On April 21, 1977, the musical Anne opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater (since renamed The Neil Simon Theatre.) In the title role was Andrea McArdle, a pint-sized 12-year-old girl with a giant voice. “Leapin’ Lizards”, as Annie would say, this girl could belt. “Singing has always connected me to the world,” McArdle says. “It’s pure bliss.”
Even at 12, she was already developing her performing skills. Just six months after she started auditioning, McArdle had been cast in the hit soap search tomorrow. She played Wendy Wilkins, the daughter of villainous Stephanie Wilkins.
One day, during her lunch break for the show, her mother was scouring the trade papers for various acting jobs. “My mom said, ‘wow, they’re looking for kids to play orphans in this new musical about Little Orphan Annie,'” McArdle recalled. And then McArdle asked, “Who is it?”
McArdle, who describes herself as “the budding actress,” was always ready to sing and packed a sheet music or two in her bag. “My mom said to me, ‘well, we can walk to where they have auditions,'” she shares.
Broadway Arts was only three blocks and several avenues from the CBS studio on 57th Street where search tomorrow was filmed. But they passed through another galaxy that would change McArdle’s life forever. “I walked in and sang ‘Johnny One Note,’ that breathtaking song by Ethel Merman, she says of her very first Broadway audition. “It was a huge song, especially for a 12-year-old boy.”
McArdle later learned from Martin Charnin, who conceived, directed and wrote at Annie’s lyrics, which McArdle was the first child to audition for the show. “I ended up being cast as the toughest orphan,” said McArdle, who took over the role of Annie when the show had its pre-Broadway tryout at the Goodspeed Opera House. “And then my Anne journey has begun.
To mark Annie’s 45th birthday, McArdle presents her new show, Andrea McArdle & Friends Celebrate the 45th Annieversary at Feinstein’s/54 Below from May 5-7. The May 7 show will be broadcast live. “We call our birthdays for Annie ‘The Annieversaries,'” McArdle explains.
The concert features songs (think “NYC,” “Maybe,” “New York, New York,” “Broadway Baby”), special guests from the original cast, including McArdle’s dear friend Shelley Bruce, who was her successor and the second actress to play Annie on Broadway and there will be plenty of stories. “It’s a night out for Broadway lovers,” McArdle says of the Steve Marzullo-directed show. “I have a few other orphans playing and I will tell stories about Frank Sinatra, Studio 54 and so on.”
McArdle, who was the youngest performer to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, reflected on taking on such a heartbreaking role that would take her everywhere from the MET Opera House to the White House. “What would I say to that little girl back then?” I would say ‘you got that girl,’ she says while adding that even at a young age she had a real sense of confidence because she worked hard.
“If you get a role close to Annie at any point in your career, you’re so grateful,” McArdle observes of that first Broadway audition. “I was raised on this pedestal and I knew nothing. But I was lucky to run with people like Mike Nichols [who produced Annie], Joe Papp and all these amazing people around me. And I had three things: sheer determination, drive, real confidence, and a good work ethic.
And all that hard work and courage paid off. The year it opened, Annie won 22 major theatrical awards, including seven Tony Awards and Best Musical of the Year. The musical ran for nearly six years, was revived twice on Broadway, played around the world and continues to give people hope, especially with the song “Tomorrow”.
Decades after the show opened, Martin Charnin, who died in 2019, once said that McArdle singing “Tomorrow” continued to be the ultimate balm for him. “The incredible sound of the audience’s response to Andrea McArdle singing ‘Tomorrow’ still resonates today,” he said. Playbill. “And takes me through all of my darkest moments, on stage and off.”