Leapin' Lizards! for Annie 2, There May Be No Tomorrow

updated 01/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

As sequels go, the stage musical Annie 2 seemed an even safer bet than most. Much of the talent from the original Annie's Tony-grabbing, six-year Broadway run was back on board, and strong advance ticket sales suggested that the public still had a soft spot for the little carrot-topped optimist and her stout-hearted mutt.

But 15 minutes into a December preview performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., director Martin Charnin, creator of the original' Annie, realized he had more than one dog on his hands. "I felt the metabolism of the audience," he says, "and I knew we had made a major mistake." As children began to squirm in their seats, Charnin says, "I wanted to get up and say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, excuse me. Could you all come back in a week?' "

From the reactions of critics, unanimous in their loathing, a week wouldn't have been nearly enough. Noted Variety: "Not one of the 16 new tunes reaches the levels achieved by the engaging melodies in Annie.... Major retooling will be required for this show to survive."

And major retooling there was. In January the show changed nightly. Working round the clock with librettist Tom Meehan and composer Charles Strouse, Charnin moved scenes, rewrote songs and added some orphans. One evening at midnight, Danielle Findley—the 11-year-old chosen to play Annie after a two-month nationwide search—came back to her hotel room exhausted from the performance, only to find a new script and a new song to learn by the next day.

But no amount of doctoring could cure Annie 2's fundamental ailment: Where the original had been upbeat and sentimental, the sequel, by Charnin's own admission, was "cynical, supersophisticated and wildly adult." Critics charged that the opening night plot—in which Miss Hannigan broke out and wreaked havoc on Annie and Daddy Warbucks—was too "dark," and the characters too "mean-spirited." Audiences were simply stunned. "I felt like Scrooge," says Meehan, who wrote both Annies. "All these people brought their daughters in little velvet dresses to Annie 2 like it was a Christmas present, and we had put a black lump of coal under their tree."

By mid-January, Charnin and his investors—who had ponied up $7 million for the show—decided to close it. Annie 2 was sent back into development and will appear in a revised version next summer at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House (where Annie was first performed). Meanwhile, most of the cast that labored so hard with Charnin these last few months will open as scheduled on Broadway in March—in the original Annie.

"This is the first time in theater history that anything like this has occurred," says Charnin of the quick change. Yet it makes a certain amount of sense. Many of the principals already know their lines. Dorothy Loudon (Miss Hannigan) appeared in the Broadway production, as did Harve Presnell (Daddy Warbucks), though Reid Shelton created the role; Findley has performed Annie in regional theaters. And then there are all those spectacular sets—the only part of the new show that critics liked—which will be reworked to fit the old script. Moreover, Charnin thinks he pulled the plug too early on Annie the first time around. "We could have run another five years," he says. "The mistake was allowing the film version to be released the last year we were on. We were competing head-to-head with a $6 movie."

If Charnin learned anything from his travails with Annie reincarnate, it's that his old standby still enjoys a lot of goodwill. "People came roaring into the Kennedy Center expecting to see Annie 1," he says. "So we'll give it to them."

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