Tag Archives: ANNIE

Returning to “Tomorrow” Today With Martin Charnin

Evan Henerson

It takes a certain perseverance and resilience of spirit to create a musical about perseverance and resiliency.  Just ask writer-director Martin Charnin who keeps framed rejection letters from the early to mid 1970s mounted on his walls. Those epistles were sent by dubious producers who advised Charnin and his co-creators to abandon the idea of bringing the saga of a certain cartoon orphan to the musical theater stage and move on to a different subject.

“I treasure them,” Charnin says of the letters. “It’s a good lesson. Sometimes people don’t like what you do.”

But sometimes they do. The original production of “Annie,” which lyricist and original director Charnin created with composer Charles Strouse and librettist Thomas Meehan, ran for 2,377 performances on Broadway. There have been two Broadway revivals and multiple touring companies. Between Broadway, road companies, regional and international productions, Charnin has now directed the musical 19 times.

One need not necessarily be a glass-half-full minded individual to identify with “Annie,” but that spirit is part of what keeps Charnin returning to the well. After a successful theatrical career that began in 1957, the Emmy and Tony award-winning Charnin certainly knows that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow,” but he figures that the world can often use a similar wake-up call.

“I really am reminded every time I do it what the show’s initial message was, and that’s how I basically get the optimism that is up on the stage for two hours,” Charnin says. “That’s something that I need. I think everybody needs a tap on shoulder to remind them that, as awful or as bleak or as difficult as it may be today, there might be something better around the corner.”

“That’s a valuable message to have in your wheelhouse,” he continues. “Certainly for the last 38 years that it’s been playing, that seems to be the message every time we enter a political year. The message becomes a little more pertinent.”

Asked whether the show ever served as a pick-me-up in the director’s own life, Charnin harks back to the original production…the one that produced those rejection letters. It took seven years and multiple passes to finally get “Annie” on stage first at the Goodspeed Opera House and then to Broadway. When “Annie” finally arrived in the late 1970s, it premiered when national spirits were not exactly at their highest.

“The country was in dismal shape when we started to work on it,” he says. “Nixon, Vietnam, a bad economy and everything started to turn around in 1976. In 1977, everything exploded in a positive way.”

Set as the musical is in the winter of 1933 against the effects of the Great Depression, “Annie” follows its 11-year-old heroine of comic strip fame as she moves through a series of hardships en route to a fairy tale ending in the home of Oliver Warbucks. Our Annie’s never-say-die spunkiness is intended to be a bellwether for dealing with the types of difficulties faced by post-Depression era America.

In the midst of her quest, Annie belts out a song that articulates her hopefulness… a certain song that has become more than a little bit famous as evidenced by the fact that it is now one of the 100 most frequently performed musical theater songs.

Perhaps you’ve heard the tune? A one-word title that rhymes with the words “you borrow”?

“We needed a moment early in the show that kinds of defines Annie musically,” Charnin recalls. “We find out a lot about her in ‘Maybe’ which opens the show and which tells us things in terms of plot. What we find out in ‘Tomorrow’ is her attitude.”

Over the ensuing years Charnin, has heard “Tomorrow” performed in multiple languages and in a variety of contexts.

“One of the funniest ways that I remember it was when they used it to accompany a commercial showing all of the playbacks from an NFL season,” Charnin says. “The day after the season ended, the players were all getting their gear together and leaving the stadiums. All of the quarterbacks are thinking about tomorrow and the next season.”

“I guess we always live in the present and we go to bed and wake up and it’s the future,” he says. We’re lucky to have locked that title up and made it work on so many levels.”

Any young lady who sings “Tomorrow” has to project not only hopefulness, but the grit that it will require to power through those tough times. Having worked with dozens of young girls – both portrayers of Annies and her fellow orphans – Charnin emphasizes that the character is “not Shirley Temple.”

