(This production? It was fine, veering strongly into dull. There was nothing new being said about the show in the staging or the design, the kids all sang fine, and my biggest complaint in terms of choices being made would probably be Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, a bewildering hybrid of Bill T. Jones-esque stylized gesture, naturalistic movement, and (of course) tap routines.)
My Three Big Problems with Annie the musical
1. This show is not as sweet as it would have you think it is.
Under the caramel, that apple is rotten.
With saccharine-heavy songs flooding the score, like "Tomorrow," "Maybe," and "N.Y.C," it can be easy to forget what a nasty piece of work this show is the rest of the time. Miss Hannigan is a drunkard negligently minding a handful of girls with no future, and the only times she seems interested in her surroundings are when she's propositioning the nonreciprocating laundry man, or planning fraud, theft, kidnapping, and an implied murder with her brother Rooster and his girl of the moment. The rest of the time, she's about as nasty as they come, and this is played for laughs.
Meanwhile, we're in the midst of the Great Depression, and Annie gets to spend some quality time with the residents of a mobile Hooverville, who sing bitterly of the President for whom their shacks are named, before being chased off by the cops. But hey, if Annie can walk away from that singing, "The sun'll come out tomorrow," then it's all very well and good, right? (I'll get to that song later)
Basically, the situation is fairly shitty all around. The orphans lay this out for us in their first group number, "Hard Knock Life," but it's typically performed with such gusto, we maybe don't notice the implications - the adults aren't the only cynics here; the kids are just as embittered, and rightfully so.
So why do we think of this show as not just sweet, but cloyingly so? They trick us with Annie's anthems, "Maybe" and "Tomorrow." Those songs are full of naive hope and the belief in the inherent good in the world. But take a look at Annie when she's not singing. She's cynical, she's sarcastic, she's a liar, and she's a master manipulator (I point you toward the "Aw, gee" scene, her first interaction with Daddy Warbucks). Does the optimism in her songs reflect her true inner beliefs, covered up by her cynical exterior when not singing? Or does it signal a divorce in the perspectives of the writers, Thomas Meehan and Martin Charnin? Because let's face it, if we take the different aspects of Annie's character at face value, not allowing for disagreement among the authors, our little orphan's a bit of a sociopath. As it sits, the contradictions in Annie the character, as in Annie the musical, are never acknowledged or wrestled with; they are left to sit there, hoping we won't notice. Look! A dog! Audiences love dogs.
2. A romance between a middle-aged man and an 11-year-old girl makes me uncomfortable.
Listen, I'm all for bucking tropes and not relying on cliches in storytelling. It's refreshing to see a musical with barely a whiff of a romance (they only briefly nod at a future between Warbucks and his secretary Grace, but there's no kiss, epiphany, or love duet).
Or is there?
Like I said, I'm all for flipping that stuff around, but when Warbucks's love song, his "Til There Was You" moment, is sung to an 11-year-old girl, I get uncomfortable. I'm not imagining this. He sings, in "Something Was Missing,"
Who would need me for me -And then they waltz, you guys. I'm not imagining this. I know it's not sexual. I know the intentions of all involved here were innocent, but that doesn't change what's happening onstage, and you can ignore it if you want, but it makes me uncomfortable.
Need me for me alone?
The world was my oyster,
But where was the pearl?
Who'd dream I would find it
In one little girl?
3. Annie solves world problems in the worst possible way ever.
Okay, so. We're visiting President Roosevelt in his Cabinet Room. His Cabinet Secretaries are there. They outline the problems currently facing their government. And then Annie starts reciting, as if it's not a dadaist response to the Secretaries, "The sun'll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun." Though at first hushed, she is then encouraged to sing out her "solution," in which she is then joined by FDR, Warbucks, and all of the Cabinet Secretaries.
"Tomorrow" is the shittiest proposal to solve the economic and political disasters facing America ever. It's so offensively bad a solution it's laughable, but it's played straight by the cast, with the expectation that we, too, will swallow this ridiculous bromide just as easily as FDR and his staff did. It's insulting.
And we don't get to write it off as easily as saying, "It's a kid's show, a trite kid's show, let it go" - if they're going to purport to talk about joblessness, homelessness, and an impending World War, if these are topics they actually want to bring up and pretend to address in this trite kid's show, problems which desperately need concrete solutions, then I get to wave my bullshit flag all I want.
And - to bring up my point from earlier - I find it almost impossible to swallow that the girl who sings these lyrics to the President as a salve for the Great Depression, is the same girl who retorts to a despondent Molly, "Santa Claus - what's that? Who's he?" Nope. Nope nope nope.