NEW YORK - On a breezy August afternoon, several actresses cast in one of this fall's most anticipated Broadway productions gather in a small room below their rehearsal studio for a working lunch. While one unwraps a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, another digs into a bowl of macaroni and cheese.
A third pulls out a bag of chicken fingers and french fries, along with a tiny container of what appears to be mustard. "I don't know what this is," Emily Rosenfeld, 8, says, staring at the condiment, which her mother packed. "I like them with ketchup."
Emily will play Molly, the youngest of a posse of orphans, in a new revival of the Tony Award-winning musical Annie, set to begin previews Oct. 3 in preparation for an opening Nov. 8 at the Palace Theatre. The pint-sized blonde isn't the youngest person at the table; Tyrah Skye Odoms is 7 and, like Emily, has a few gaps in her smile where baby teeth recently wiggled free.
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Lilla Crawford, 11, has the role of the show's titular, redheaded heroine. She and the younger girls are joined by Junah Jang, 10; Madi Rae DiPietro and Georgi James, both 12, and two more 11-year-olds: Taylor Richardson and Jaidyn Young. Jaidyn is a standby for several roles, among them Annie. That part launched the careers of Andrea McArdle and Sarah Jessica Parker- respectively the first and third Annies in the original Broadway staging.
These eight young ladies were chosen from more than 5,000 who turned up at auditions held in seven cities or submitted videos online. They exhibit both sweetness and spice - just like their characters in the musical, inhabitants of a Depression-era orphanage run by the perennially cranky, booze-swilling Miss Hannigan. Junah, who will play "the whiny one," Tessie, cheerfully notes, "I've always played super-happy characters, so this should be fun."
Georgi is just as excited about playing a different kind of role, the feisty Pepper. "I've never played anyone this tough before." Her mom actually played Tessie some 30 years ago in a national tour of Annie.
Broad range of experience
Georgi and Lilla are the Broadway veterans of the bunch. They appeared in Billy Elliot (in the same role, that of a dance teacher's daughter), but the other girls are Broadway newcomers. None are showbiz novices, however. Even the youngest ones, Tyrah and Emily, speak of getting phone calls from their agents, as casually as other girls their age would refer to birthday cards from Grandma.
"When I first met them, I couldn't believe how young they looked," says Katie Finneran, 40, the two-time Tony Award winner playing Miss Hannigan. "But they're all complete professionals. The only thing that separates them from my peers is that they'll come up with these great non sequiturs. We were rehearsing the other day, and one suddenly said, 'My mom's allergic to shrimp.' "
Because the girls hail from different parts of the country, their mothers are with them in New York; they'll also have tutors once the school year starts. Their collective credits include regional and community theater, film, TV commercials and even a soap opera. "My aunt is a casting director, and I did some extra work on Days of Our Lives," says Madi Rae, a fine-featured brunette given to playful, emotive gestures.
Lilla is especially poised, taking great care not to abuse her leading-lady status by monopolizing the conversation. The Los Angeles native with alabaster skin and a mop of black curls will wear a wig while playing Annie. She describes the first rehearsal, which took place just days before this lunch, as "really, really fun. A lot of us already knew each other from the callbacks."
Chemistry is key
Director James Lapine, a Broadway veteran who has also written libretti for such celebrated musicals as Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods and Falsettos, "pretty much auditioned all of them together" after a certain point, keen to find not just the right girls but also the right chemistry among them. (He had already worked with Georgi and Madi Rae last year, in the La Jolla Playhouse's premiere of his musical adaptation of the film Little Miss Sunshine.)
"And I wanted kids who really wanted to be on stage, as opposed to kids who had been pushed," Lapine adds. "I wanted that sense of hunger and passion."
Certainly, those qualities come across as the gals recall first learning that they had made the final cut. The producers requested that their parents videotape their initial reactions. Madi Rae, cast as the quiet July, knew something was up when an elder sister approached her with a camera, followed by their father, holding a cake that read, "Break A Leg."
"Then my mom came in," says Madi Rae, eyes widening. "I'd been asking her all that week, 'Have you heard anything yet?' And she said, 'You got the part.' At first I was so shocked I couldn't say anything. I, like, went off to Rainbow Land or something. But then I screamed, 'Yeeesss!' And then I started crying."
Taylor, who will play the eldest orphan, Duffy, and be an understudy for Annie, also got a cake. She was similarly incredulous at first. Junah was downright suspicious: "My mom and dad were like, 'Hey, Junah, you got the part of Tessie!' And I was like, 'You're lying.' " When she realized they weren't, "I started screaming."
All were familiar with Annie before they auditioned. Many had been to stage productions, amateur and professional.
"And I've seen the movie a million times," Lilla says, referring to the 1982 film adaptation.
Lapine hadn't seen the musical onstage himself when he signed on, but he knew enough to understand its enduring appeal. "It seems especially topical now. In the show, (Franklin) Roosevelt is in his first term; in this country, there are the haves and the have-nots. It comes off, sadly, as very contemporary, and has a lot to say in its simple, subtle way."
Timing couldn't be better
Playbill editor Blake Ross agrees that Annie returns at "an incredibly opportune time," noting, "The family-friendly market is blossoming on Broadway right now, with shows like Newsies and Bring It On here and Matilda the Musical coming in the spring. This is one of those shows that parents remember fondly and want to bring their kids to. It's a perfect gateway drug to musical theater."
Annie's youngest cast members all seem well aware that they're about to be the focus of much attention, even in a Broadway season that includes such marquee names as Al Pacino, Patti LuPone and Katie Holmes. When asked if they're nervous, most agree that the word "excited" is more accurate.
"People say, 'How do you get rid of the butterflies?' " Junah observes. "And I'm like, you don't have to get rid of them. You just have to put them in formation."
Standby Jaidyn admits to being "a little nervous, because I'll never know exactly when I have to go on. I could be backstage, just watching, and all of sudden it could be, 'Hey, you need to go on right now - someone just puked on someone's foot!' "
When the giggles subside, Lilla speaks up. "When I hear the overture on opening night, or at the first preview, of course I'll be anxious. But then ..."
Lilla pauses, and Madi Rae completes her thought: "You just forget about it. You do what you love to do; you get into the part, and then you're not the person you were before."