Moo Point: Joanna Pacitti Was Robbed

Welcome to Moo Point, a series focusing on really old scandals, controversies and mysteries that are now so culturally irrelevant that our thoughts on them are moo. Like a cow’s opinion.

If you were a theater kid, you probably both loved and hated the kids in the Broadway cast of Annie. On one hand, those lucky kids were living their dream! On the other hand, those lucky kids were living YOUR dream. I was a hardcore child theater nerd – camps, acting classes, commercial auditions, headshots, even an educational video that I hope never surfaces – but I was nothing compared to the little pros in Annie. Although the Andrea McArdles, Aileen Quinns and Sarah Jessica Parkers get most of the Annie cred, if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool millennial you probably connect the most with the 1997 Broadway Revival. And leapin’ lizards, you’re probably still ready to serve a knuckle sandwich to whoever booted tiny, talented Joanna Pacitti.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it back … way back… to a show a surprising number of 10-year-olds were watching in 1997: Turning Point, a 20/20-type show on ABC. (In our defense, 20/20  did air right after TGIF, and how else were we supposed to learn that you can get scalped by a pool drain?) A Very Special Episode – advertised for what seemed like weeks – tracked the auditions and casting for the upcoming Broadway revival of Annie. You got to follow kids through open calls, callbacks, trying to act like they’re instantly bonded with Sandy, the crushing disappointment of rejection… and finally, the naming of a new Annie, Joanna Pacitti.  Even if you wanted to resent a kid whose acting career was going better than yours, you had to admit that Joanna was a great Annie. She had the tough kid act down, but could also play sweet. She looked like she was having fun. And her rendition of Tomorrow was note-perfect.

(Rewatching the above for the first time in 20 years, I remember how appalled I was at the kids’ acting ability as a child: most auditions I went out for required a more naturalistic approach, and the Annie auditions seemed to go more for girls who ACT like THIS, with some of their WORDS IN ALL CAPS!, like the spoken interlude in a Kidz Bop song. But the girls were just giving the producers what they were looking for, so hey, those gals could read a room.)

Before the show even went to the stage, Joanna became a national phenomenon.  She was on talk shows and was the talk of 5th grade classrooms everywhere. Her story became known across the country: just a regular Philly kid who got her start singing for tips at her father’s barber shop. As Annie took a roundabout route to Broadway via a national tour, Pacitti warmed hearts and gained positive reviews. In hindsight, the whole process of the 1997 Annie revival is weird: the laborious open call auditions, the reality TV-ification of casting (before “reality TV” existed as such), the national tour before the Broadway opening… it seemed almost like producers were trying to generate interest in the show that could have been accomplished by just, you know, opening a new production of Annie on Broadway. It was 1997. What were tourists going to take their 7-year-old daughters to, Rent?

Then, four weeks before the Broadway opening, the unthinkable happened. Well, unthinkable if you’re a girl who beat out thousands in a search for the new Annie: little Joanna got the ax. According to producers, the reason was concerns about Joanna’s acting ability and chemistry with Daddy Warbucks. In another statement, they said that after trying out understudies when Joanna got bronchitis, they just liked another kid better. The other kid, Brittny Kissinger, was the youngest Annie ever, a second grader carrying a Broadway show. Impressive stuff.

Still, I defer to my comment under the video – not a single one of those orphans were showing off their “acting ability.” They all did what my childhood acting teacher called “Barney acting,” shouting like an excited cheerleader hopped up on pixie sticks. Today’s viewers will know this acting style from countless Disney sitcoms. My point is, this production wasn’t going for realism in Annie’s performance, they were going for something between pep and moxie. It’s pretty hard to be bad at that, and I don’t think Joanna was. [Note: Joanna may have been a perfectly good, realistic actress in other contexts, but that doesn’t seem to be what the director wanted and that’s not what she gave him.]

What followed was a hubbub far greater than the initial casting announcement. Joanna was on Sally Jessy Raphael. She was an early guest on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, whose main platform was kids and musical theater (we both watched every day, yes). The story was in everything from Playbill to People. It even went back to Turning Point:

I mean, THIS is the girl that producers didn’t think was Annie enough to play Annie? She literally says “I’m not Annie no more.” What kid actually talks like that? Plucky orphans from the 1930s.

Then came the lawsuit. A flashy breach of contract case stirs my soul like musical theater auditions did when I was 10, so this part of the story is my jam. Joanna won a contest, and the prize of the contest was the role of Annie on Broadway. A lower court judge ruled that a Broadway role is “not comparable to other contest awards,” ergo specific performance can’t be ordered. But is there a breach? The third circuit court of appeals ruled that Pacitti had the right to have her case heard. Unfortunately for those of us who really want to know if this constitutes a breach, Macy’s settled.

As for Joanna? It’s all too tempting to say that the sun did come out. She starred in a regional production of Annie, which for a little kid is almost good enough. She still got to do what she loved. Joanna went on to pursue a pop career, and might have made a great American Idol contestant, except that the show’s legal team decided that she might have had too many ties in the entertainment industry – she was signed, at times, by both A&M and Geffen. According to her Twitter profile, these days Joanna is a singer and photographer. It comes as no surprise that the kid chosen to play resilient Annie is doing just fine after seeing the wrong side of show business – which, as they say, isn’t called show friends for a reason. My opinion may be moo by this point – the 1997 revival closed within months,  – but this 90s theater kid will always argue that Joanna Pacitti was robbed.


3 thoughts on “Moo Point: Joanna Pacitti Was Robbed

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