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"Annie” has a long and important history at Proctors

The Orphans in the North American Tour of ANNIE.
Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
The Orphans in the North American Tour of ANNIE.

This week’s run of “Annie” at Proctors is more than an opportunity to enjoy family entertainment in a dreary month. For those of us who remember the struggle of Proctors in its early days, “Annie” is a show that is an important link to the survival of the historic Schenectady theatre.

Proctors is such a regional powerhouse today, it is difficult to think of the desperate conditions at the theater in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, Proctor’s Theatre, as it was called then, was a financial disaster. Staffed by mostly volunteers, the organization was yet to establish a reputation strong enough to bring in national touring shows. Such tours, as history would prove, were the lifeline to gain the public’s full support.

The first event of the new theater was Blackstone the Magician. It opened January 3, 1979. It sold out, giving the 2700 seat venue hope for the future. But the policy of one night events weren’t enough to build a financial base strong enough to bring touring Broadway shows to Schenectady.

In 1981, two heroes arrived at Proctors. One was human; the other a cartoon creation.

Hal Holbrook performed his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” at the theater and became an advocate for its survival. He headed a donation drive and made generous contributions. Indeed, in a seat purchasing drive, he bought all of row HH (his initials). Still scheduling remained a limited series of one night events.

The turning point arrived on September 29, 1981. She was a little girl with curly-hair, wearing a simple red dress. She brought her dog, Sandy, with her, as well as her baldheaded wealthy guardian, Daddy Warbucks.

The show was “Annie.” The musical had opened on Broadway in 1977 and was still running in New York at the time. “Annie” ran a full week and sold extremely well. When, at the end of the show, Little Orphan Annie sang the inspirational song, “Tomorrow,” it foreshadowed what the theater could and would become.

This relationship between the musical and a venue explains the durability of “Annie” and why it has remained popular for almost 50 years. Its popularity certainly is helped by a score that includes several classic hits that have you leave the theater humming. More important, at its core, a seemingly frivolous musical based on a comic strip character has subliminal depth that touches our emotions.

When “Annie” last played Proctors in 2015, I had the opportunity to interview the lyricist Martin Charnin, who also directed the touring production. He named the qualities of the show as being about “family values, love, hope and a feeling of belonging.”

When he came to inspirational, he explained why he and the others on the creative team (composer Charles Strauss and book writer Thomas Meehan) picked the character Annie. To them, Annie possessed the same spirit of determination that permitted the characters of Charles Dickens’ to overcome the darkness of their existences. They saw her life as dark and her journey as one of optimism.

Charnin said in order to help the audience to understand this element in the story, during tryouts they altered the order of the musical numbers. They moved the original opening song, “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” to the second spot. In its place they added “Maybe,” a reflective moment sung alone on stage. It permitted Annie to tell her dreams to the audiences, gain their sympathy and elevate the stakes in the story.

It worked. For 47 years “Annie” has been entertaining and inspiring audiences. If you attend at Proctors this week, look around the theater. Try to think what it was like 43 years ago. Financial and physical disrepair prevailed and the only thing early organizers had was hope for tomorrow. Tuesday’s opening posits that that metaphysical tomorrow is now.

“Annie” plays at Proctors Tuesday through Sunday,vJanuary 14. For tickets and information go to atproctors.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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