21st Century 'Annie': Director Will Gluck reimagines the comics' irrepressible orphan for a new era

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Can that ten-year-old African-American girl tearing through midtown Manhattan traffic on a Citi Bike be “Little Orphan Annie,” the pupil-less but purposeful Pollyanna in the bright red dress and matching curls from Depression-era America of the 1930s?

Indeed, it can—and is, according to director-adapter-producer Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends with Benefits), who has not remade the landmark musical as much as radically reimagined it.

The Annie of this occasion is Quvenzhané Wallis, who in 2013 became the youngest person ever nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Hushpuppy, the resilient, unsinkable bayou girl of Beasts of the Southern Wild. After an undemanding bit as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s daughter in 2013’s Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, she returned to the star spot for another round of American survival games.

Willow Smith was to play the part originally when her parents, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, were in the driver’s seat as producers and Ryan Murphy was in the director’s chair, but young Wallis’ awesome entry into prominence triggered some serious second thoughts. The Smiths stayed aboard, however, and produced the film with James Lassiter, Caleeb Pinkett, Shawn Carter (aka Jay Z), Jay Brown and Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith. The remake’s original screenplay by Emma Thompson dissolved under the extensive rewrites of Aline Brosh McKenna and director Gluck.

Thomas Meehan’s Tony-winning musical book, which connected Dickensian hard times to the American Depression and gave Harold Gray’s parentless waif an Oliver Twist-y ragamuffin appeal, is pretty much sacrificed to a from-the-ground-up new plot more in step with the times. As Wallis’ Annie informs her history class in the film’s opening scene, today is just like the Depression—only without the Internet.

Likewise in tune with modern times and the marketplace is the memorable Tony-winning score by Charles Strouse (music) and director Martin Charnin (lyrics).

“There are a couple of the old songs that we didn’t touch,” says Gluck, “but a fair number we did change the melody and lyric a little bit. If you know the old songs, you’ll get it. You’ll know it’s from the original, but we kind of made it our own as well.

“Most of the original lyrics were about the New Deal and the Depression era. When you put the film in 2014, it would be strange referring to FDR and Herbert Hoover.”

Musically, “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” receive the biggest and most repetitive showcasing, while  “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” is reduced to almost a chant of its primary hook, as are “Easy Street” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”—but to a lesser degree. Overseeing the songs are veteran music producer Greg Kurstin and composer-singer Sia, who have given this classic score a contemporary spin and contributed three new songs of their own to the mix.

“Glee” choreographer Zachary Woodlee, 37, was chosen over more established Main Stem choreographers to present the musical numbers. “We didn’t want Annie-Broadway choreography for the movie,” explains the 42-year-old director. “We wanted the movement to be real for every song and every situation. ‘Hard-Knock Life’ is used for the girls cleaning up their crappy little apartment. They never dance just to dance. They dance to clean, with the brooms and the mops and the water.” Woodlee puts his Stomp on the ditty, making it something of an epic percussion exercise.

“The wonderful thing about Annie is that the story’s great, the characters are great, the songs are great,” says Gluck. “You’re starting with a solid foundation. The bones are all fantastic, so we just threw a modern covering over it. It’s markedly different, and yet, at the end of the day, it’s still the Annie that everybody knows and loves.”
 
Of course, some of the characters operate under different names. The Depression-vintage industrialist who adopts Annie is no longer Daddy Warbucks but Will Stacks, who made his $4.7 billion creating the largest cellular network in the world.

“I didn’t want to make him a war profiteer like Daddy Warbucks—that wouldn’t fly today—so I decided to turn him into a cellphone billionaire,” Gluck explains. “In our version, he’s head of a mobile communications company who decides to run for mayor of New York City because he thinks that that would be good for business—and when he runs into Annie, he thinks that she would be good for his campaign—much the same way that Daddy Warbucks thought Annie would improve his image.”

