IN NEW YORK a week ago yesterday, Roger L. Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center, signed checks for $800,000 that paid off in total the initial investors of the musical "Annie." It took only eight months for the show to make its budget back - from here on, as they say, the rest is gravy.
"Annie" is now regarded as having more profit potential than any musical in history. But the idea of basing a musical play on a whacky, anachronistic comic strip about a waif, a dog and her eccentric protector seemed initially to be a Class A bummer.
Its first preview at the Eisenhower Theater last March 1 was, as an associate of producer Mike Nichols puts it, "a technical disaster." Lighting was all wrong; cues were off; and Dorothy Loudon, who was to become a surprise sensation as the malevolent overseer of Miss Harrigan's Municipal Orphanage Annex for Girls, got her foot caught in a moving treadmill that dragged her across the stage. Nonetheless, at the end there was a sustained standing ovation "Annie." A week later it opened to raves, and tickets were virtually unobtainable. The reaction was the same in New York.
Now, about seven months into a New York run that Stevens estimates will last for at least five years, "the advance sale just keeps growing farther and farther ahead," says Stevens. "And standing room sells out immediately at 10 every morning."
That is just the first stage in the commercial development of "Annie" - much work lies ahead for people like lyricist and director Martin Charnin, who fought tenaciously for six years to get his creation to Broadway; for producers Mike Nichols and Lewis Allen, the principals who got this production going, and for Roger Stevens, who took the lead in a last minute financial bail-out.
With the show paid for, the proliferation and merchandising of "Annie" as an international phenomenon is beginning.
Their plans exceed even those of the present commercialization of Joseph Papp's "A Chorus Line," which is now systematically demolishing one theatrical records after another. "Annie" appeals to a broader audience, they believe. "I never knew of a production with such a wide range of interest," declares Stevens, whose own show, "West Side Story," has made a remarkable $2 1/2 million since it opened in 1957.
"Annie," Stevens predicts, will be well beyond that league.
Two road shows, one on each coast, are about to be launched. The East Coast version, after tryouts in Toronto and Miami, will settle in at the National in mid-May. Initially, the booking was to be 26 weeks - it is now "indefinite." Stevens is so confident of its prospects that he plans to refurbish the National's shopworn seats.
The West Coast production opens for 16 weeks in San Francisco and then settles down indefinitely at the Shubert in Los Angeles. Charnin will supervise both, as well as a London production.
Charnin and his collaborators, writer Thomas Meehan and composer Charles Strouse, are now putting together an hour-long Christmas television special that Charnin describes as "a mini-musical spinoff from 'Annie.'"
To be shown on NBC Sunday, Dec. 4, in the choice spot of 9 p.m., the story is set backstage at the Alvin Theater. Annie and her flock of fellow little orphaned girls demand a Christmas party after the Christmas Eve performance. "It's only got about 10 minutes out of 'Annie' itself," says Charnin. "We're also doing one new song, and the rest will be Christmas carols."
This show and the touring companies will in turn stimulate already busy record sales. The original cast recording, which came out in May, has sold about 200,000 copies, according to John Doyle, who is in charge of sales at Columbia, which also invested $100,000 in the show. Original cast recordings are long distance runners because of their endurance. Columbia predicts that "Annie" will some day rank in sales with their biggest original cast sellers: "The Sound of Music," "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady" - which are presently at about 1.5 million sales each.
In addition, there are the single discs of Annie's haunting ballad, "Tomorrow," which she sings alone on stage to her dog, Sandy, when they are both down and out. Charnin ticks off versions by Johnny Mathis, Kostelanetz, and Ferrante and Teicher. He is particularly fond of the gospel version by Sissy Houston, and notes that a disco issue once made it to No. 13 on Billboard's disco chart. He adds, "I even heard 'Tomorrow' the other day coming down on the hotel elevator."
There will, of course, he countless more recordings of the "Annie" score - the London production, the Mexican production, the Japanese version, and so on - conceivably someday even the all-black version. All but the latter are already in negotiation.
Particularly intensive bargaining is now going on over numerous cottage industry spinoffs. An agreement is signed with McCall's patterns, for about 15 different designs for children's clothes based on the "Annie" costumes and to be called the "Annie" line. If successful, the number of designs would be greatly increased.
Tiffany's has proposed to design and merchandise an "Annie" locket; dollmakers are competing for rights to make "Annie" dolls; toymakers are planning "Annie" toys; Bloomingdale's has an "Annie" room for Christmas and Geoffrey Beene has noted the "Annie" influence on his fall collection." "Annie" T-shirts are already on sale in the theater lobby and tote bags are on the way.
Farther down the lines are sales of movie rights and reproduction rights for productions not controlled by the authors - particularly for amateur and college groups.
Stevens says that tentative discussions with movie companies already involve sums that exceed the record $5.5 million, the amount paid for "My Fair Lady" and reportedly the amount Universal paid last spring for "A Chorus Line."
Timing is particularly tricky in negotiating movie rights, says Stevens.
You don't want the movie to appear until the stage versions are running their courses. On the other hand, to get a top price the deal must be made while the show is still on top. Release of the movie, everyone seems to agree, is five or six years off.
It is not possible to produce exact figures on the extent of a musical's profits, and "Annie's" creators say they cannot afford to discuss the size of the McCall's deal, for example, because it might adversely effect other spinoff negotiations.
