"I got buxom," beams the 5'4½", 110-lb. McArdle. "People seem shocked to see me grown up like this. I think they still expect me to be a little girl in a curly wig. They don't expect me to be sexy." But that's exactly what she is. A theater veteran at the age of 23, Andrea has metamorphosed from a tyke into a looker. For McArdle, Starlight Express gave her the chance to break out of her cutie-pie image. "I've always been cast as the ingenue," she says. "I love this role because it's a lot hotter. I get to be voluptuous."
She also gets to show off some finely tuned muscles. A gymnast and skater since she was a child, Andrea added power lifting to her regimen, pressing 100-pound weights 30 times every day. She needed the conditioning for Starlight, in which she and the other actors play train cars who compete in grueling cross-country races. Performing the entire two-and-a-half-hour show on skates is demanding; whipping like pin-balls through the set's myriad ramps and tunnels is dangerous. McArdle got a concussion during rehearsal when she fell over another skater, but has no complaints. "This show," she says, "is a giant playroom."
Though she's powered herself back into the limelight, Andrea's career seemed in danger of derailment after Annie. She opened the show in April 1977 and became Broadway's youngest Tony nominee. Then, after playing three months in London in 1978, she said goodbye to Annie. "I got tired of being a kid. It was like let's grow up. Now." After starring as Judy Garland that year in an NBC-TV movie, Rainbow, McArdle returned home to Philadelphia, spending the next five years sporadically appearing on talk shows and concert tours while going to school. "I was too old to play Annie and too young to be somebody else," she says. Moving permanently back with her family of four was McArdle's own decision—and, she feels, the best she ever made. "I think I'm a lot more normal person because I went back to school and went to horrible proms and wore those depressing wrist corsages just like everybody else," says Andrea. She didn't miss the spotlight. "It's hard being a child star. To have to grow up in front of everybody in your awkward years is tough. I could have done a TV series and cut a children's album, but I'm glad I didn't. What's a kid going to sing? My Man?"
After graduating from high school in 1981 McArdle made her nightclub debut in New York with They Say It's Wonderful, a tribute to Irving Berlin. In 1984 she joined Carol Channing and Leslie Uggams in the review Jerry's Girls, in which she finally got to sing smoky, sophisticated songs. "It was great wearing slinky gowns," says Andrea. "It was the first time I got to play a woman."
Well-adjusted and down to earth, McArdle now has a large studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side and a boyfriend, Randy Seltzer, 31, a plastics manufacturer and owner of three health clubs. The two started dating a year and a half ago after they met while playing racquetball. "The first time I saw her, I saw this gorgeous body walk by," says Randy. "I fell in love with her because she's very real and very normal."
But there's still a touch of Annie in Andrea. Her hair is as red as it used to be, and there's still a dog at her side—her pet terrier, Walker. And she's still an Annie-style optimist. Although critics generally loathed Starlight Express, McArdle isn't bothered by the brickbats. "The show is fluff," she admits, "but it doesn't really matter what they say about this one. It's critic-proof. It's like a ride at Disneyland." The grown-up kid is right. A week after it opened, Starlight racked up $560,618, the highest weekly gross in Broadway history.
Ten years ago she was the world's most famous ragamuffin. Audiences flocked to hear the urchin in the red fright wig belt out Tomorrow. Now Andrea McArdle is back on Broadway, and she's virtually unrecognizable. Roller skating onto the stage with the ease of a professional athlete, Andrea is the sexy Smoking Car in the $8 million British pop import Starlight Express. Yet somewhere inside that centerfold body is the little girl from the past. When she opens those saucer-huge eyes there's a hint of who she used to be, and when she breaks into song, it's clear. Leapin' lizards! Annie is back.