ANNIE FACT #2: "How to Fire a Child, Part 2"

ANNIE FACT #2: "How to Fire a Child, Part 2"
Joanna Pacitti in "Annie", 1997

Joanna Pacitti in "Annie", 1997

Since its debut in 1977, audiences have always been smitten with Annie. And what’s not to love? It’s got humor, it’s got heart, it’s got a dog who’s trained to stand perfectly still at the end of a one-foot leash while enduring modulation after endless modulation. It’s nearly impossible to resist the musical’s charms! And so many millions of people have been put under its spell. The original production played 2,377 performances on Broadway, it launched four national tours, and sold enough records to go Platinum. By 1997, 20 years after it’s premiere, Annie had received professional productions in 15 foreign countries. On a smaller scale, every regional theatre in America with tickets to sell had already put on Annie twice. On a much larger scale, the musical received a lavish (but misguided) 1982 film (that, in my personal opinion, went a little too “comic strip” and not enough “comic”). The poor little orphan girl with the heart of gold had shown the world twice over that she possessed the Midas Touch.

And since 20 years had slipped by since the show had first premiered, what better excuse did commercial producers need to trot out their cash cow again? They made their plans official: an anniversary revival was announced. The timing of the production made perfect sense; the show’s most ardent fans— little girls in 1977— had long since matured. Now, with little girls of their own, this production offered them the perfect opportunity to wax nostalgic while sharing with their daughters this odd phenomenon from their youth. 

In order to create some buzz, producers concocted a remarkable publicity stunt. A deal was struck with Macy’s Department Stores. A nationwide talent search was to be conducted from five Macy’s locations. The final auditions, of course, would be held at their flagship store in New York City. Cameras for the television magazine show Turning Point documented the entire event.

“We have to keep our eyes out,” announced director/lyricist Martin Charnin before throwing open the doors (you may remember that he had also directed the original). “And if anybody sees a face that they really are smitten with, if you fall in love with a freckle, yell and point. I may miss it.” From the 2,000 hopefuls they would see, Charnin expected to find his ‘Annie’, her understudy, and six additional orphans.

Charnin brought with him to this production 20 years of Annie experience. He knew that when it came to selecting an actress for the title role, they were looking for a diamond in the rough. Or, rather, as he would tell you— they were looking for a real rough diamond.

She’s a survivor. She’s a spunky, street-smart kid that you root for the minute that the curtain goes up. We want scruffy kids who look like they’ve gone through hell in the Depression in this orphanage run by this creepy lady. The rougher the edge this kid has, the better off.

By the time the casting caravan made it to New York, three girls had pulled ahead as candidates for the title role. Joanna Pacitti, 12, had first auditioned for the show in Philadelphia at the Macy’s in the King of Prussia Mall. She possessed a spectacular voice: dynamic placement and relatively mature control, considering her age. And while she’d never booked anything as big as Broadway before, she’s the kind of type you gather was singing long before she could talk. Her father owned a barbershop and Joanna sang on Saturdays for tips. Every time she performed for Charnin throughout the casting process, she took another step ahead of the other girls in the running.

But not everyone was so sure. On the day before the team was to announce their official selection to the press, final callbacks were held. It was late in the afternoon. The girls had all gone; only those in charge remained. Camera’s for “Turning Point” captured the tension of the team's final debate. Knowing that a selection was about to be made,  Keith Levenson, the show’s music director, voiced his concerns--


[The decision] has to be today. We’ve seen every child there is to see.


I found them shrieking at me. I felt shrieked at and that their acting was atrocious. I think that there were kids that probably from the street….


… who were better? I’m perfectly fine with there being another kid. Where is she? She ain’t here. She is not here today. —— No, that’s wrong. I’m quitting and I refuse to quit. This girl is great.

One could only deduce that Charnin’s response was in defense of Pacitti.

The next morning at Macy’s, a large crowd had gathered. Hopeful girls, their mothers, and the press were all to hear the contest results at the same time. Andrea McArdle, the show’s original star, was on hand to pass the baton as Master of Ceremonies. First, the winners of the ensemble roles were announced. Then, an understudy was named. Finally, in one last burst of PR glory, all of the remaining girls were asked to sing “Tomorrow.” As they sang, McArdle walked over to Joanna Pacitti. She lifted the young girl up in her arms. Pacitti stopped singing and sobbed. That’s how Pacitti learned she was going to be a Broadway star. Flashbulbs flickered and cameras rolled. The young girl took center stage to sing for the crowd. She was received with a roar. It was a fairy tale dream come true.

