ANNIE FACT #1: "How to Fire a Child"

ANNIE FACT #1: "How to Fire a Child"
 Andrea McArdle, Broadway's Original 'Annie' (1977)

Andrea McArdle, Broadway's Original 'Annie' (1977)

If it takes a villain to steal candy from a baby, then it takes someone even nastier to steal the Broadway dreams of a pre-teen girl. And if you’re so naive as to think that such abhorrent people in this world do not exist, then you clearly haven’t spent enough time around Broadway producers. Because, for some strange reason, the leading actress in Annie has been replaced prior to the show's New York debut in two-thirds of its Broadway productions.  

The first time this anomaly occurred was back in 1976. Martin Charnin (Director/Lyricist) and Charles Strouse (Composer) dreamed up the idea of taking Little Orphan Annie-- everyone’s favorite pupil-less funny pages ragamuffin-- and putting her in a big Broadway show. A Depression-era set musical, they thought, would admirably reflect their current contemptuous political climate of the Nixon-era White House. The first girl the team hired to don the red wig was 13-year old Kristen Vigard.

In Julie Stevens & Gil Cates, Jr’s sensational 2006 documentary, “Life After Tomorrow”, Charles Strouse remembers Vigard with a glowing paternal warmth.

We had originally a girl, a very, very gifted young woman who was beautiful. And she sang beautifully. And her outlook on life was very rosy.

But as the 18 days of rehearsals lumbered on at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, Vigard’s rosy attitude grew wan. The pressure just kept mounting. The young girl was expected to shouldered too much of that burden. When she recalls those difficult moments from some 30 years before, her exterior still splinters as her emotional scars surge. In a voice that's slightly too emphatic, she recounts the moment that the foundation began to crack.

One time in rehearsal, I’ll never forget it— Martin got upset about something and he directed me in kind of a brusque voice. But, you know, as I’ve learned since then… you know, that’s just how it goes. And instead of me taking the direction and just moving on, I kind of shut down, and got real quiet, and started hiding behind my script. And he gave me a little lecture. ‘That’s the actor’s revenge! Don’t do that!’ And he was right, of course. But I started shutting down a little bit under all the pressure of all the big grownups and their careers.

When the unfortunate decision had been made that Kristen was no longer right for the role, Charnin and Strouse weren't brave enough to bloody their own hands. Rather, the arm that swung the axe belonged to Michael Price, Artistic Director of the Goodspeed Opera House. When Vigard recounts that fateful meeting with Price, tears appear in the corners of her eyes. “Of course I cried and was so upset. But there was a great sense of relief. I mean, strangely enough to say, ‘Oh, thank God. I can just go home.’”

Her mother, who also employed as an actress in the Goodspeed company, was fired as well.

Meanwhile, Vigard's replacement wasn't even waiting so far as the wings. No, the girl that assumed the title role had been singing and dancing alongside her for weeks. That, of course, was Andrea McArdle, one of the original four orphans hired for the Goodspeed production (they eventually added three more when the show went to Broadway to give a bigger sound). It was McArdle's interpretation of the wise-cracking 'Pepper' that first garnered Martin Charnin's attention. When Charnin told McArdle that he wanted her to play 'Annie', she responded quite simply, “Okay.” (Vigard says that McArdle showed such preparedness when she took over the role that the grooming must have been going on privately for weeks.)

In retrospect, it’s all funny to imagine; it's nearly impossible to think of Annie without hearing the super-charged voice of Andrea McArdle. Even today, her resonance still pings from the recesses of your brain. And it's no wonder: the original cast recording sold enough albums to go platinum. For many years to follow, an entire generation of little girls (and, ahem, some very special little boys…) wore that album and their parent’s patience thin while listening to McArdle belt “Tomorrow” for days on end.  

Ultimately, Vigard summarizes her experience by saying that, “In real life, I was more like 'Annie' than I was able to do onstage as far as my sort of, gregarious, cartoon-like [personality].”

Thankfully, she didn’t have to cry into her pillow for long. Shortly after her firing came a re-hiring… of sorts. When the show transferred to Broadway, producers offered Vigard the standby position for the title role. That’s right— they were "kind" enough to let her understudy the very part that once was hers! And— God, bless the child— she took it. So, even though Kristen Vigard claims she was dethroned because she wasn’t enough like the character, that's obviously not true. Anyone willing to take that understudy position shows a real tenacity that certainly rivals Annie’s. After all, how very much like the character to stick up her chin and grin.

And that wasn't the last anybody ever heard of Kristen Vigard. Her resume shows a little film work here and there, a good deal of recording/touring with rock groups, and some scant tv appearances. She didn’t stay as standby to 'Annie' long. Just a few months after the show opened in New York, she was offered the role of 'Crissy' in a revival of HAIR (which she was, arguably, way too young to play— but, hell, it was the 1970’s and I’m not the girl’s mother…). Her review in the New York Times for that show was more than encouraging.

The very best song of all, and perhaps the best performance as well, is Miss Vigard in the stony and touching saga of a teenybopper, ‘Frank Mills.’ Miss Vigard looks like an ancient 12-year old; she sings in a clear, clean style that cuts most satisfyingly through the general lushness.

While the notices were kind, they didn’t matter. HAIR shuttered in about as much time as it takes to get your roots done. Then, in 1979, Vigard showed up in I Remember Mama (which, coincidentally, was written by Martin Charnin-- so, no hard feelings, I guess?). In the Times review, the caption by her photo read, “Dullness at the heart.” She has never done Broadway again.

At the end of the day, this one dreadful experience does not define Kristen Vigard; there is so much more to her career than this solitary moment. But, unfortunately, it does knit the actress firmly into Broadway’s rich tapestry of stories that all start the same way--  “You’ll never believe this one…”   

COMING SOON: ANNIE FACT #2: “How to Fire a Child, Part 2”