By Melissa Hart
The golden lights of the Shubert Theater, circa 1978, dimmed over a packed house. Onstage, seven orphans in ragged brownish pinafores appeared on scrawny cots. One stood up. “Annie,” the other girls called her. In the midst of pain and grief over her lost parents, she cuddled a smaller girl and sang to her about the mother surely sewing her “a closet of clothes,” the father paying bills just before they came to get their baby . . . maybe.
I clutched the program in my eight-year old hands and blinked, hard. My younger siblings perched on the red velvet seats beside me, my mother on the other side. She’d recently lost custody of us for coming out as a lesbian—in the homophobic 70s, a judge had ruled that we were to live with our wealthy volatile father except for two weekends a month.
In her VW bus on the 90-minute drive between her home and his, every other Friday and Sunday evening, my mother pushed in the eight-track to Annie and we belted the songs to mixed delight and horror from other open-window drivers on Pacific Coast Highway. Late at night in my father’s house, I lay awake with the lyrics to “Maybe” swirling through my head. I felt orphaned.
What is it about this little musical that perseveres? Born of a 1924 comic strip about a millionaire who—in a bizarre p.r. move—hosts an orphan over Christmas and decides to adopt her, it’s endured various incarnations over almost a century.
The version I saw as a child starred Patricia Ann Patts in a red dress and a wig of orange curls, cuddling a dog (it’s real, Mom!) on stage. Since then, Annie‘s been the subject of countless stage productions and at least three films—one made for TV, two feature—proving that in the midst of dystopian thrillers and fantasy blockbusters, we still gravitate toward simple rags-to-riches redemption tales.
As I grew into a savvy urban adolescent, however, I hardened my heart against the musical’s saccharine sentiment. What kind of a world did I live in that would separate a mother from her small children because she lived in a romantic relationship with another woman? Why—in the midst of my father’s raging—would I want to immerse myself in the fictional world of mistreated orphans, most with no hope of ever finding a benevolent Daddy Warbucks?
My seven-year old brother became obsessed with the 1982 film version. This one starred Carol Burnett as the pathetically-ferocious orphanage owner, Miss Hannigan, with Tim Curry as her sadistic brother. Magnificent when they hit the screen, the film struck me as entirely forgettable, otherwise. And yet my brother watched it over and over on the VCR for weeks.
“I like the dancing,” he said when I suggested another movie, but I suspected he felt his own connection with the orphans and longed for our mother’s gentle home.
My brother has Down syndrome. Seventeen years later, he moved in with my mother and her partner after my father moved across the country and permanently relinquished him. That year, the made-for-TV version of Annie came out.
This one attempts to incorporate an interracial cast, with Audra MacDonald as Oliver Warbucks’s African American secretary. Perhaps this inspired director Will Gluck to cast an Anglo secretary to Jamie Foxx’s Daddy and Quvenzhané Wallis’ Annie in the 2014 feature film.
Having read scathing reviews, my husband and I reluctantly took our eight-year-old daughter to see it this past Christmas. She didn’t care about sloppy choreography or a stupid subplot involving some incomprehensible commentary on cell phones; she sat with her big brown eyes fixed on the screen as Wallis sang “Maybe” to another little girl, and reached for my hand.
The hard shell around my heart cracked open, and tears welled up in my eyes. In this new version of the story, Annie is a foster child just like my daughter had been before we adopted her… just like the 130,000 kids across the U.S. relinquished by their parents and in need of a permanent family. Wallis plays a girl in a home with several other girls who—because they’re older than four—have little chance of ever finding a permanent home. The revised lyrics to “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” reflect the reality of adoptive parents who mostly want babies and toddlers.
“No one cares for you a bit
When you’re a foster kid.”
“Why did Annie’s parents leave her?”
After the film, our daughter’s questions flew thick and fast. “Why did she have to live in a foster home?” “Was my foster mom mean like Miss Hannigan?” And most troubling, “Why didn’t Daddy Warbucks adopt all the foster kids?”
We bought her the soundtrack, and she listened to it over and over on her red plastic karaoke machine, belting out the songs into a little yellow microphone. It’s “Tomorrow” that’s her favorite—not “Maybe.” She knows where her birth mother is, and why she can’t take care of her. She’s had us as adoptive parents for seven years now, paying the bills and sewing her closets of clothes, calling her “baby” with adoration in our eyes.
“The part that gets me the most,” my husband tells me, “is the Tomorrow song when I think of our daughter. I want so much for her to have that attitude towards life. Makes me teary just thinking about it. The rest of it just gets to me. Again, and again, and again, and again . . .”
Still, I remind him, at least we’re no longer hearing “Let it Go” from Frozen 20 times a day.
This newest version of Annie isn’t going to win many awards, but maybe that doesn’t matter. The story speaks to so many of us, whether we’ve been orphaned in the strictest sense of the word, or by varying nebulous degrees. Lots of us have lost our parents—literally or figuratively—and there’s something about the cheery pre-teen orphan that offers comfort . . . if we can just hang on ’til tomorrow.
It’s this song that my daughter chose to sing at her school’s talent show last week. All of four feet, with Wallis’ same big hair and wide smile, she crooned into the microphone surrounded by K-8 classmates who rewarded her a capella solo with applause and cheering.
Some of the older kids and parents and teachers know that for the first 19 months of her life, my daughter had a pretty hard-knock life. They see the photos of adoptable foster children in the grocery store; they may even donate toys and coats to them around the holidays. For two minutes on stage, she became a symbol of those young people who, for one reason or another need a little extra love. With a poise I’d never seen before in public, she sang:
“When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely,
I just stick up my chin and grin and say,
The sun’ll come out tomorrow . . .”
That evening, she reminded us all in that crowded, hot auditorium to muster up a little more optimism, a little more compassion for everyone, Annie-style.
Melissa Hart is the author of the memoirs Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2014) and Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches for the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon. www.melissahart.com