Big-screen Annie appears in Theatre Aspen’s production
December 20, 2011
ASPEN – Playing Lily St. Regis in Theatre Aspen’s current production of the musical “Annie,” Aileen Quinn feels a bit out of character. “I’m usually the heroine, making the good moral choices. And this time – nope. I have to kidnap Annie,” Quinn said of playing the easily manipulated Lily. “It’s very surreal and strange.”
Complicating the situation is that Quinn seems to have been built to play another character in the musical – Annie. In fact, some three decades ago, Quinn had to weigh competing offers: whether to play Annie on Broadway, or to star as the spunky, optimistic redhead in a big-screen adaptation. At age 8, Quinn was a “swing orphan” – bouncing from one orphan role to another, depending on the night – in the hit Broadway production. One day, Martin Charnin, the show’s lyricist and director, called Quinn to his office with the promise of big news. As Charnin offered her the title role, Quinn had her own big news: She had accepted an offer to play the role of Annie in a film version, to be directed by John Huston and to star Carol Burnett, Albert Finney and Bernadette Peters.
“So either way, I was going to be Annie,” said Quinn.
Quinn, who had spent a year or so prior to her Broadway appearance doing regional theater and commercials near her home in Yardley, Pa., just north of Philadelphia, earned a Golden Globe nomination, and expected to have an extended life as Annie.
She signed a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures, which planned to make two sequels based on the Harold Gray comic strips. Quinn recalls a storyline that had her trapped in a swamp in New Orleans, with the kindly billionaire Oliver Warbucks, who had become Annie’s adopted father in the original film, coming to her rescue. But the sequels never materialized and Quinn, partly hamstrung by the contract, agreeably moved into a relatively normal childhood of school and regional theater. (Though there was “Bobby’s Girl,” the album of girlie pop-rock she recorded in 1982.)
Quinn returned to the role of Annie once, at a North Carolina theater. She was 15, pushing the age limit of being able to play the child, and figured this was her farewell to the musical. “After that, I never thought about it again. I never thought what adult roles I could play in the show,” she said.
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Quinn went on to a career that mixed stage work (touring companies of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Peter Pan”), small film roles, and education (teaching theater and film at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, a position she still holds). Recently there came a call from Paige Price. The artistic director of Theatre Aspen had met Quinn a decade ago, when the two were crossing paths in the cast of “Saturday Night Fever,” and Theatre Aspen was casting a winter reprise of its “Annie,” which had been a hit this past summer. At Price’s invitation, Quinn auditioned and was cast in the role of Lily.
Quinn found the role of Annie to be an easy fit. She says she is, like the character, focused on the bright side. Her stay in Aspen hasn’t been easy; she hurt a knee two days before opening night, and, having lived in Los Angeles for the past year, she is having trouble with the altitude and the cold. But she’s upbeat about the theater experience here, with good things to say about her castmates and the people of Aspen.
“We both have optimism,” Quinn said. “Even with my injury, I’m a fighter, a fighter in spirit.”
Playing Lily has been more of a stretch. Still, she finds much to like about the role, especially the fact that Lily starts out as a flashy floozy, then goes into disguise as Shirley Mudge, a New Jersey pig farmer. “She goes from ‘Look at me, I’m so sexy’ to the pig farmer, pretending to be sweet and sincere. I like that flip,” Quinn said.
“Annie” opened last Friday and runs through Friday at the Wheeler Opera House, with much of last summer’s cast – including locals Julia Foran as Annie, Nina Gabianelli as the horrendous orphanage keeper Miss Hannigan – intact. At one performance, Price was backstage, starting to chat with Quinn, when Quinn excused herself. “Hard Knock Life,” the orphans’ big number, was starting, and Quinn had a flashback to her Broadway days, when she was always on call to step in and play an orphan.
“It was a reflex. That’s tradition for me,” she said. “And it’s so much fun. I have so many memories, watching them have fun the way I used to have fun with the show.”