"Tomorrow" was a long time coming for Andrea McArdle, who finally grew out of the lead role of "Annie" after 1,000 performances. She's 17 now, a full nine inches taller than four years ago, when she propelled her 4-foot-7 bundle of energy nightly across the Kennedy Center boards on her way to Broadway and the sudden fame that certain roles -- and child stardom -- seem to bring.

Last month at the Tony Award ceremonies, McArdle sang the song that will probably always be associated with her. When she hit the impossibly high note in the middle of "Tomorrow," a number of knowledgeable people in the audience started applauding: Andrea could still hit the note even though her voice was changing. "It's not in the original key anymore," McArdle confessed in a dressing room before taping the "Charlie Rose Show" yesterday morning. "It's down a little. My range is the same, just lower. When I couldn't hit the high notes, I had more of a low range."

McArdle, in town for free concerts at Carter Barron last night and tonight, doesn't look like star material: Her face is both polished and impish, a well-groomed typical teen-age girl who just graduated from high school in Philadelphia. The average girl next door who just happens to be talented and a bit courageous at things like skateboarding and parachuting.

The singer, with a decade-long list of credits behind her, is a bit perturbed by the drawbacks of her average looks: She wants to make a record and right now record companies seem to be after an image. "I'm having trouble getting a contract and yet people who can't sing but have a good image are being begged to do albums, they're the ones who are getting the contracts. It's frustrating."

Although "Annie" brought her fame at 13, McArdle stepped into the role as a five-year veteran of 40 commercials and 2 1/2 years on the soap "Search for Tomorrow" as Wendy Wilkins, the villainess' daughter.

There has also been three unsuccessful sitcom pilots, the first with Louise ("Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman") Lasser when she was only 10. The next one came in 1976 during a break in the run of "Annie" when McArdle was to have played Horschack's stepsister in a spinoff from "Welcome Back, Kotter." Her most recent pilot, with Chris Barnes of "The Bad News Bears," was set for production but ended up being killed due to the screenwriters' strike.

McArdle played "Annie" for almost three years, and hopes to return to Broadway with a new show this fall. In the meantime, she's been touring the country for the March of Dimes, doing a bit of theater ("Grease" in Kansas City with Eddie Mekka, Carmine of "Laverne & Shirley"), and mostly doing her own act (a Judy Garland medley, some Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers, Beatles songs and material from Broadway). "The more people see me now, the more they'll realize I'm not 'Annie' any more. But to a lot of people I'll always be that way because the show keeps getting bigger and bigger. I'm not getting any bigger as Andrea McArdle."

The singer is part of a small group of child stars who share the secret of early success. "I'm really good friends with Quinn Cummings ["Goodbye Girl," "Family"], Chris Barnes, Eddie Mekka ('I didn't even like him before we worked together'). I've known Kristy McNichol for a couple of years . . . When you work with these kids, you always become close to them. Most of the people I know in the business are not fazed by it at all."

Some time back, McArdle starred in "Rainbow," a television movie about Judy Garland. She admits she wasn't obsessed by any possible parallels with that child star's tragaic life. More than anything, McArdle wants to get back on Broadway. "Once you get a taste of it, there's nothing else you'd rather do." She's also ready to return to "Annie" -- way down the road. "I love the part of Miss Hannigan [the evil headmistress of the orphanage]. It would be great for publicity, anyway. They [public relations people] would have a ball with that."