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FEATURE: The Children’s Theatre Company’s Bet on Warbucks – Annie Warbucks

The cast of the musical Annie, now playing at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Lola Ronning (center) alternates as the titular little redheaded girl. Photo by Glen Stubbe Photography.

Doors are open again at The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After many long months of morphing content online and adapting classes, the UnitedHealth Group Stage is again alive with the sounds of…tomorrow?

Yes, “Tomorrow” – the infamously upbeat solo delivered by the American musical theatre’s most famous redhead role: Annie Warbucks. Just as the source comic strip Little Orphan Annie debuted in 1924, in the aftermath of the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, CTC is returning from the present pandemic with a revival of the musical Annie.

2021-2022 is a conservative season for most large theatre companies as they try to woo audiences back to live entertainment after 20 months of mostly streamed content. This fall, theatre marquees are advertising classics all around the Twin Cities: Fiddler on the Roof at the Ordway, Oklahoma! at the Orpheum, and (of course) A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. Thus, it’s little surprise to see CTC joining the club with a perennial favorite like Annie.

The August 26, 1924 installment of the comic strip Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray, which provided the source material for the stage musical Annie (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan).

Many fans of the newspaper comic and its compilations best remember Little Orphan Annie for its Great Depression-era incarnation, in part because these strips were reprinted in U.S. newspapers from 1974-1979. The reprinting of Little Orphan Annie‘s classic strips in the 1970s was a response to several artists’ unsuccessful attempts to assume the mantle of strip creator Harold Gray after he passed away in 1968. This retro move kindled something of a revival: previously slacking newspaper syndication increased, and a new generation of readers became acquainted with the comic’s golden years.

In this resyndicated run of strips, Gray did not pull many punches. Far from living the high life, Daddy Warbucks is financially ruined by the Depression, forced to take menial work. Then tragedy tears Daddy and Annie apart as World War 2 looms on the horizon and eventually drafts its characters into all sorts of wartime actions. This is heavy stuff, but relatable for many old fans during the depression, and for many new ones during the economic unrest leading into the 1979 energy crisis.

Orphan vs. authority. Audrey Mojica (alternating as Annie) and Emily Gunyou Halaas as orphanage director Miss Hannigan. Photo by Kaitlin Randolph.

Around the same time that the resyndication began, a writer for The New Yorker named Thomas Meehan was approached by composer-lyricist Charles Strouse of Bye Bye Birdie fame. Strouse had a question: was Meehan interested in collaborating on a musical? Only after the latter said “yes” did Strouse reveal the sort of musical that he wanted them to write: an adaptation of Little Orphan Annie. Although Meehan had grown up reading the strip, he almost dismissed the idea offhand as impossible to adapt – but Strouse was persistent.

Eventually, Meehan decided that the way forward was to look past Little Orphan Annie‘s brush with verismo during the Great Depression. Instead, the musical draws its inspiration from the comic’s early years, in which the titular orphan Annie is plucked from an orphanage and adopted by the wealthy Daddy Warbucks. Naturally, it’s not an entirely smooth path, but it ends well, and as neatly wrapped as one of the 1920s storylines.

JoeNathan Thomas as Daddy Warbucks and Audrey Mojica as the recently adopted Annie. The name “Warbucks” is a literal description in the comics: Daddy Warbucks made his first fortune as a manufacturer during the first world war. Photo by Kaitlin Randolph.

The path forward now clear, the pair teamed up with Martin Chamin – an original Broadway cast member of West Side Story-turned-lyricist and director. Four years later, Annie was opening at the Goodspeed Opera House. The next year, it opened on Broadway, eventually racked up 2,377 performances. With an accessible score and multiple roles for child actors, it became a community, educational, and regional theatre, with an estimated 700-900 productions in the United States per pre-pandemic year. It’s a pretty safe bet for a post-pandemic return to the UnitedHealth Group Stage.

And what about that writer from The New Yorker? Meehan went on to collaborate on the screenplay for Spaceballs, wrote the libretto for the musical Hairspray, worked on the stage version of The Producers, and co-wrote Elf the Musical‘s book, among others – but it all started with a little red-haired orphan girl.

The Children’s Theatre Company production of Annie plays through January 9 at CTC’s UnitedHealth Group Stage in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 


Twin Cities Arts Reader