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Original ‘Annie’ is now orphan’s tormentor instead

Andrea McArdle, who originated the role of “Annie” on Broadway back in 1977, is now playing the part of the villainous Miss Hannigan in a new production in North Carolina. “I have a lot to live up to,” she said. “This is part of my legacy.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The girl who stole theatergoers’ hearts as Little Orphan Annie in the 1970s is now old enough to play her tormentor. And Andrea McArdle told TODAY Monday that it’s a mixture of sweet relief and fear to turn her acting image on its head and assume another role in ‘Annie,” one of the most beloved musicals of all time.

Andrea McArdle, who was just 13 when she originated the title role of “Annie” on Broadway in 1977 — and became the youngest actress ever nominated for a Tony — now stars as the evil orphanage matron Miss Hannigan in a new production of “Annie,” currently playing at the North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh.

TODAY’s Al Roker traveled to North Carolina to talk to the 46-year-old McArdle about switching from sweet to sinister in the new production. While McArdle has gone on to become one of stage’s most durable performers, starring in such Broadway productions as “Les Miserables” and “Beauty and the Beast,” coming back to “Annie” is like a trip back home.

“It’s a strange thing; it’s a powerful thing,” McArdle told Roker. “I’m not going to lie — I’m scared to death. I have a lot to live up to. This is part of my legacy.”

Storybook successMcArdle’s true-life “Annie” tale is one of storybook success. She was a child actor who had appeared for several seasons on the daytime soap “Search for Tomorrow” when she was cast as one of the orphanage’s tough girls as the production of “Annie” was ready to make its Broadway bow. But a week into rehearsals, producers believed their original Little Orphan Annie was a little too delicate for the role — and plucked McArdle for the lead role.

The musical was a huge hit, winning seven Tonys, including best musical. McArdle, however, lost out for best lead actress to Dorothy Loudon, who played Miss Hannigan in the original production.

Although it’s been 33 long years since McArdle first donned the red Annie wig, she told Roker she still has to resist the urge to burst into “Tomorrow” when the current Annie belts out the signature tune.

“It’s very hard for me,” she said. “I have to really, really focus to not slip back into it.”

Change of pace
Still, McArdle relishes the opportunity to turn her Annie image on its head by playing the woman who made Annie’s life miserable, thwarting her attempts to escape from the orphanage and later trying to kidnap her when she’s at the home of Daddy Warbucks.

Since her Annie heyday, McArdle has rarely forayed into the realm of character actor. “I’ve waited all my life to play a woman like Miss Hannigan,” she told Roker. “The grass was always greener; I was the ingénue du jour for quite some time, and I played every girl next door and all of the romantic leads. So I’ve always wanted to play a character, always.

“It’s bizarre. I’m having a tougher time getting the movements of this show into my body than any other show I’ve done in 37 years. This was a great chunk of my adolescence, a great chunk of my life. It’s still following me around.”

While “Annie” made McArdle a star, McArdle admits she wasn’t sad to see her role in the original production end. “When you’ve finished your freshman year of high school, you do not want to have the red fright wig, Mary Janes and ankle socks, you know?” McArdle said.

Still, McArdle added, she is very mindful of what her former role still means to the musical’s legions of fans. “It’s a memory for me now, but I realize to other people, it’s impossible to see me another way,” she said. “I am attached to that forever. I’m proud of it, I really am. But it’s time to move on.”

However, Roker clearly hasn’t moved on. While at the North Carolina Theatre to interview McArdle, he donned the classic Daddy Warbucks suit and waltzed on stage for a quick cameo as Daddy’s long-lost son.

Sitting with Roker on the TODAY set Monday, Matt Lauer commented dryly, “Let me look up ‘shameless.’ ”

Meanwhile, is Broadway beckoning McArdle back? While the actress says she would “absolutely love” to play Miss Hannigan when a revival of “Annie” opens on Broadway in 2012, the North Carolina production’s director, Casey Hushion, says she was delighted to land McArdle for her staging.

“It’s such a kick,” Hushion told Roker. “You’re used to seeing her so sweet, and it’s hilarious to see her swinging her hips around. I really respect all the habits [she’s] had to tear down; it’s a hard process. But she’s really committed to being original and unique in the role, and she definitely is.”