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Marshall gives 'Annie' an original twist

Sunday, November 07, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Director Rob Marshall had one overriding concern when he set to work on tonight's "Wonderful World of Disney" production of "Annie." He didn't want to do it with the typical "screaming redhead with the Harpo Marx hair.



When: 7 p.m. Nov. 7 on ABC.

Starring: Alicia Morton, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Audra McDonald


"A wig on a child doesn't work," Marshall said. "I really felt we should see her as a person and a girl, not somebody walking around with a wig on."

He found his "Annie" in newcomer Alicia Morton - and she plays the part with her own hair, no wig necessary.

Marshall grew up in Pittsburgh, appeared in many Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera productions and studied at Carnegie Mellon University before going on to choreograph and co-direct the likes of "Cabaret" on Broadway. He makes his television directorial debut with "Annie" tonight at 7 on ABC.

Marshall came into Disney's "Annie" with at least some knowledge of the show. He choreographed it in the late '80s in Kansas City. The musical was already filmed once in 1982, but that theatrical release was considered an artistic disaster.

"What happens a lot of time when you're doing movie musicals is you have to have it big and huge and extravagant and you lose the story and characters along the way," Marshall said. "The story and characters are the most important things."


The TV version of 'Annie' an early Christmas gift

By Christopher Rawson

Post-Gazette Drama Critic

That once glorious entertainment known as the movie musical is finding a small revival on the medium that helped kill it off in the first place - TV. Taking the lead is Disney, whose latest screen musical is a lavish, brisk revival of "Annie," which airs tonight.

As directed by Broadway veteran Rob Marshall, this redresses the musical's main problem, its sprawl. Gone is the Hooverville sequence; gone is the faintly embarrassing sequence in which Annie inspires the New Deal.

What's left is the central story of Daddy Warbucks (drily comic Victor Garber, who turns sentimental all too soon), Annie (natural young charmer, Alicia Morton) and Grace (the luminous Audra McDonald), with delicious villainy embodied in Miss Hannigan (zestful Kathy Bates), oily Rooster (Alan Cumming, late of Broadway's "Cabaret"), and tasty mini-moll Lily (Kristin Chenoweth).

That's an All-Star Broadway lineup, without a soap opera wannabe or aging celeb in the bunch. Thanks to his casting and his own choreography, Marshall turns songs into numbers full of character, wit and even plot. "NYC" becomes an epic encounter with the city, featuring a solo by Andrea McArdle (the original Annie). "Easy Street" bumps on brassily and comically at length.

The result is as speedy and kinetic as "Annie" can be, but with time for such nice details as cross-fades using the motif of falling snow. The elaborate design is by Stephen Hendrickson.

No "Annie" can entirely escape a surfeit of sweets, but this one spins its sugar with both energy and charm. If you want to get an early start on Christmas, it will do the trick.


Marshall said the tone and size of the film overshadowed the characters and made it difficult to care about them. The failure of the "Annie" movie (it starred Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan) made it easier for Marshall to say yes to the remake.

"It would have been daunting to do something like this if the movie 'Annie' had been very successful artistically," Marshall said. "I watched it again and it was very clear what the mistakes were they made and we were not going to make those."

While choreographing this "Annie" put Marshall in familiar waters (he also choreographed 1997's "Wonderful World of Disney's" remake of "Cinderella" starring Brandy), directing was another matter.

"Sam Mendes, whom I collaborated with on "Cabaret," and I were just talking about this today," Marshall said in a phone interview in late October. "When I was in LA making 'Annie,' he was finishing up [directing] 'American Beauty.'

"As a director of a movie for television or a feature, you're asked 75,000 questions an hour," Marshall said. "It's much more of a collaboration in theater, where if somebody has a question, you say, 'What do you think?' Here, you make the decision, although all the time I'd ask people what they think and they'd look at me cross-eyed."

Marshall said the production was budgeted at $13 million, and he brought "Annie" in on time and under budget.

Of the 17 musical numbers Marshall choreographed for the film, "NYC" proved the most challenging.

"Within this budget we couldn't fly to New York and we couldn't afford to do a matte painting of the Statue of Liberty," Marshall said. "That would have been the budget right there."

Instead the song is performed as Annie, Daddy Warbucks (Victor Garber) and Grace Farrell (Audra McDonald) go to see a musical on Broadway. The leading lady in the show within the show is played by Andrea McArdle, the original Annie on stage.

"NYC" wasn't even in the previous "Annie" movie, but Marshall reinstated it in the Disney production, along with "Something Was Missing." To bring the film in on time, at least two songs from the stage version ("We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover" and "A New Deal for Christmas") remain missing in action from this remake.

"Annie" continues the non-traditional casting started by "Cinderella." In "Annie," African-American Tony-winner McDonald plays the secretary and later girlfriend to Warbucks.

"'Cinderella' opened the door to non-traditional casting in a healthy way," Marshall said. "You can just choose the person you want. I've worked with Audra and she was the perfect person to play Grace. It wasn't a conscious, 'let's make sure we have a black Grace' thing. We just put together the greatest company we could."

Marshall's next move remains undetermined, but he expects to direct a big-screen feature, probably a romantic comedy. But he may return to TV for another Disney musical.

"They have talked to me about a few of them. I have a meeting with Barbra Streisand to talk about [her] playing 'Mame,'" Marshall said. "We'll see if that's in the future or not."

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