When I was a kid, it was a great day when my best friend and I went to the video store (yes, I am that old), and the musical Annie was available to rent. Like me, Helena Chayna – director of Mountain District Musical Society’s (MDMS) Annie, opening this week – first saw the show as a young child. “As a young child. My mother loved musical theatre so would take us to live shows and we watched it on television. It was always one of my favourites”, says Chayna.
Chayna has a great love and affinity for the musical based on the comic Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray, which debuted in the New York Daily News in 1924. “I actually produced (and directed/musically directed and co-choreographed) Annie last year through my own youth theatre company, The Youth Production Company”, smiles Chayna. “That’s how much I love it – I’m doing it again! Plus, the fact, that when we first moved to Melbourne, my daughter (also the choreographer on this MDMS production) was cast as Pepper in the professional production with Anthony Warlow, so the show holds a special place in our hearts”.
Annie is also set to hold a special place in the heart of musical director Natasha Dyson. As a first time MD, she reflects, “I was interested in expanding my musical theatre training by taking on a role that was on the other side of the curtain”. It is a role she has certainly relished, but it has not been without its challenges. “It’s been difficult taking a step back and […] rely on the cast to practice sections after we’ve covered them several times. I’ve done my best to encourage the cast to practice through sending them individual recordings of harmonies etc. but it is very different getting to a point when it’s in the cast’s hands to practice outside of the rehearsal room”, say Dyson.
Dyson is very comfortable being in front of the stage lights, having been in full time Music Theatre training over the last year. The role of MD is certainly a change of scene. “[Being on stage…] is definitely a world apart from being responsible for the whole score of a show, and it has been a challenge that I have welcomed with open arms”, smiles Dyson.
Having worked intensively on the show previously, Chayna was very clear about her vision for the ideal cast. “In auditions, I was looking for people who embodied the personalities of the roles – the warmth of Grace, the innocence but feistiness of Annie and, [both] the strength and vulnerability of Warbucks. And, of course, people who had the talent to pull off such iconic songs as well”.
In its musical form, Annie has been around since its pre-Broadway tryout at the Goodspeed Opera House, Connecticut in 1976. After a hugely successful run on Broadway (opening in 1977, it ran for 2,377 performances), the show went on to be made not once (“Hearing Andrea McCardle sing from the hi-fi in the den” – [title of show] ), not twice, (ah, Audra McDonald as Grace Farrell), but three times into a film musical. It would be easy for a director to look to any of these for inspiration, but Chayna went straight to the text. “Because the show is so historically accurate in many ways, I wanted to make it feel that way – for the audience to be transported into the ‘Hoovervilles’, and feel the pain of the people living in them”, reflects Chayna. “I also wanted them to see the change that President Roosevelt brought to the country, and even though the character of Annie isn’t real, I wanted the audience to feel inspired and hopeful”.
With so many musical gems within Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s score, it can be hard to pick a favourite, so it is no wonder that Chayna and Dyson have a particular preferred number that is different from the other. For Dyson, it’s ‘Easy Street’ – “watching the leads have fun with this number has been one of the highlights of this rehearsal process”. Chayna can’t go past ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile’: “For me, my favourite scene in the whole show has to be the children singing this number – their joy is infectious!”.
If you’re not like me, and didn’t rent Annie on VHS in the 80s, and you missed the reincarnations on DVDs in the 2000s, here’s what you’ve been missing: “Annie is a story of hope, triumph and the dream of a little girl, who despite her circumstances always believed in miracles”, offers Chayma. “Set in an historical setting, with a fictional leading lady, the two mesh together to tell a story that is heartwarming”.
MDMS’ Annie opens on Wednesday July 3rd at Melba College, Croydon, and runs through until Sunday July 7th.
Tickets are available at https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=470734