“That’s a common misperception,” the director says. “She’s got to have a toughness and a sense of stick-to-it-iveness. And obviously she has to have a set of pipes. Annie’s a survivor. She confronts a lot of different things in the context of the script. Basically that’s what she was in the cartoon when we first read it, and that’s what attracted me to the character.”

Charnin cites the impressive history of stage Annies from original Broadway creator Andrea McArdle all the way through the current tour’s Issie Swickle. You want resiliency?  How about starting your professional career while you’re still in elementary school and still be able to ply your trade three decades later, maybe even as the mother of an acting child yourself? “Annie” has its share of break-out stars from Allison Smith to Sarah Jessica Parker to a young Welsh actress from the London company, Catherine Zeta Jones.

“I get a big charge from working with the kids,” says Charnin. “We have had quite a lot of luck finding young ladies who were 10 or 11 who have gone on to have terrific careers.”

With the “Annie” tour successfully launched, Charnin is hard at work on other projects including a musical about the life of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust. Charnin is also working on a revival of the “Annie” sequel “Annie Warbucks” potentially for a New York opening during the 2016-17 season. Ideally, Charnin says, “Annie” and “Annie Warbucks” would play in repertory at the same theater so that you can see the shows on alternating nights or – “Nicholas Nickleby” style – as a same day two show weekend marathon.

Of course, wherever his creative journeys take him, Charnin always figures to have the opportunity to return to a production of “Annie” somewhere, sometime. As the last nearly 40 years have established, the appetite for this tale has by no means abated.

With this new incarnation, Charnin hopes that people who saw the musical as a child might revisit it and take home new memories. For audiences who are returning to the musical many years later, perceptions should be based on what is on stage rather than on memories that have been distorted by the passage of time or other versions of the story, Charnin says.

“Part of what this show is about is a reminder to look at it again, and then make your judgment,” Charnin says. “The hope is people take to it in the same way they did and have been for almost four decades.”

Bet your bottom dollar!

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Evan Henerson has been writing about theater in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. He was the Theater writer and critic for the Los Angeles Daily News for nine years and has written for Playbill Online, Backstage, American Theatre and Stage Directions.You can read his reviews on TheaterMania, CurtainUp and Examiner.com.

Bill Berloni and “Annie”

Evan Henerson

The star of the Broadway production is on the tour, but visitors to the hit musical “Annie” at the Pantages Theatre will see an understudy who has taken over for the leading player. Just cool your scandal-mongering, all you gossip hounds. This is not a leading player switch-out of “42nd Street” proportions. The performers are just fine with the substitution, assures the man who lives with both of them.

Sunny, who played Annie’s faithful four-legged companion Sandy in the 2012 Broadway revival, will certainly live to bark again for adoring audiences. But for now, understudy – but no underdog – Macy is the pooch under the lights.

“Macy has taken over the role of Sandy,” confirms Bill Berloni, the owner and trainer of both dogs. “It’s like a situation with dance partners. Issie Swickle (who plays Annie) has a slightly better rapport with Macy, so we decided to let it happen all the time.”

When Berloni talks about human-animal rapport, he knows whereof he speaks. The Connecticut-based trainer and operator of William Berloni Theatrical Animals, trained the original Sandy for “Annie’s” 1977 production at the Goodspeed Opera House and on Broadway. He has provided dogs for every major revival since, and has worked on countless regional, college and high school productions of the musical as well as the 2014 film with Quvenzhané Wallis.

Broadway Tails

Bill Berloni with the very first Sandy (1977)

If successful Sandy-Annie pairings are indeed a “show-mance” between performer and pooch, then Berloni has spent nearly 40 years playing Cupid and helping to advance the course of true love so that it comes through convincingly on stage. That magic is accomplished through a certain amount of training, with actors learning and executing the commands that Sandy must perform during his 15 minutes of stage time. But this kind of puppy love is also fostered through offstage playtime, repeated routines and, well, alone time.

