As every musical theater fan knows, Annie is set during the Depression and focuses on a red-headed orphan who softens the heart of a hard-boiled billionaire, Daddy Warbucks. The mean-spirited spinster who runs the orphanage, Miss Hannigan, conspires with her ne’er-do-well brother against the little girl, but the nasty siblings are foiled in the end.
Alas, in director Will Gluck’s new film adaptation (out Friday) of the 1976 musical, a lot has changed. For starters, the movie is set in the present, and both Annie and her wealthy savior ? now a cellphone tycoon and mayoral candidate named Will Stacks ? are both played by African-American actors: 11-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhan? Wallis and the somewhat older Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx.
This Annie is a foster child, and while she’s still Miss Hannigan’s charge, the latter character (Cameron Diaz) has evolved, so that she’s ultimately more sympathetic. Diaz notes that she had a very different arc to work with than Carol Burnett, who played Miss Hannigan as a booze-swilling, man-hungry shrew in the 1982 screen version.
Miss Hannigan still likes to drink and flirt, but she’s also a frustrated singer, whose one brush with stardom involves a comical reference to a ’90s pop act. For Diaz, her obsession with fame “represents an epidemic in our culture, where kids measure their self-worth by how many likes they get on Instagram and how many people follow them on Twitter.”
Where “the original Miss Hannigan lived in an age where women were thought to have failed if they didn’t get married,” says Diaz, her character is most distressed for “having almost had fame, then having lost it. She has to learn to love herself.”
There is a potential love interest: Bobby Cannavale plays Guy, Stacks’ suspiciously slick campaign manager, who in his shadiness may remind fans of the musical of Rooster, Miss Hannigan’s brother, not featured in this version.
When Cannavale popped up at the film’s premiere at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater, he found that “the kids hated me. I got a lot of nasty looks.”
Easy Street, a number performed in the original Annie by Rooster and Miss Hannigan, is one of several songs that have been revised, with music and lyrics updated by Gluck, Sia Furler and Greg Kurstin, a veteran pop tunesmith and Furler’s collaborator on this year’s chart-topping 1000 Forms of Fear.
The trio also co-wrote the new songs Opportunity, Who Am I? and The City’s Yours. In producing three of Annie’s most famous songs, Tomorrow, Maybe and The Hard-Knock Life (the last adapted earlier, of course, by Jay-Z, a producer of the film), Kurstin says he “didn’t touch the composition at all, but just dressed it up in new clothing.”
Kurstin’s general directive from Gluck was “to keep it contemporary. He knew my background was in pop, and he wanted to take the sound away from musical theater a bit ? to produce the songs to stand side-by-side with pop songs.”
Where skin color is concerned, Gluck says, “We cast race-blind. I knew there was this 9-year-old” ? Wallis, two years ago ? “who had been nominated for an Academy Award” (for 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild). For Stacks, “I made a list of top movie stars who could sing, dance and act, and there were only a couple.”
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