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.


Playlist of the Month: Songs From Musicals We’ve Been In

Ah, the first breath of spring. In high schools across the nation, now is the time for students to work together to create something bigger than themselves, to forge new friendships and let their talents shine. Baseball season? Nah. Prom planning? Please. It’s high school musical season!

We spent the first years of our friendship hanging out in our high school’s auditorium during musical rehearsals. We had snacks from a special “junk food locker” (an abandoned locker that we stocked with bulk candy) and played Bullshit and Spoons with the young, pre-gay gay boys we were friends with. Before high school, we were both big fish in our respective theater ponds, and being in chorus and dance company roles just felt so wrong, but we were still happy to be involved in a show.

Even the songs still stick with you years later. In honor of those hardworking theater kids in Hell Week for Grease or Man Of La Mancha right now, here are some songs from musicals we’ve been in – songs we still get stuck in our head over a decade later.

Check out the entire playlist on Spotify!

Molly’s Picks

Feel So Near – Some Weird Play From My Childhood

When I was a kid, I was in this odd, somewhat avant garde youth theater company. I mean, of course I was. For a few years our plays were these adaptations of obscure folk tales with minimalist staging and costuming and kabuki-inspired makeup. A chorus of children sang this folksy tune by Dougie MacLean and what do you know, it sounds pretty good sung by a chorus of children. I’m including this as a nod to my weird childhood.

Oh What A Beautiful Morning – I Seriously Cannot Remember What Play This Was

Oh, cool, Oklahoma? Nope. Just some random play I was in that rather inexplicably included the song Oh What A Beautiful Morning. Again, it was a strange childhood, theater-wise.

The Boy Next Door – Meet Me In St. Louis

In eighth grade, a group of 10-15 local Catholic schools got together to put on a mega-musical. It was like an awkward plaid dream team, and I was thrilled to land in the principal cast. Because I’ve been the same person my whole life, you won’t be surprised to learn that it was the comic relief character, who was an Irish maid. But I had a solo and I was very pleased and honored to finally be in a play where I wasn’t wearing white pancake makeup and a black turtleneck.

I Can’t Be Bothered Now – Crazy For You

When I was a kid my sister had the cassette tape of the Crazy For You soundtrack, and I thought it was just about the best thing ever. [A note: during my sister’s high school tenure our school was putting on, like, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Rough.] I know the concept of compiling a bunch of Gershwin’s best tunes into a loosely conceived plot is probably, technically, bad, but our school put this on our junior year and years later, I can barely decide which song to include.

On The Street Where You Live – My Fair Lady

Senior year, we performed My Fair Lady and I learned that when it doesn’t involve Audrey Hepburn or Julie Andrews, I really don’t care for My Fair Lady. But we had fun with it – I remember sitting in English class singing Ascot Gavotte with extra-plummy accents because as seniors, and I guess as people, we just didn’t care. In true Lerner and Loewe fashion each number is catchier than the last,  but I’m including On The Street Where You Live because I remember my mom singing it when I was little, and in fourth grade I thought it was THE perfect song for my grade school crush. Yes, like so many theater kids before and after me, I was maybe just a little dramatic.

Traci’s Picks

Embraceable You – Crazy For You

Like Molly said, I could barely decide which song to include because every song was a classic. I legit changed my mind about which one to put on the list three times. Crazy For You was the first time I was really exposed to music of this era – that I actually paid attention to. Lo and behold, I took a liking to it. Since the musical is a bunch of Gershwin songs put together, this one is from Girl Crazy, as seen here by Judy Garland and a bunch of strapping young men. Swoonworthy.

Something Good – The Sound of Music

Okay, I’m cheating a bit. This song wasn’t included in the OG Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which is the version I was in, but rather was added for the film that we all know and love. After the movie, however, this song was included in some revivals of the show so it counts. The version by Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer is stunning and simple, like a reflection of their love *awwww cheesy stfu*

Close Every Door – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Like Molly said, we were “big fish” in our respective little ponds, and for me, that pond was my church. We used to put on full musical productions (and were kind of really good and well known for it in the immediate community?) so it’s not like me in a basement naming all the colors of Joseph’s coat. Anyways, this show marked my first “big” role – I was a Narrator. Emphasis on A, because I was one of 6 HAHAHA. When I would listen to Donny Osmond’s version of the soundtrack, I was obsessed with Close Every Door, particularly the last 45ish seconds when he does the key change and the riffs at the end – changed my life. Also, that’s when I retroactively developed a crush on Donny Osmond way past his prime. IDK you guys, I was a weird kid.

I Don’t Need Anything But You – Annie

Annie is like a rite of passage for any theatre kid, including this AZN one right here. I obviously wasn’t Annie, and by the time I did the show, I was too old to be an orphan, so I was a servant/the “Star-to-Be” aka the solo in NYC aka the part OG Annie Andrea McArdle plays in the Audra McDonald verz of Annie. This song always struck me as a super sweet tune between Annie and Daddy Warbucks, and was just filled with positivity about the future. She’ll learn soon enough.

Beautiful City – Godspell

Again, I guess this is cheating a bit, since Beautiful City wasn’t included in the original 1971 Off-Broadway cast recording, which is the soundtrack we went by when my church did the show. It was the first real musical I was ever in, and I’m kinda sad that this song wasn’t included. The song was written for the 1972 film, starring Victor Garber as the big JC, and the version above is from the 2011 Broadway revival starring Hunter Parrish as Jesus. When I first heard this, it was probably a mix of me not being too familiar with it and the fact that I was stunned by how beautiful Hunter’s voice is. It’s a haunting song that still holds up in 2015. Fun fact: My friends walked down the aisle to this song. Not creepy, really cute and made me cry.