The art of playwright Thomas Meehan lives on with ‘Annie’, ‘Rocky: The Musical’

Annie the Musical
Annie the Musical Issie Swickle Annie LYNN ANDREWS Miss Hannigan GILGAMESH TAGGETT Oliver Warbucks ASHLEY EDLER Grace Farrell GARRETT DEAGON Rooster Hannigan LUCY WERNER Lily Allan Ray Baker FDR AMY BURGMAIER Mrs. Pugh, Ensemble, u/s Miss Hannigan CAMERON MITCHELL BELL Bert, Ensemble ANGELINA CARBALLO July, u/s Molly JOHN CORMIER Ickes, Ensemble, u/s Rooster Hannigan BRIAN COWING Bundles, Ensemble, u/s FDR Adia Dant Pepper, u/s Annie TODD FENSTERMAKER Drake, Ensemble, u/s Warbucks, FDR CHLOE HORNER Swing LILLYBEA IRELAND Tessie EVAN MAYER Swing JAKE MILLS Ensemble, u/s Bert MEGHAN SEAMAN Ensemble, u/s Lily HANNAH SLABAUGH Star to Be, Ensemble SYDNEY SHUCK Kate LILY EMILIA SMITH Ensemble, u/s Grace Farrell LILLY MAE STEWART Molly CHLOE TISO Swing ISABEL WALLACH Duffy Sunny Sandy MACY u/s Sandy – See more at: http://anniethemusical.com/team.php#sthash.16bjwTB8.dpuf
Joan Marcus

When the musical classic ‘Annie’, and the more-recent sensation of ‘Rocky: The Musical’ stages at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Miller Theater and the Walnut Street Theater, both do so with heartwarming stories from playwright Thomas Meehan.

Though he passed in 2017, Meehan left behind some of the Broadway musical form’s most magical efforts such as ‘The Producers’ with Mel Brooks (2001), ‘Hairspray’ (2002) and ‘Elf: The Musical’ (2010), bookended by ‘Annie’ in 1976 and ‘Rocky’ with Sylvester Stallone in 2012.

‘Annie’ director Jenn Thompson—the woman charged with bringing Meehan’s words and the composing team of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s music to new life—has a crucial history, as she played one of the main orphans, Pepper, starting in 1978.

Jenn ThompsonProvided

“I have so many memories that are all over the place, and working on this ‘Annie’ in this capacity has made them all come flooding back,” says Thompson. “Hanging out the young women of the 2022 cast seeing how they navigate this huge iconic job is humbling to watch while recalling my fits-and-starts along the way. I remember hearing the overture, and waiting for the show to start when I did the show. And never once in the years I did ‘Annie’, was I not thrilled. That was the best job I ever had. Forever.”

Even thinking of the 1976 Broadway production’s titular orphan, Philadelphia’s Andrea McArdle, brought a smile to Thompson’s face. “Andrea was the first child actor to sing with such force. No one had ever witnessed kids that could sing like that. Now, there are so many roles like that, shows that have featured powerhouse young girls. Annie was a pioneering show.”

A large part of Annie’ pioneering adventure was Meehan’s script.

“I love that you want to talk about Tom Meehan as he’s never spoken of enough,” says Thompson. “I always knew that this was a terrific unique book musical that stays in your brain. He’s a smart playwright who creates brilliantly constructed work. It’s like a tank, solid in its foundation. And to be able to talk about the bottom of how things were – the Depression, December 1933 – create character development full of changes such as the ride that Daddy Warbucks goes on, and the joy, the depth, that Annie contains. Her character can be reduced to something robotic and chirpy but in reality, she is a happy kid. She uses optimism as a survival tactic – keeping on. Hope is her coping mechanism.”

With that, Thompson finds the future in 2022’s ‘Annie’, bringing her and its themes into the present day.

“There’s a lot of meat on these bones,” says the director. “A lot of musicals drop into a world for two pages, then split. We’re spending time in this world – the orphanage and the mansion – and concentrating on its principles in a way that’s satisfying directorially. I’m not objective about Annie. It lives in my DNA.”

From that DNA and its body memory, Thompson found collaborators with fresh eyes, choreographers who had never seen ‘Annie’, and brought the musical into the relevancy of the moment.

Provided

“We always need ‘Annie’, something and someone that lifts us up and gives us hope. It’s family entertainment without pandering, a balance of the dark and the light – there are bad guys and danger lurking when you consider that Hitler was right around the corner in 1933 – rather than just a cute kid and her dog. Annie’s a unifier at a time when we could use her most.”

Rocky is also a unifier, a fighting man whose courage and resilience not only thrilled its director-choreographer Richard Stafford, but was also the place from where playwright Thomas Meehan found his roots.

“Meehan does bring a really strong structure to the piece, a musical structure that makes a place for its songs in his book,” says Stafford of ‘Rocky: The Musical’. “Meehan brings a strong sensitivity to the material, particularly the relationship between Adrian and Rocky. I have found that through the skilled actors, we have cast as two misfits eyeing each other, that Meehan has allowed us to see their journey, very clearly and very beautifully… their love story is the most important part of this piece.”

The level of rawness and grit brought to this staged Rocky by its director and actors, too, was crucial to its phenomena. Often tagged as a musical for people who don’t like musicals, Stafford’s ‘Rocky’ has “a visceral quality” that draws everyone in.

“The movie is iconic, we know that, but this piece’s music and dance transports us. It transported me, as I learned to box and trained like a boxer for Rocky. And I didn’t grow up with sports as a kid. I did it because I wanted that fight experience to speak to its reality for the actors who were also training at the same boxing club.” Stafford also walked the footpaths of South Philly that Rocky/Stallone walked, or ran, and caught the vibe of what the fighter’s real life struggle was out of the ring as well as within it.

Stafford says that it is the authenticity of Rocky, its street savvy and guttural feel that welcomes those who might not usually view the musical as a night’s entertainment.

“Two men in a ring? That has to feel as if it is two men really slugging it out for life or death for Rocky Balboa. Going the distance is what matters most – to him, to us. There’s a rawness to that. Every man can see themselves as Rocky Balboa.”

‘Annie’ is on stage at Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Miller Theater Oct. 11-16. For tickets and information, visit kimmelculturalcampus.org. ‘Rocky: The Musical’ is on stage at Walnut Street Theater through Nov. 6. For tickets and information, visit walnutstreettheatre.org.

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