But for "Annie," Lewis Allen predicts a minimum of $10 million in profits, and Stevens foresees a minimum of $15 million, either of which would be considered a record. Both men regard their estimates as conservative.
Their competitor, Papp, agrees that the profits may reach these levels and "may well" exceed those of "A Chorus line." He adds, "It wouldn't bother me at all because I think 'Annie' is a wonderful show."
Since hits such as "Fidler on the Roof" or "Hello, Dolly" tend to run about 20-years courses, "Annie" has a way to go before its profit profile takes final shape.
It is clear, however, that the Kennedy Center does not regret buying in. By Allen's reckoning, the Center owns 21 per cent of "Annie's" stage productions in Canada, the United States and England. In addition, it will own a share of the subsidiary rights. This means that if Stevens' profits estimate is in the ball park, "Annie" will repay the Center conceivably $2 million or $3 million for bailing it out.
Not a bad return on $150,000, and not bad for a show that almost didn't make it to the stage at all.
"Annie" was very much Charnin's creation - almost his crusade. It was he who in late 1971 bought a book on Harold Gray's comic strip at a midtown New York Doubleday book shop. He meant it for a friend, but before he had giftwrapped it, Charnin had, in effect, gotten wrapped up in the book himself.
The idea of a musical shaped around such a subject seemed to him a natural antidote for those grim times.v. irtually no one else agreed. When he approached Meehan about the book, Meehan replied, "You've got to be kidding. That's a rotten idea. "Composer Strouse reacted the same way.
The two finally convinced Charnin, who had collaborated with Richard Rodgers in "Two by Two" a year earlier, that the material in the comic strip was too "black and white" to be usable.
"We finally set out lifting nothing from Harold Gray but Annie's hair, her eyes, her dress, her dog and Oliver Warbucks," Charnin recalls.
The show was written in about 14 months - and that first draft included 11 of the final 14 songs. Meehan had fabricated a book that contained only one phrase from Harold Gray - "leapin' lizzards" - and that heard only once.
But if "Annie" was ready for the stage, the stage was hardly ready for "Annie." Producer after producer auditioned runthroughs and said "sorry."
The whole project might have gone permanently down the drain but for the tenacity, at considerable personal expense, of Charnin. The years of accumulating correspondence and memorabilia provided him, though, with yet another spinoff - a book chronicling the genesis of "Annie," to be released in December.
When the time finally came, the circumstances of "Annie's" break onto stage could hardly have been more modest. In January of 1975, it was brought to the attention of the wife of Michael Price, who runs the season of summer musicals at the Godspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. She and Strouse shared the same lawyer. The prices heard a runthrough, liked it and made an offer, but that failed when Price balked at Charnin's insistence on being the show's director.
"That seemed the end of it," Price recalls, "but then I would find myself humming those melodies. So finally I called Charnin and told him he had won."
The show, then called "Little Orphan Annie," opened on Aug. 17 at the Godspeed. The reveiws in the Connecticut press were mixed and a negative review by The New York Times' Walter Kerr seemed the kiss of death.
It might have been, but for the friendship of Strouse with hay Preson Allen, who is creator of the television hit "Family," - and wife of producer Lewis ALlen. Allen recalls, "I wouldn't have dreamed of going to see a show about Orphan Annie except for Strouse's call to Jay. But we loved it." Allen then called his frequent associate, Mike Nichols. "Mike would never have gone either, but he ended up loving it, too."
To get it to Broadway, Allen and Nichols were persuaded to join the persons who had an option on the rights, Irwin Meyer and Stephen R. Friedman, as producers - Nichol's first venture as a producer.
They started raising money for their $800,000 budget, and Charnin and associates started the fine tuning of "Annie" for a late winter opening here.
The delightful Andrea McCardie had played Annie since the second week at the Goodspeed, and the stars remained the same, except for Dorothy Loudon. Allen says he and Nichols, one of the theater's directorial luminaries, left the shaping of the show to Charnin. Aside from money, Allen says Nichols' principal contributions were recruiting Loudon and working with the sets.
Then, literally the January Friday before rehearsals were to start, Roger Stevens got a call for help from Nichols, saying that funding had run disasterously short and that the show appeared to be going over budget. Meyer and Friedman were having particular trouble raising their share.
"It looked like I was going to have a dark house on my hands, if I didn't do something. I told them, 'Thank you very much for all this and am I supposed to eat it?"
"So they held off rehearsals for a week and I went to two runthroughs. I liked the show, but initially they had the little girl just sitting on the sidelines, I guess that seeing her was what did it for me. She's going to be a great star."
Stevens then put together a financial package under the name of the Annie Company, of which he and james Nederlander are the general partners. According to Lewis Allen, the contributors were: the Kennedy Center, $150,000, the Nederlander Co. $150,000; Nichols and Allen raised about $250,000, including their own money; Columbia Records, $100,000, and the remainder was raised by Meyer or Friedman or came from other private sources. Even the Goodspeed gets a cut.
At last, "Annie" was ready to fly. The show was a smash. Even Walter Kerr recanted.
It ceased to be Little Orphan Annie and became Big Orphan Annie, story of dollars and cents. Even that wornout old comic strip may get a new lease on life from the show. Syndication of the reruns is down to 150 now. But the owners, the Chicago Tribune, New York News Syndicate, will share merchandising profits with the Annie Company.
And, according to Robert S. Reed, the syndicate's head, creation of a new Annie strip based on the musical is now in "the talking stage" with Charnin and Meehan.