Monday, July 22, 2013

"Annie’s" Long History: From the 1884 Poem to SCR’s Summer Players Production

Annie (Kelsey Bray) and “Sandy."
Annie is one of the world’s most popular musicals.  Everyone knows that.  But who knows how Annie got her start? 

Let’s have a look at the little waif’s antecedents.

She first surfaced in James Whitcomb Riley’s 1884 poem, “Little Orphant Annie,” in which Annie admonishes children, “…the Gobble-uns 'at gits you ef you don't watch out!”  In 1918, the poem was the basis of a silent film of the same name.

Annie as we know her today—the urchin with curly red hair and blank orbs for eyes— made her debut on August 12, 1924 in the New York Daily News as the comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray.  While she got her name from the original poem, there the similarity ended.

In her comic strip version, Annie represented the All-American qualities of individuality and self-reliance.  She recued the dog Sandy, her future companion, from a gang of bullies, fought criminals (she had a great right hook!) and proved her mettle to her future “Daddy,” the billionaire Oliver Warbucks, in the early comic strips.

“Little Orphan Annie” participated in America’s major events and even blowing up a submarine during World War II, and she remained unchanged—orbs, orbs, red dress and all—until Gray’s death in 1968.  Through it all, she embodied the politically Conservative philosophy of her anti-Roosevelt/New Deal/labor unions creator.

Although the comic strip had its detractors, it was enormously popular, inspiring a radio show in 1930 and film adaptations in 1932 and 1938.  After Gray’s death, “Little Orphan Annie” continued for on-and-off for 40 years in the hands of other artists and in reruns of classic strips. Fading slowly, the comic strip drew its last breath on June 13, 2010.

In the meantime, Annie the Broadway musical was born.  Gone were the politically Conservative views; in fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Annie become friends, with the President encouraging his Cabinet to join in singing “Tomorrow.” But the original comic strip spunk was still there, as was the perseverance and hope that Annie has demonstrated in all of her guises through the decades.

You’ll see it in the SCR Summer Players production, and if the characters seem authentic to you, that’s because the young actors in the ensemble—with the help of their dramaturg, Andrew Knight—have researched the era in which the play is set (during the Great Depression) and become familiar with the way their characters lived.  These players don’t just learn their lines, they inhabit their roles.

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