“When you go on the road, it’s a constant bonding experience,” Berloni says. “Many nights each week, Issie will have a sleepover with the dogs. She feeds then and when she goes to bed, they curl right up with her. We have created a real bond, not just a theater bond.”

Dogs being the creatures they are, that bond can be established, nurtured and even transferred. The original Sandy spent seven years on Broadway performing opposite five different Annies. Of course, that dog (whose offstage name was “Sandy”) was historic in more ways than one. In 1977, when “Annie” was being developed at Goodspeed, no live animal had ever had a major role in a live theatrical performance. At the time, Berloni was a 20-year old stagehand and aspiring performer who was offered the chance to get his card with Actors Equity if he could find and train a live dog that would play Orphan Annie’s companion. Berloni ended up at the Connecticut Humane Society where he rescued the abused and bedraggled dog at a cost of $7 mere hours before the animal was scheduled to be put down.

The rest is animal theatrical history. Sandy’s success opened the door for Berloni’s new career as the go-to animal trainer for the entertainment industry. For several years in the late 1970s and early 80s, Berloni, Sandy and Annie became celebrities, promoting the show on TV news programs and around the country. Sandy is featured prominently in Berloni’s 2008 autobiography “Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars.”


Bill with the original Sandy

Should Berloni ever follow up with a volume of “More Broadway Tails,” Macy’s saga could fill up a chapter. A stray in Oklahoma City, Macy had been picked up by Animal Control. She was scheduled to be euthanized but the staff at the Animal Shelter loved her so much that they kept switching the date on her card to prolong her life. Macy was shuttled into the Prison Dog Training Program at the Davis Correctional Center where she spent six months with prisoners, but was the only dog in her class not to be adopted. When Berloni found her, she had landed with a Dalmatian rescue organization, the only non-Dalmatian of the bunch.

“It’s through the kindness of so many strangers that she has gone on to entertain,” Berloni says of Macy who has appeared in more than two dozen productions of the musical.

Sunny’s saga is equally dramatic. Berloni cast her practically sight-unseen out of a Houston animal shelter 24 hours before her time at the shelter was coming to an end. She became the subject of the Al Roker Entertainment program “Annie’s Search for Sandy” and is featured in the book “New York Dog.”

Of course the alternative to stardom for either dog would potentially have been very grim. “I’m probably one of the few people who casts roles where, if you don’t give the actor the role, the actor could die,” Berloni says.

All of Berloni’s performing animals are rescued, which represents the fulfillment of a promise that Berloni made to himself nearly 40 years ago when he went looking for the first Sandy and learned of the plight of stray dogs. He is an officer of the New York Humane Society and an advocate for humane treatment of animals. He received a special 2011 Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre and is the subject of the Discovery Family Channel reality show “From Wags to Riches.” He is a regular participant in the annual Broadway Barks animal adoption event, and he received the Richard Craven Award from the American Humane Association.

Bill Berloni.

Bill Berloni stands with Taran, One of 30 rescue animals on Bill’s farm.

“I try to be a role model,” he says. “There are still no laws protecting animals in entertainment, and that has been something that has always bothered me. I set my own standards based on conscience. I have walked out of shows and given up gainful employment when people have asked me to do things that are not humane. There is no governing board that steps in to protect my rights or to protect my animals.”

“I have set standards, and with those standards have come certain costs,” he continues. “If a dog needs a quiet place to rest, I will trade dollars out of my contract to get a dressing room so the dog can rest. These are things that I hope producers start to accept on their own. They are very accepting on ‘Annie.’”

This is hardly surprising given Berloni’s history with the show and with original director Martin Charnin. The two have worked together on multiple Broadway and touring revivals of the show as well as the sequel “Annie Warbucks.” Berloni estimates that he has provided Sandys for as many as 100 productions of the musical.

Some of the experiences have come with creative speed bumps. As detailed in the Annie Gets her Walking Papers chapter of “Broadway Tails,” the 20th anniversary revival had a lot of offstage drama including the dismissal of lead actress Joanna Pacitti four weeks before the production was scheduled to open on Broadway.

