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If you watched the 2009 Tony Awards Sunday night, you saw something amazing: the Best Actor in a Musical award was presented to the three impressive dancers sharing the role of Billy Elliot in Elton John’s musical version of the 2000 film. The boys’ win provided one of the evening’s most touching moments, one applauded by those viewers who have marveled at the incredible ability of these three young men to carry such a large-scale production on their adolescent shoulders.
The win begs comparison to another wildly popular musical that relied on children for its immense success: Annie, which ran on Broadway from 1977 to 1983. Annie was fresh in our minds because over the weekend we watched a fascinating documentary about life behind the scenes of this show-turned-cultural phenomenom. Life After Tomorrow—the 2006 documentary co-directed by former onstage orphan Julie Stevens and Gil Cates, Jr.—chronicles the experience of 40 girls (now women) who played Little Orphan Annie and her fellow moppets, to great acclaim and sudden, overwhelming stardom. The film reminds us that the show launched the careers of many actresses still working today, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Molly Ringwald, among others. And several of the girls—Danielle Brisebois, April Lerman, Allison Smith—had successful television careers. But for many more, Annie was the peak in an otherwise limited acting career. The sometimes heartbreaking film explores how these women have coped—some more successfully than others—with the abrupt return to “real life,” often precipitated by their inevitable physical maturation and (sometimes) un-wished for growth spurts. (Yes, Annie had a height limit.)
Sarah Jessica Parker as Annie
Annie exploded onto the scene in the late 1977, to the immediate delight of little girls across the country who memorized the cast album, led by the first Broadway Annie, Andrea McArdle. (McArdle was herself a replacement for very first Annie in the pre-Broadway test run at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Now the answer to a trivia-question, Kristen Vigard seems to have come to terms with being replaced.) The Broadway success spawned national tours that sold out across the country, a movie was made in 1982 (directed by the legendary John Huston), and more little girls became part of the Annie sisterhood. In many cases, the girls’ families were split apart by divorce; often, the parent left behind to care for the rest of the family was resentful of the one living the glamorous life.
And glamorous it was. The onstage orphans—the youngest of which, Danielle Brisebois, was only nine years old—grew up fast. The instant fame of the Broadway cast meant they were able to become regulars at Studio 54 (!) and they spent most of their time exploring their home-away-from-home: the seedy, pre-Giuliani Theatre District, complete with prostitutes, drug dealers, and more. In the film, much is made of the parental presence—or lack thereof—looking back, SJP can’t remember where her parents were while she rollerskated alone around 42nd Street, and no one remembers schoolwork being a priority. What people do remember is the potential for viciousness among the stage mothers vying for their daughters’ time in the spotlight. (The women also remember the choreography for such songs as You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile; one ex-orphan predicts that even if she gets Alzheimer’s in her old age, she will still be able to do every last kick from the routine.)
Right now, children all over the country are likely preparing for auditions for the inevitable road tours of Billy Elliot the Musical. Things have certainly changed—most notably, productions with children are now closely monitored regarding education, and the eight performances a week are shared by three Billys instead of resting on one overworked kid. But parents would still do well to watch this film as a behind-the-scenes cautionary tale. It’s also extremely entertaining, especially for those of us who hated Miss Hannigan and sang “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” at the top of our lungs incessantly (and most likely out of tune).
Life After Tomorrow is one of the films available—for free, in its entirety—on the recently-launched Tribeca Film Channel on YouTube. Over the next few weeks, we will be exploring the rest of the catalogue, but you can check it out for yourself by subscribing (for free) today.
Watch the trailer now:
If you want an earwig that won’t go away, check out this scene from the 1982 big-screen version: