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35 years from Annie to Miss Harrigan – Andrea McArdle

October 29, 2010

For Andrea McArdle, Broadway’s original Annie, a little bit of early stardom can be a blessing and a curse. “In that role, people wanted me to do something I couldn’t do and that was to remain a child. So it’s been weird. Yes, in hindsight, there are things I definitely could have maneuvered and plotted and planned, but when you have really early success like that, it makes me strive to be part of the ensemble because I was always alone and put on the pedestal and put in the private dressing room. Well, the grass is always greener no matter what you have. You always trade that kind of balance. It’s the human condition.” 

Her journey to the latest production with Musical Theatre West, she admits, has been strange. “I mean, what a role to get your first time out. The first piece of theatre I’d ever done was Annie. I was 12 years old when we started, 13 when we opened on Broadway and then 14 ½ when I left the London production.” 

Yet there was no downside. “Absolutely nothing. There wasn’t a thing I could complain about. It was a joyous time. All of my theatrical experiences, except for two or three which we won’t name,” she chuckles, “have been glorious, each and every one. I just love theatre. I love the people. They’re grounded, hard working. We don’t make a lot of money for what we do. It’s a lifestyle and it just fits for me.”
When she faced playing the evil orphanage administrator, Mrs. Hannigan, in Musical Theatre West’s production of Annie, McArdle fondly remembered her Broadway Mrs. Hannigan. “I don’t think that anyone who got to see [Tony winning] Dorothy Loudon in that performance, or any performance for that matter, could forget her. She’s indelible in the same way that Liza [Minelli] or Chita [Rivera] or Judy Garland is indelible. That’s the kind of performer she was, a brilliant comedienne. The hardest thing has been to talk as that character when I have her so much in my head. I finally had a departure late in rehearsals where I finally started feeling like Miss Hannigan will be mine, that I can own the part.”

Dorothy Loudon (photo by Martha Swope)

McArdle says the Broadway cast knew they had something truly special in the making, but until Loudon joined the cast, it wasn’t quite right. “She was the missing link, the last one added to the roster of actors. Anybody can play Hannigan and you can hate her, but Dorothy made it so delicious you loved to hate her. It was a rich, juicy experience. Everything I know about comedy, either Dorothy Loudon or Carol Channing taught me. They taught me everything I know – but not everything they know!”
McArdle turns 47 on November 5, “So I’m actually older than Dorothy was when she started playing the role.” And the movie? Not McArdle’s ideal. “The movie [with Carol Burnett as Mrs. Hannigan] wasn’t the Depression era and it was one of the bad movie musicals. It wasn’t authentic. Tom Meehan’s book needs to be trusted and honored – you don’t have to add schtick and everything else. His words are chosen very carefully. They reflect that era. Sometimes you just have to honor the piece as it’s written. This company [Musical Theatre West] is right on the money.”
McArdle isn’t involved in the production end of this production, “But at this stage in my career, things like directing may be a natural progression. And when your name is above the title, you don’t work as much as your friends who can flip in and out of shows do – the title roles are few and far between. I’m envious of that. These days you have to make marketing sense but now a lot of the movie stars get our jobs. It’d be nice for us to get the jobs first and then put the movie stars in and make even more money.” 

Take Meryl Streep for example. “A friend of mine called me and said there was word that Meryl approached the Annie people and wanted to play Miss Hannigan on Broadway. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I just thought, you know, I’m not surprised. I’d watch her read the telephone book, she’s so talented. But it is a musical. Would I want to see Meryl Streep as Miss Hannigan? Absolutely not. I want to see her do all the great things she does.” 

But it would be interesting, she notes. “When it’s a musical, you have to have people with the chops to sing it. But the acting part comes first. If you have to pick one, I’d rather see a good actress in a musical than a good singer, but it’s about doing it all. It’s hard to find. But I realize now that I always felt out of control as an actor, not having much power and choice and not knowing where you’re going to be – and then I realized that was part of the attraction. If I knew exactly where I was going every day, then that wouldn’t be as much fun. The inconsistency is the only thing that is consistent. I guess that’s what you become addicted to.” 

Melody Hollis, Andrea McArdle & Mikey (photo: Ken Jacques)

She no longer considers herself a better singer than actor. “No, not anymore. I had so much so soon. Who gets asked to play Judy Garland after you’ve done one Broadway show and you’ve had two years on a soap opera as someone’s daughter? My career was really backwards to start up there and I realized there’s nowhere to go but down. My career’s been a roller coaster up and down and I know that’s what this journey’s about. These days you have to be a self-marketer and that’s creepy and will always be creepy to me.” 

She’s old school, she says, and too old to be naturally good on a computer. “I still like to write things down.”
McArdle’s career continued steadily after Annie. She’s appeared in Wizard of Oz, Les Miserables, Oliver, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Fantastiks, Beauty and the Beast, Evita, including Starlight Express. “Three people went into cardiac arrest and I asked if that was because of the lyrics – or the lack of lyrics.” 

And when the talk turns to composers, she would choose “Sondheim. I think that would be every Broadway actor’s choice. I love myself some Kander & Ebb, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hammerstein, Cy Coleman, so many.” 

Looking back, McArdle points to the most enjoyable role she has ever played. “Sally Boles [2001 Cabaret touring company]. Maybe because I played every girl next door. For instance, anyone who knows me would say that if we were casting Grease, 100% on down would cast me as Rizzo. Who did they cast me as five times? Sandy. That’s how people think I was. But when you get down to the heart and soul of it, I’ve always been the second lead, but because of Annie, felt I was cast as the ingénue.” 

She has discovered that ingénues are pretty thankless roles a lot of the time. “It’s nice to sing a couple songs, go back and clean your dressing room and clear out your messages. But I’m used to going offstage only to change your clothes and be in every production number. Roles like Hannigan are so sweet.”
And this version, she says, “is better than any revival I’ve ever seen. It feels very fresh, stripped down and unplugged. They’ve taken out the schmaltzy stuff and gone back to the original book and it works. [Director] Steve Glaudini is fabulous. The whole cast of kids is really strong. They’re the real deal. It’s not homogenized, it’s not the West Coast version. I was very pleasantly surprised.” 

Far more so than the paycheck she received for the double platinum Annie album. “Seven hundred dollars. That was it. Yeah, those were the good ol’ days. You feel worse though for Smokey Robinson and people like that who penned these great works – they all got schystered.”

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