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‘Annie’ without the DepressionBY: Dan Rottenberg 03.08.2010
Annie wasn’t much of a show to begin with. Now its original target audience is dying out. Does that mean its setting— the Great Depression of the ’30s— should be scrapped?
Updating Annie: Just one slight problem…DAN ROTTENBERG
Having been enthralled as a child by the original 1977 Broadway production of Annie, our critic Jennifer Baldino Bonett recently took her own young sons to the same show’s latest uncut revival and found today’s audience less than enthusiastic.
“Eighty years after the Great Depression,” Jennifer concluded, “Hoovervilles, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, seem like ancient history, especially to Annie’s target audience: kids not yet old enough to vote.”
Her solution: Annie’s producers should borrow a leaf from the show’s film and TV adaptations and eliminate most if not all references to the Great Depression. (Read Bonett’s review here.)
That’s one way to look at Annie. Here’s another.
By the time the original Annie arrived on Broadway, three generations of Americans had grown up with Little Orphan Annie, the zero-eyed waif who first appeared in the Sunday comics in 1924 (five years before the great stock market crash of 1929), and whose sole earthly possession was her dog Sandy. Every day for more than 50 years, millions of people had spent time with Annie, her right-wing benefactor Daddy Warbucks, and his mysterious servant and bodyguard, Punjab and the Asp. As with the long-running British series, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” people were exposed to Annie’s crowd so steadily that we felt as if we knew them personally.
The stage musical based on this comic strip also exploited a perverse human phenomenon that might best be described as “nostalgia for the bad old days.” A show like Fiddler On the Roof, for example, wistfully recalls that wonderful period in Tsarist Russia when Jews cowered in their homes, waiting for the Cossacks to crash through the door. In much the same way, Annie recreated those happy times when millions of Americans sold apples, stood in soup lines and lived in makeshift shanties constructed from tin cans.
Superman’s fatal flaw
But unlike Tevye and his family in Fiddler, or the Bellamys and their servants in “Upstairs, Downstairs,” comic book characters lack depth. They may enchant us for five minutes, but on close examination— in two-hour stage or screen adaptations like, say, Superman, Dick Tracy, L’il Abner or Popeye— they fall over like the cardboard figures they are. Try a two-hour serving of the brilliant “Doonesbury” and you’ll see what I mean.
Not surprisingly, then, the Broadway musical Annie resembled a meal consisting entirely of hors d’oeuvres: full of juicy little morsels but bereft of anything you could sink your teeth into. It charmed audiences for much the same reason that old baseball cards charm guys my age: They remind us of a time when we were younger, even if we weren’t necessarily happier.
So Bonett is right in one respect: Annie’s Depression context offers nothing to her kids. On the other hand, that context is a vital element of what little story line Annie has to offer. Annie without the Depression is like South Pacific without World War II.
Because work was so difficult to find in 1933, single matrons like Miss Hannigan were forced to hang on to thankless jobs running orphanages and to take out their frustrations on their helpless charges. Swindlers like Miss Hannigan’s sleazy brother Rooster and his tootsie, Lily, flourished because there was no easy way to make a buck. In the show’s bitter early number, “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” a shantytown chorus of erstwhile solid citizens, ruined by the stock market crash, recount what the former president has done for them and conclude, “You made us what we are today.”
When I first heard that song, it struck me as unduly harsh: After all, Hoover didn’t cause the Great Depression. But in 1933 it was widely perceived that he had, and this song accurately reflects that attitude. More important, it sets the stage for the desperate period in which the runaway orphan Annie must survive: not necessarily a cruel world, but a world in which nice people have grown desperate.
Amid this economic crisis, Annie’s indefatigable cheerfulness comes as such a relief that she’s invited to the White House, where her singing of “Tomorrow” inspires FDR to save the country by launching the New Deal. Without such a crisis, who needs her? In boom times, sunny optimism— what the Yale economist Robert Shiller called “irrational exuberance”— is not only unnecessary, it’s downright dangerous, as we’ve learned in our own recent economic meltdown.
I say: Annie wasn’t much of a show to begin with. Its original target audience is indeed dying out. But if this show is to retain any relevance, the answer is not to scrap the Depression references, but to preserve them— as a reminder of how Americans felt at a traumatic period in our history. A trauma, incidentally, that we did survive.
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