|Katie Finneran (Miss Hannigan) teaches Lila Crawford (Annie) it's a hard knock life.|
Katie Finneran, 42, is the Tony Award-winning actress currently wowing audiences with her barnstormer performance as Miss Hannigan, the so-bad-she’s-good orphanage supervisor in the Broadway revival of the classic musical Annie.
It’s a somewhat unlikely role for the Miami-born Irish American actress, whose previous Broadway hits include her unforgettable Tony winning turn as a been around the block barfly opposite Sean Hayes in the musical Promises, Promises.
Although Finneran is blessed with leading lady looks, in recent years her comic talent has opened doors toward the kind of classic Broadway roles once played by theatrical luminaries like Carol Burnett and Kathy Bates. It turns out that no one is more surprised by this unexpected career development than Finneran herself.
Having been called by the producers to audition for the part of Miss Hannigan, the plum role in Annie, Finneran wondered what on earth they were expecting.
“I was really hesitant,” she confesses to the Irish Voice. “I asked myself, what am I going to bring to this role that the great Carol Burnett, the great Kathy Bates haven’t already offered? But it’s also a great job and a very juicy part, and if they were willing to give me a shot at it I was willing to take a risk and do it.”
Thank goodness for her courage. Finneran, often singing and speaking in her lower octaves, gives her tough as nails character as much reality as she can, and it turns out she’s the best thing about this otherwise relentlessly sweet slice of American pie.
Annie the musical is based on the Little Orphan Annie cartoon strip of the 1920s and ‘30s that gradually became a kind of spiritual pick-me-up for the hard-bitten Depression-era generation facing into profound economic uncertainty.
Annie then -- and now -- offered wish fulfillment and the hope of a sunnier tomorrow that proved irresistible. After all, if a plucky young orphan girl could make good in this crazy world, what’s stopping you? As long as you have a song in your heart and a smile on your face, that is.
“We have to remember that the show is written to appeal to children and it can’t get so dark that it isn’t accessible to them,” says Finneran wisely.
“But it does have a lot of dark themes. I really appreciated director James Lapine’s approach to the reality of the time the cartoon was written in. It’s meant to be light and fun and uplift people but it was dealing with really hard times. Every time I hear a four year old giggle I remember that that’s who we’re doing the show for.”
Finneran’s performance anchors Annie from her opening scene, preventing the show from becoming much too saccharine, as her scenes remind us that when dreams come true for one person they often fall apart for someone else.
Confessing she used to listen to the original Broadway recording of Annie when she was a little girl, she never imagined she’d step into her role. “It was a dream come true to actually be in the show, especially on Broadway.” But it wasn’t a dream she’d nurtured.
“I was very shocked to be asked to be in this show,” she says plainly. “I had just played a role of a character who was very bawdy in Promises, Promises. That had sort of allowed people to see me as a potential Miss Hannigan.
“But I was a lot younger than she is usually played. When I met with the producers I was seven and a half months pregnant. I remember it vividly. I sang the Little Girls song wearing a Diane Von Furstenberg gown and high heels and somehow I won them over. Very odd, but I guess it worked.”
Finneran, who despite having unbroken Irish ancestry on both sides has not yet visited Ireland, reveals that she has become particularly interested in her Irish ancestry in recent years and has decided to begin a search.
“I always lie and say my people come from Cork, but I don’t really know. I told my husband I want to do it. I want to research our ancestry now, so we’re starting,” she said.
Meanwhile fans hoping to catch Finneran as Miss Hannigan will need to book before May 16, when Glee’s Jane Lynch (another Irish American) is scheduled to take over the role.
There’s a good reason for Finneran’s departure. It has just been announced she will co-star alongside Michael J. Fox in the forthcoming NBC comedy The Hollywood Reporter.
Fox will play Mike Burnaby, a former news anchor who decides to return to work after Parkinson’s forced him to take some time off. Finneran will play Leigh, his self-involved younger sister who is jobless and clueless and doing whatever she can to stay young.
It’s the kind of role Finneran can play with her eyes closed, so expect fireworks. In the meantime, though, she’s reminding Broadway what a Tony winner looks like.
Catch her before the curtain falls, because Annie knows how to bring the sunshine.
Annie is playing at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. For tickets and showtimes visit www.anniethemusical.com.