From a showmance perspective, that tale has a happy ending. While Brittny Kissinger played the role on Broadway opposite the Sandy of Cindy Lou, Berloni helped ease Pacitti’s disappointment by giving her Zappa, the Sandy with whom she had rehearsed, bonded and fallen in love.

That circumstance is extremely rare, says Berloni. The animals he trains may end up among the dogs who live on his farm (currently at 30) or they may get adopted by a loving family, but Sandys are not routinely paired off with Annies once the show is at an end.

“We do this because we love them and want to give them forever homes,” says Berloni. “The business that came down the pike (in 1997) and disappointed that child… she really loved that dog, and I wanted her to leave with a piece of herself intact. The show obviously was not happy, but I was just more concerned with Joanne Pacitti’s welfare.”

Berloni recently finished the musical “Moonshine: That Hee-Haw Musical” for which he supplied bloodhounds. He’s got animals in “The Wizard of Oz” tour and is one of the producers of “Because of Winn Dixie” in which the dog isn’t just a key player, he’s the star. He’ll train the Toto for NBC’s live version of “The Wiz” following up on his work training Nana for “Peter Pan Live”

Of his regular recurring gigs, “The Wizard of Oz” is a favorite (“I grew up on that movie and recreating it for stage audiences is wonderful the stage”) as is “Legally Blonde” (“Hanging around with all those young women is great energy. It keeps me awake.”).

But Berloni says measures every new show against that first experience with “Annie.”

“I was 20 when ‘Annie’ opened on Broadway. A week later, I was being interviewed by the ‘New York Times’ theater section, and that original production went on to the White House,” Berloni said. “Everything that happened in that particular production changed my life and set the standard for what I would try to do with the rest of my life. Sandy was the dog who taught me everything I knew.”

Henerson headshot 10-5-15

Evan Henerson has been writing about theater in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. He was the Theater writer and critic for the Los Angeles Daily News for nine years and has written for Playbill Online, Backstage, American Theatre and Stage Directions.You can read his reviews on TheaterMania, CurtainUp and Examiner.com.

We’ve Got Annie!

We all have that one show that sticks with us our entire lives. Maybe it was your first show, perhaps is was a show that really struck the mood you were in at just the right time, and sometimes it’s the show that left you with some new go to shower songs. For the Nederlander Organization, that owns the Hollywood Pantages Theatre; that show is ANNIE.

Annie-Playbill-02-80 Annie-05-77-1

We had the distinct pleasure to sit down with the President of the Nederlander Organization, James L. Nederlander, to discuss the phenomenon that was and still is ANNIE.  We asked Jimmy what he remembered about the show’s debut on April 21, 1977:

“I remember that the name of the theatre (The Alvin) and ANNIE had the same number of letters so we changed the marquee to say ANNIE for the show instead of displaying the theatre’s name. This show was something else. I went through several copies of the record because I kept wearing them out.  It was a great family show and a great date night show. It warmed the cockles of all hearts, of all ages. Everyone left with a smile. It was a great first musical for many children and people just kept coming back to see it. After nearly 40 years people are still coming back to see this show.”

Alvin Theatre Annie

The Alvin Theatre now the Neil Simon Theatre changes its name to promote the new show Annie. (1977)

The original cast included Andrea McArdle (Annie), Reid Shelton (Daddy Warbucks), and Dorothy Loudon (Miss Hannigan). ANNIE Was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and walked away with 7 including Best Musical and Best Score. Annie’s doors stayed open until 1983 and held the title for longest running show at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) until Hairspray in 2009.

annie full cast

ANNIE original cast.

With over 10 different tours and revivals, several movie and television adaptations, and more pop culture references than one can count, ANNIE continues to inspire new generations of children to this day.

Get your tickets by visiting www.hollywoodpantages.com/annie