After a few weeks of rehearsal in Manhattan, the show hit the road. It was going to troupe through an 8-city tour before it reached the Great White Way. Pacitti was having the time of her life-- press photos with her Miss Hannigan (the sublime Nell Carter), working with animal trainer Bill Berloni on mastering Sandy’s many tricks, being fitted for costumes by the show’s original designer— the legendary Theoni V. Aldredge (recreating her Tony-award winning design). As Pacitti put it…

I always tell my mom because she always asks me, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ I tell her, ‘You know what my playtime is? My playtime is on the stage. It’s just like a kid going to a playground. My playground is on the stage because I love being on the stage.

The show played its first leg out-of-town in Houston. That’s where the critics began to damn Pacitti’s performance with faint praise. The local review stated most tactfully that, “Joanna Pacitti shows the potential to be a solid and winning 'Annie’.” Eh... you win some, you lose some. The production moved on to its next stop. Meanwhile, a crack had begun to form in the foundation. Producers (and Charnin, presumably) began to doubt Pacitti in the role. But it wasn't until the show made it to Baltimore that the shit really hit the fan. On January 17, 1997, J. Wynn Rousuck of the Baltimore Sun wrote—

In the title role, Joanna Pacitti is the requisite belter, but seems strangely detached when Daddy Warbucks opens his heart to her in his pivotal second-act number, ‘I Don’t Need Anything But You.’

That review was the nail in the coffin. Producers decided that Pacitti would not continue with the show. She was released her from her contract. It was only three weeks before her scheduled Broadway debut. After some public outrage, Producer Timothy Childs addressed the press. “Joanna is very talented, and a great kid, but it turned out the actress and the part never quite came together the way we felt they needed to.'' Producer Rodger Hess cited a lack of chemistry between Joanna and John Schuck, the actor playing Daddy Warbucks. ''We wanted to give her every opportunity to improve,'' Mr. Childs added. ''We delayed our decision because we didn't want to break her heart.'' 

But break her heart, they did; producers officially released Pacitti from her contract via fax. Now, to be entirely fair, in the week prior to the firing producers had been working with Pacitti’s team trying to negotiate a deal that would keep her on. They asked her to split the role with another girl— Brittny Kissinger. But Pacitti’s management pushed back too hard. They said they would only agree to the producer’s terms if Pacitti was promised to perform at all critics’ performances, on opening night, and on the show’s cast recording. Not surprisingly, the producers balked. The girl’s only consolation: Bill Berloni, the animal trainer, let her keep the backup Sandy. Together, the girl and her dog were left to sit and hope that the sun would come out tomorrow.

As you can imagine, the press had a field day with this one. Pacitti was interviewed by every major fist holding a microphone. At the time of her firing, it had only been 10 days since the airing of that episode of “Turning Point”; the whole country had just learned the girl’s name who they were now being told to forget. Joanna’s family lawyered up. They threatened to sue anyone attached to the contest, including Macy’s Department Store.

For the producers, the worst part is that the end didn’t justify the means. Reviews for Pacitti’s replacement were less than stellar. Peter Marks for the New York Times said…  

[Brittny Kissinger] brings a sweet pluckiness to the heroine’s role. It’s no pleasure, however, to report that her performance, so central to the musical’s success, lacks sparkle. This is a significant problem, but perhaps with more experience, an ineffable star quality will emerge. In the vocal department, she is adequate but never impinges on the memory of the clear-as-a-bugle-call vocalizations of the original, Andrea McArdle, whose rendition of ‘’Tomorrow’’ remains the standard.

What is most peculiar about this story, however, (aside from the fact that it all feels too much like deja vu— read “ANNIE FACT #1"), is that this was not the only time Joanna Pacitti was unceremoniously released from a national talent competition. Twelve years after her Annie debacle, Pacitti made it to the top 36 finalists on "American Idol". She was released from her contract by Fox Broadcasting after a tabloid reported that Pacitti had personal ties to two executives who produced the show.