Two classic musicals, Annie (1977-1983) and Evita (1979-1983), return to Broadway this season. Since their original Broadway runs, both musicals have been frequently performed by local and regional repertory companies, community theaters, colleges, and high schools.
Popular poet James Whitcomb Riley issued “Little Orphant Annie” in 1885. It must have remained popular for some time, because Harold Gray based his popular newspaper cartoon strip Little Orphan Annie on it. The strip debuted in 1924 and, according to a poll in Fortune, was the most popular strip by 1937. Like Al Capp with his Li’l Abner,, Gray used the strip to comment on current events. Gray died in 1968, but the strip survived until 2010.
During Gray’s lifetime, Little Orphan Annie inspired a number of other works, including a radio show in 1930 and movies in 1932 and 1938. Annie opened on Broadway less than a decade after Gray’s death. Given the length of time required from original conception of a musical until it reaches Broadway, Gray’s own work must have been fresh on the minds of everyone involved. Thomas Meehan wrote the book for the musical, Charles Strouse the music, and Martin Charnin the lyrics.
The story takes place in the 1930s against the backdrop of the New Deal. Eleven-year-old Annie, hoping that her parents are still alive, manages to escape from an orphanage run by Miss Hannigan, who hates orphans. Eventually she winds up as the Christmas guest of “Daddy” Warbucks, who at first is not pleased to have her around. Soon enough, they come to like each other and he promises to help her find her parents.
Annie sings on the radio twice, once at the insistence of President Roosevelt himself. On the first occasion, Warbucks announces a $50,000 reward to her parents if they come forward. That get’s Miss Hannigan’s brother and girlfriend plotting to claim to be her parents in order to claim the money. Roosevelt and his Secret Service come to the rescue, identifying Annie’s real parents, who died when she was still a baby. The Secret Service arrests the imposters and Miss Hannigan and everyone sings the praises of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Among the songs in the show, “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” remain the most popular. Here’s a video of “Tomorrow” from the soundtrack of the 1999 Disney movie, with stills from various professional stage productions from 1977 to 2006.
Annie (Original 1977 Broadway Cast)
Lyricist Tim Rice heard a radio play about Eva Peron, former Argentine First Lady, in 1972. Shortly afterward, he saw a TV film about her and thought she would be an interesting subject for a musical. In fact, he became so fascinated that he traveled to Buenos Aires to learn as much about her as he could.
Rice had already worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar and tried to interest Lloyd Webber in another collaboration. At first, Lloyd Webber rejected it in favor of a project with a different partner. When that flopped, he returned to Rice and began working on what later became Evita.
As they had with Jesus Christ Superstar, the pair released a recording with the music before it was ever presented on stage. In most of the world the Evita album was more popular than its very successful predecessor. One excerpt, Julie Covington’s “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” reached no. 1 on the British singles chart shortly after its release in October 1976. Several other songs also became international hits.
Covington later turned down the chance to create the role of Evita on stage, but here’s a video of her performance on the concept album:
Lloyd Webber and Rice wanted Harold Prince to direct the stage version, but he was not immediately available. Rehearsals started in May 1978 and clearly went very well; the musical opened in London’s West End at the end of June. The Broadway premiere took place the following year.
Although Rice had studied plenty of original documents in Buenos Aires, he seems to have relied most heavily on an anti-Peronist biography by Mary Main, Evita: The Woman with the Whip. Peron’s reputation within Argentina remains complicated, and Peronists were in power when the 1996 movie Evita appeared. The government released its own film to counter what it considered distortions in Rice’s lyrics.
The musical opens in a Buenos Aires movie theater, where an announcer interrupts the film to tell the audience that Eva Perón had died. The heartbroken audience sings a Requiem in Latin, but the cynical narrator Che has his own take on the national grief. Che, by the way, was not intended by Rice to represent Che Guevara. That was Harold Prince’s idea. Most other productions consider this character a more anonymous man in the street.
Che then narrates Eva’s life, beginning in 1934 when she was 15. She sleeps with a tango singer, blackmails him into taking her to Buenos Aires, then dumps him. Sleeping her way to the top, she becomes a well known model and actress. Meanwhile, Col. Juan Perón is clawing his way up the political ladder.
The two meet in the town of San Juan, where the colonel has organized a charity concert to benefit the victims of a recent earthquake. Of course, they sleep together. Eva moves in with him and sends his former mistress packing. After being promoted to general, Perón runs for President with Eva’s encouragement.
Perón wins a sweeping victory, and Eva sings “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from the balcony of the presidential palace to tell her adoring fans that she had made a mistake seeking fame and glory. Now she seeks only to serve the Argentine people. At every step of the way, Che takes a dimmer view of her motives. Eventually they have a confrontation, but Eva has cancer and not much longer to live.
Meanwhile, the military tires of her meddling in politics and her high profile and demands that the President force her to leave politics. She responds by deciding to run for Vice President. That puts Perón in a predicament, because he loves her dearly, but fears being ousted in a coup.
Eventually, her health forces her out of politics, and she bids farewell in a radio broadcast in which she asks again swears her love for the people and asks forgiveness for any mistakes she made. She dies, so the musical ends as it began. Che has the last disparaging word.