Theater Producer Jane Bergère Bets Her Bottom Dollar on "Annie"

Posted by: Laura Blum on Thursday, July 19, 2012

On November 8, 2012, two days after America elects its next president, Franklin D. Roosevelt will be on the minds of many of its citizens. That's when curtains officially rise on a new Broadway production of Annie. Inspired by the Harold Gray comic strip Little Orphan Annie, this Tony Award-winning musical follows a young Depression era orphan who finds refuge with fiction´s richest character, as Forbes magazine ranked Daddy Warbucks in 2007. FDR and the New Deal play supporting roles.

In today's shaky economy, will the show meet with zeitgeist resonance or tighter wallets? Sing a bar of Tomorrow and you´ll feel what Annie's producers are feeling. They're taking the cue from that unabashed, unironic anthem of optimism. Its very message is the commodity that ticket buyers are craving, says producer Jane Bergère. Led by Arielle Tepper-Madover, Jane and her colleagues have assembled an award-sweeping team, crowned by Pulitzer- and three-time Tony Award-winner James Lapine in the director's chair.
Bergère herself is no stranger to mini statues. She began her Tony collection with Glengarry Glen Ross and racked up accolades for myriad other Broadway productions ranging from Driving Miss Daisy to A Little Night Music to Clybourne Park. Prior to her mid-Manhattan segue, Bergère was the Artistic Director of Connecticut’s Broadway Theatre in Darien, where she produced more than 50 musicals, including Annie. Yet, to behold her chiseled jawline and twinkling eyes is also to imagine this female deadringer for Jeremy Irons on the performing end of show biz. It's no stretch. Originally headed for a career as an opera diva, she redirected her singing, dancing and acting talents to musical theater, appearing on Broadway, regionally and on television.
However artsy her resumé, Bergère packs no-nonsense business acumen fortified by a stint in real estate. "As a producer, you can't be all art -- or all business," she admonishes.
One recent spring afternoon in her Upper East Side apartment, theater's elegant empress led me past a painting by Georges Braque, cranked up an audiokinetic sculpture by George Rhoads and sat down to discuss musical comedy's beloved rags-to-riches classic.
Q: What inspired this revival of Annie?
JB: First of all, it's the 35th anniversary. Also it's in an election year, and there's a big component about FDR being elected and being president, so it's very timely. Also there's a huge educational component for Annie because of the historic value of the Depression, the way the country was thinking and feeling at that time and the parallels to what we're going through now. So it's a perfect time to bring it back.
Q: How does Thomas Meehan's updated book depart from previous versions of the musical?
JB: Not by rewriting it or and not by making Sandy a cat or a gorilla instead of a dog. There are a few little tweaks here and there, in the language or in clarification of the language. There´s a very fine line between not distorting the original piece and making it fresh.
Q: Fresh sounds expensive.
JB: Yes, to do things today just costs so much more. David Korins, who designed the set, has such wonderful, fresh ideas in how he has conceived the Depression. So this is more expensive than most revivals. Because you don't have too many subsidiary rights for a revival, you need to be able to make money on Broadway while it's running. So people have a tendency to try and spend less on revivals.
Q: Talk about the choice of James Lapine as director. What about some of his previous productions -- Into the Woods, Falsettos and Passion -- screamed, Annie!
JB: He has a great sense of humor, and we wanted to bring humor to this production. It´s a very moving, heart-breaking and heart-warming story and it's also fun. With [orphanage head] Miss Hannigan there are a lot of funny moments. We wanted to bring an overall sense of fun to the set and the lighting as opposed to just something straight-forward.
[In the past] Marty Charnin, who's also the lyricist, directed almost every production. He did a beautiful job, but times change and so should perspectives. So I think this will be a production where people are going to say, "Wow, it's like a new show!" And those who have never seen it will be delighted as well.
Q: What especially commends Katie Finneran as Miss Hannigan?
JB: Katie is a wonderful actress. She's very funny and she's very pretty. And those things don't always all go together. She's not the stereotype of Hannigan. It's exciting to find somebody who has both beauty and comedic talent.
Q: Usually you need an Eastern European accent to subvert it.
JB: Yes.
Q: You conducted 5,000 auditions in a coast-to-coast search. What made Lilla Crawford pop as Annie?
