Adapted straight from the Depression-era Little Orphan Annie comics, the 1977 musical Annie and its 1982 film version are chalk full of ideas about wealth and poverty, the American Dream, and good versus greed, which would have resonated with audiences in the Great Depression as well as the recession of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Through the manipulation of the conventions of the musical genre, these themes are accentuated and deepened.
The economically divided world of Annie is established in one of the musical’s first and most iconic songs: “Hard Knock Life.” Beyond expressing the orphans’ unhappiness at the hands of tyrannical Miss Hannigan, the song could be seen as an anthem of the downtrodden in general, voicing frustration with an uncaring world and a life that isn’t easy. Along with “Maybe”—the girls’ song of hope for a better future—“Hard Knock Life” is very much in the tradition of integrated musicals, where songs stem from the characters’ emotion (in this case, unhappiness). While there is definitely a certain amount of spectacle in “Hard Knock Life”’s choreography (This isn’t Les Misérables, after all.), the orphans are not dancing for the sake of dancing; all choreography and spectacle is rooted in the endless chores the girls must undertake.
By contrast, Mr. Warbucks’s house has nothing “hard-knock” about it. His opulent displays of wealth create a world where everything is wonderful. The song “I think I’m Gonna Like It Here” is the first time when spectacle really begins to take over, and indeed, it’s a song about spectacle: the spectacular lifestyle of the wealthy, where everything is beautiful, but beauty is shallow. Annie is dazzled by all the nice things in her temporary new home, but we quickly learn that for all his wealth, Mr. Warbucks lacks the human beauty that Annie shows when she sings the integrated, emotion-based song “Maybe” to comfort a younger orphan. This idea that wealth is worthless without someone to share it with is a theme central to the film and is reflected by the use of integrated versus spectacle-driven music in the show’s first few songs.
Antagonists in Annie come in the form of Miss Hannigan, her crook brother Rooster, and his floozy girlfriend Lily. They’re not depraved killers, nor driven by revenge or malice, or generic “evil”. Instead, their greed is what makes them villains. They are ambitious, but lack the work ethic to make their money honestly. This illuminates one way in which the American Dream pervades the story: it’s revealed that Warbucks started out poor and worked his way up, so the assumption is that if Rooster and Lily had worked harder, they wouldn’t be so poor. Their greed and laziness are spotlighted in the song “Easy Street,” in which they dream about being rich. Here, the connection between wealth and spectacle is twisted; the song lapses into an extended dance sequence, but it’s decidedly shabbier (and more drunken, in the case of Miss Hannigan) than “Let’s Go To the Movies,” the most extravagantly spectacular and least story-related song in the film, another display of wealth on the part of Mr. Warbucks.
The biggest character arc in the film is that of Mr. Warbucks. As he begins to feel genuine love for Annie, his growth and departure from superficial materialism is demonstrated by the reprise he sings of “Maybe.” The connection between his growth and singing is accentuated when, in the final song, he tells Annie, “You’ve made life a song. You’ve made me the singer.” Finally, in a Hollywood ending typical of escapist films of the 1930s, the rich man realizes the value of love, and all the good guys get the money they deserve, both reassuring the audience that you needn’t be rich to be happy, and keeping out hope alive that maybe “Tomorrow” our luck will take a turn for the better.