Andrea McArdle revisits ‘Annie’ as Miss Hannigan

Andrea McArdle as Miss Hannigan in the Axelrod Performing Arts Center prouction of “Annie.” (PHOTO: Rick Kowalski)

Once the “Law and Order” police procedural franchises began filming in New York City nearly three decades ago, so many Broadway actors booked TV guest appearances and listed them in their Playbill biographies that it became a running joke.

Not so for Andrea McArdle.

“I’m the only actor who has never been on “Law and Order” she said. “I was offered roles like the governor’s wife when what I really wanted to play was the heroine addict.”McArdle, who forever will be known for playing the title character in the original 1977 Broadway production of “Annie” still prefers the stage to any other mode of entertainment.

“Besides,” she said in a recent telephone interview,“ I started on TV doing loads of commercials.”

That TV exposure got her a job on the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow” and on the talent show “Al Alberts Showcase” produced in her hometown of  Philadelphia. She also booked several appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the late ‘70s as well as the “Mike Douglas Show,” and played Arnold Horshack’s younger sister in “Welcome Back Kotter.”

Her big break, of course, was “Annie.” She became the youngest performer ever to be nominated for a Tony Award as Best Lead Actress in a Musical. She lost to co-star Dorothy Loudon who played Miss Hannigan, the hard-drinking, man-hungry matron of an orphanage.

And through Nov. 18 (2018), McArdle will play Miss Hannigan in the Axelrod Performing Arts Center production of “Annie”  in Ocean Township (NJ).

It will be her third time doing so. In 2010 she played Hannigan at the North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh and at Musical Theatre West, Long Beach, Calif.

“I’m expecting to be funny,” she said. “I’m a true blue comedian and everything I do is off the cuff.

It was only her second day of rehearsal when we spoke and the discussion ranged wide. The rest of the cast had begun rehearsals two weeks earlier, she said, and she is impressed.

Andrea McArdle (from left) as Miss Hannigan, Kate Marshall as Grace and Echo Devo Picone as Annie. (PHOTO: Rick Kowalski)
Andrea McArdle (from left) as Miss Hannigan, Kate Marshall as Grace and Echo Devo Picone as Annie. (PHOTO: Rick Kowalski)

“Echo (Devo Picone) is playing Annie and she’s 43 pounds of talent,” McArdle said. “Others have graduated from top theater schools, didn’t join the union (Actors’ Equity), and they’re getting lead roles.” 

McArdle, who turns 55 on Monday (Nov. 5), will spend part of the day participating in the memorial service for Thomas Meehan, one of Broadway’s most prolific and successful book writers. They include “Annie,” “The Producers” (2001, with Mel Brooks) and “Hairspray” (2002, Mark O’Donnell). Each ran more than 2,000 performances and won Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical.

“I’m not sure if I’m singing ‘Tomorrow’ or ’N.Y.C.’” she said. “But I’ll recite the alphabet if they want me to.”

Martin Charnin, co-creator, lyricist, and original director of “Annie”  hosts the event at 2 p.m. at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York City, open to the public.

McArdle said it doesn’t matter if she’s singing and dancing on Broadway with an orchestra or in a small cabaret with just a few musicians. 

“East coast. West coast. Vegas. It doesn’t matter,” said McArdle whose daughter made her a grandmother earlier this year.

But she does prefer to originate a role rather than replace a departing actor. 

“Creating the character for the first time is lot easier,” she explained. 

Andrea McArdle and the ensemble of little girls. (PHOTO: Rick Kowalski)

Besides “Annie,” she created the Broadway roles of Ashley in ”Starlight Express” (1987) and Margy Frake in “State Fair” (1996). She was a replacement for Fantine in “Les Misérables” (1993) and for Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” (1999).

Belle has a sweet voice and McArdle said she does not. With a full orchestra behind her, she had only one chance  to convince Roy Disney and Michael Eisner (senior executive and Chief Executive Officer, respectively) for The Walt Disney Company,  she could handle the part. 

“I don’t do scales. I just belt. That’s called being a lazy actress but that’s what I’d done for so many years,” she said. “You used to be either a soprano or a belter. For so many years no one wrote for mixed voices.

“It was a challenge, an adjustment,” she explained. “And we weren’t miked back then. ‘Evita’ (1979) was the first show to have sound design.

“You had to go way, way, way down and project yourself,” she said. “But I love the whole process.”

But the process and her career might have looked a lot different if it hadn’t been for Mike Nichols, the film and theater director, producer, actor, and comedian.

It was late summer in 1976 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and the company was preparing a brand new musical called “Annie.” At the helm was the theater’s Executive Director Michael P. Price. Kristen Vigard was in the title role and  McArdle was in the chorus.

“Mike Nichols and his wife Dianne Sawyer were in the area and decided to stop by and see how the show was going,” McArdle explained. 

He watched a rehearsal and pronounced it “the worst idea ever.”

“He said there were so many things wrong,” she recalled. “They had cast a real redhead who had a sweet voice and there were no body mikes then. 

“He said they had cast Oliver when what they really needed was the Artful Dodger,” McArdle explained. “I was a real tomboy. I loved sports. I was from Philly and had attitude.”

She was moved into the role of the orphan who is adopted by a billionaire businessman. Vigard became McArdle’s Broadway understudy.

“My mom made sure she had a job” Mc Ardle said. “It was just Kristin and her mom, and my mom wanted to make sure she had a weekly paycheck.”