Jamie Foxx, who gave an Academy Award accounting of blues legend Ray Charles, gets his first chance to sing since Dreamgirls and has been dealt solid numbers by the original creatives—plus two numbers written expressly for this film: “The City’s Yours,” which he sings while giving Annie a helicopter overview of Manhattan, and “Who Am I?” which he shares with Annie and the notoriously boozy Miss Hannigan.

Bad Teacher is apparently enough to qualify Cameron Diaz to play this movie’s Miss Hannigan, who now runs (into the ground) a foster home rather than an orphanage. (“I just wanted it to reflect more of what’s happening in New York City today, which is more foster-parenting,” Gluck offers as an explanation for the sudden change.)

“Cameron was damn near the top of the list of the people we considered for playing our reimagined Miss Hannigan,” admits the director. “Just think about it: It’s physical comedy, you have to care about her, you have to sing. There’s not that many people out there who can do all three. Cameron was fearless. She made the character hard-living, just as Carol Burnett did [in John Huston’s 1982 film].

“We’ve given her a much more grounded reality. She used to be a singer and had a brush of fame when she was in her early 20s, and she has gone downhill since—a woman whose dreams have gone by, and she’s forced to become a foster parent to make ends meet. It’s the Miss Hannigan that everyone loves, but a little different.

“The old Miss Hannigan really didn’t have a big arc. In our movie, Cameron has a huge arc to play. She goes from this place that’s basically broken, and through Annie and what happens to Annie, she kind of gets her life back together and redeems herself. I’m so proud of Cameron—she’s fun and dirty and heartwarming.”

Rooster, Miss Hannigan’s brother with whom she shares the “Easy Street” number, is now called Guy and has no relationship to her beyond a larcenous spirit. Played by Bobby Cannavale, he’s the political consultant Foxx hires to become mayor.

Also rating an upgrade is Grace, who gets promoted from Foxx’s secretary to running his company. The part is nicely handled by Rose Byrne of TV’s “Damages,” the screen’s Bridesmaids and This Is Where I Leave You and Broadway’s You Can’t Take It With You.

The movie was shot on location in (to quote a song title that made neither film version) “N.Y.C.” last fall, from late August to Christmas, and abounds with excellent photography of the city’s celebrated sites, not the least of which is 4 World Trade.

“We shot there before it was even finished,” recalls Gluck. “All of the crew had to come up and down in those outdoor construction elevators. That was something, going outdoors every time to the 50th floor. It was stunning. We had the best view and probably the best outdoor deck in New York City, with this incredible view of the Statue of Liberty, of New Jersey, of New York to the north and to the south. We were up there for quite a while, and we built an entire apartment in one of those floors, which, sadly, had to be taken down because it’s not zoned for residential so that couldn’t have happened in real life. It’s only for commercial.

“There are two big helicopter sections in the movie. The first one is when Jamie Foxx’s character takes Annie on a tour of Manhattan to show her his businesses. We shot that in the helicopter. Nothing was faked. Those were cameras in the helicopter with the actors and also another helicopter shooting that. The final chase was the same thing. We went all the way up from Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge, over New Jersey and ended in Liberty State Park—again, with real actors in a real helicopter, shooting that from inside the helicopter, and then with other helicopters filming that as well. That was quite a big ending for me.”

Annie’s signature red dress is saved for her brand-new showstopper, “Opportunity,” which she delivers instead of a speech at a big charity gala at the Guggenheim Museum.
Sandy, Annie’s faithful dog, is also changed. An otterhound in previous versions, he (she in this case) is a terrier mix. Instead of finding him on the street and befriending him, Annie finds him in an animal shelter—like all the other canines who’ve played Sandy. They were all found—including the one for this film—by Tony-winning animal trainer Bill Berloni. “We liked the idea that he was the guy who found the original Sandy,” Gluck beams, “so it was kind of fun to honor that lineage.

“People have their preconceptions going into this, but, once they see it, they realize right off, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is so different—but it’s still our Annie.’ It’s just a different way of it. If you cast your predispositions aside, I think you’ll like it.”