JB: There's something about Lilla. She is delightfully innocent while also knowing exactly what she's doing, which is a wonderful quality to have. She's from California, and she was in the last part of Billy Elliott.
The dichotomy is that this child has to come across as this adorable, sweet, a little bit tough kid, but she also has to carry the show. We really searched high and low and never gave up. We saw anybody and everybody. I'm sure a lot of people think, Oh well, they just do that for publicity and then they just call up someone. But no, not at all. We found some kids who were wonderful, but then we would look at them again or hear them sing, and realize that they might not be able to carry out the grueling task of eight shows a week.
Q: Lilla is 11. What happens when she -- and her fellow orphans -- hit the ripe age of 12 or 13?
JB: When they get taller, we'll have to replace them. We'll be doing these kid auditions forever. And there is a mark on the wall! You hit that mark, and guess what, you've outgrown the part! It's awful.
Q: Annie's first Broadway run went from 1977 to 1983, with 2,377 performances. How long do you think this revival will play?
JB: We hope for years.
Q: How does that work for school?
JB: There's a wonderful company called On Location Education, and they bring in the tutors and wranglers. The kids have to go to school for "x" number of hours every day here and there and on matinee days. It's very complicated -- they have to conform to the law. But these kids are bright and they're used to working like that so they're able to do it.
Q: It's the school of hard knocks. What's your favorite song in the show?
JB: Oh my gosh. It's the Hard-Knock Life, of course. And Tomorrow. I love Easy Street. There's just one song after another. Charles [Strouse] is just amazing that he was able to write that. It's a bluesy number and it's fun. There's just so much going on.
Q: So you´re going to answer like a mother who says she has no favorite child.
JB: Yes, they're all my favorite songs.
Q: It'd be tough to see It's the Hard-Knock Life without thinking of Jay-Z's rap version or Dr. Evil and Mini Me's riff on it in Austin Powers in Goldmember. Does the new version in any way quote these takes?
JB: No, I think it's a completely new way of conceiving and thinking about what is funny about the lines and lyrics and situations in Annie.
Q: Sony Pictures is remaking the movie of Annie with Jay-Z heading the soundtrack, Will Smith producing, Emma Thompson writing the script and Willow Smith starring as Annie. Does this help build momentum for the play or cannibalize ticket sales?
JB: I think in this day and age, it's fine. They can help one another. Years ago you used to say, "The film can't come out while the show is on Broadway." I'm one of the producers of War Horse, so I know that the film has helped the play and the play has helped the film.
They're almost two totally different pieces. The film is a war picture and the play is a work of art. People are going to see both, and it creates enthusiasm for seeing both. So had you asked me about it five or ten years ago, I would have said, "Yeah, that's a problem." But no, if anything I think it may prove to be helpful.
Q: Are there any events planned to bring together Annie's Broadway and Hollywood talent?
JB: We haven't addressed that, but maybe we will. Our focus is more on the educational part. We have a relationship with WNET. Al Roker loves the show and he's doing -- NBC is sponsoring -- Finding Sandy, which is going to be extraordinary.
Bill Berloni is the man who's training Sandy. He trained the original Sandys. I had the original Sandys in my production in Darien. That dog! We're a lot about animals, including rescue animals, and about showing kids how to be kind. There are a lot of avenues that are going to spring off from this production.
Q: Before deciding on the Palace Theater, did you try to get the Neil Simon Theater [which had been called the Alvin Theatre when Annie debuted]?
JB: Yes, and we looked at a couple of others. We just felt that this was going to be such a huge production. The Palace is one of the larger Broadway houses, and we wanted to be able to accommodate as many kids as possible.
Q: To quote a literary saw, there are only seven basic types of stories. Annie is a classic rags-to-riches story. But with Roosevelt's New Deal, it's also a tale of rebirth. Talk about Annie's storytelling themes.
JB: It's a great story of optimism and hope for everything, whether politics, children and families. I think it's an extraordinary story about fighting for what you want and for what you believe in and never giving up no matter what, no matter how horrible it seems.
Q: How do you think the New Deal will resonate in terms of the political climate?
JB: It probably depends on who wins the election.


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