Monday, April 29, 2013

Hard-Knock to Easy Street: Money, Music, and Annie

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.


  1. "Hard Knock Life" is an "anthem of the downtrodden"? Really, Miles?

  2. CLARIFY: I think you opening paragraph pretty clearly states what your post would be about. I might, however, like some clarification about what you mean by "good versus greed." Obvious this implies (and you go on to point out) that greed is seen as bad. But what does it mean to be "good" then (according to the film)?

    VALUE: I really appreciate how you try to anchor all of your points on the themes the film explores in the actual songs, and you clearly explain how some of the songs are more integrated and some are more spectacle. Your main points are clearly stated and have great examples to back them up. I also love the added links to the songs on youtube - that helps to illustrate your point even further to a reader. Someone who has not sent the film could still follow your post (and get to see some of the examples you bring up). I also think you did a good job of keeping your focus narrow so as to not feel like you had to talk about everything.

    CONCERNS: I feel like your main points of each paragraph don't always seem to connect to your thesis, at least to start. Your paragraph on the antagonists of the story do clearly tie in to both the exploration of greed and the American Dream, but how does Mr. Warbucks' character arc fit in with all that. Was he bad before, and now he's good (tying to the idea of good versus greed)? I think you could have gone into a little more detail with your final point.

    I could see two arguments about Daddy Warbucks - one being the obvious that although he had all the money in the world he didn't have love, and that by meeting Annie he discovers that. You bring up that point, though I think you could tie it more clearly into your "thesis" by explaining what you mean by "good." Obviously Annie is the ultimate "good" so maybe explaining her character more might help, too.

    The other argument might be looking closer into his business ideas and his clashing with the President and what he learns about helping out others. I found it interesting that at the start he is trying to boost his PR by taking an orphan in for a week (which doesn't cost him much), and by the end it seems like he has rescued all the orphans, Miss Hannigan, and probably agreed to the importance of the idea of welfare and helping those in need. I have a feeling he will be a better philanthropist with Annie has his daughter. He will help even those that aren't fighting and working as hard as he did to get his American Dream. This isn't something that is explored in great detail in the film, but it was something I noticed and thought about. In a way I wonder if you could see the film as criticizing the American Dream a little bit - or at least saying that if you achieve wealth you should remember those that are still poor.