicals: From the Pages of the New York Times, Ben Brantley, Abrams, 368 pgs., $50.00&
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.