Annie, the classic Broadway musical about a little orphan girl, has been remade into a high-budget hip-hop movie musical, set to arrive in theaters this Christmas. Beasts of the Southern Wild actress Quvenzhane’ Wallis plays the title role, and Jamie Foxx portrays Will Stacks (the modern rendition of Daddy Warbucks). This film will almost certainly be measured up against a long history of films and musical productions based on Annie; in the last 90 years, there have been several plays and films created around the story of the spunky red-headed orphan. Though it remains to be seen if this remake will win big at the box office, early reactions include heavy criticism of Cameron Diaz’s over-acted Miss Hannigan, and harsh judgment of the obviously auto-tuned rendition of hit song, Tomorrow.
Throughout history, Annie has been an often coveted role. The search for Broadway’s most recent Annie for the 2012 revival had thousands of girls out in line to give their best 16 bars. But for the hip-hop remake, there was no cattle call; originally, the role belong to Willow Smith, most known for being the daughter of Will Smith, whose biggest claim to fame is perhaps the hip-hop hit Whip My Hair. However, it can take years of development to get a film off the ground, and Smith is more of a young woman than a little girl these days. Fortunately, thanks to the success of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhane’ Wallis was able to become an established star just in time to capture the leading role of Annie.
As a character, “Little Orphan Annie” has captured the hearts of millions since her first appearance in a 1924 comic strip. In 1976, the world was first introduced to the Broadway rendition of the heartwarming story, with the added bonus of two acts of rousing musical numbers. America immediately took to Annie’s catchy tunes; the show ran on Broadway for nearly six years, and has had two Broadway revival runs, one in 1997, the other from 2012 to January of this year. In 1982, the now beloved movie musical of Annie was released, starring Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, and brilliant comedienne, Carol Burnett. In the three decades since, so many little girls have sung the tune Tomorrow at auditions around the country that the song remains as forbidden (do to overuse) as the current hit Let It Go from Frozen.
Maybe the public is ready for a new take on the classic rags-to-riches story of Annie. In this hip-hop remake, some artistic liberties have been taken, as indicated by the recently released movie trailer. The orphanage has been scrapped, replaced by an overcrowded foster home, a setting that probably lines up more with what the system currently looks like, and billionaire philanthropist Oliver Warbucks (known in the Broadway musical as Daddy Warbucks) has been turned into a mayoral candidate. Pop-culture references have been updated- trailer indicates a specific change from the original script- instead of not knowing about Santa Claus, an orphan asks who George Clooney is. But perhaps the most noticeable choice is that the previously white main characters, are black. Annie has iconically known as a little white girl (with red hair), and this bold move is a brilliant step towards building some diversity into the (not always diverse) world of musical theater. Hopefully the diversity will end up being noted more then the use of auto-tune.
Though several newer musicals like Book of Mormon, AIDA, and The Lion King feature predominantly african-american casts, many older musicals are not as diverse. Even seeing some more ethnically diverse choices in movie musicals ought to be seen as progress for the future of what Broadway looks like. Some shows have made choices to practice “color-blind” casting, which can mean that even characters that are related to one another (by blood) may be of different races. While that progressive view can be helpful in making Broadway something that is for everyone, Annie’s depiction of a black foster child trying to get adopted by a wealthy black man certainly looks like progress, both for the way black characters are depicted, and for showing the world that not only white people star in musicals. That said, it is unfortunate to see, or more accurately, hear, that the film seems to have relied on auto-tune to bring out the vocals.
Certainly, for Broadway fans everywhere, the release of yet another movie musical is always triumphant news. This year also brings movie versions of Into the Woods and The Last Five Years, and notable musicals on screen in the last decade have included RENT, Chicago, and Les Miserables. Over the years folks have claimed that musical theater is dying, but if what is playing at the movies is any indication, it is actually alive and well. Often fueled by big names (like Jamie Foxx in this Annie remake) movie musicals are a modern innovation that seem destined to keep musicals alive and bring up another generation of Broadway show-tune lovers. Will this new generation be emulating auto-tuned hip-hop versions of classic songs? Maybe.
Opinion by Bonnie Sludikoff