Directing Lesson: a story about the Hope found in one of Broadway’s most iconic songs

Treasure Vally YOUTH Theater, Inc. is producing “Annie, Jr.” this spring. Pretty much every youth theater company does “Annie” at some point and for good reason. Youth and families love the rags to riches story. 218 kids auditioned for 55 roles… a record-breaking turn-out in my personal experience. But that’s not really what this post is about.

In the staging of our version of “Annie, Jr.” we really want to young cast to explore the background of their character and create a meaningful story that will help root them as actors into their character work on stage. A big task for many adult actors; a GIANT task for a cast of 55 ranging in age from 7-17. We have our work cut out for us.

During one particular rehearsal we were working with the entire cast to create a 4.5 minute mash-up of “Hard Knock Life,” “NYC,” and “Tomorrow.” The mash-up was performed at a local basketball game to help promote the show. While rehearsing, we felt that the performance was falling a bit flat. The young cast was antsy and tired and pretty much “dialing in” their work. Every director experiences that moment when their cast hits a wall. In most cases, it’s a good time to break and regroup. We had limited time and not the luxury to take a break so we had to think fast. How do we get these kids to connect with the material in a way that is deeper and more meaningful that the hundreds of performances of “cute” kids performing a “cute” version of the show.

We worked with the cast on some simple visualization and challenged them to find their own personal “light” and share that light with the audience during the singing of “Tomorrow.” This discussion was mildly successful and about one-quarter of the cast (mostly older kids) understood the purpose of the exercise. But we needed more. We then asked the cast members to partner up and  talk about a specific moment when they felt alone, scared, or otherwise very sad and what action they took to shake their sadness and feel better. Another one-quarter caught on, but still didn’t achieve what we were going for…

In my nearly 20 years of directing youth I’ve learned that there are moments that call for brutal honesty and moments that call for vulnerability. The song “Tomorrow,” while one of the most iconic and, to some, irritating songs ever sung on Broadway, has a powerful message; a message of hope.

In 1982 my mother took me to see “Annie” in the movie theater. I fell in love with the red-headed orphan and, in particular, the song of hope in “Tomorrow.” I drove my step-father crazy crooning to that tune for weeks after seeing the movie. But then again, it didn’t take much to make my step-father angry. He was an abusive alcoholic. The story of “Annie” and the hope she gave me in the song “Tomorrow” was important to my 6-year-old self.

I shared this story with my cast. It was raw, and vulnerable, and true. And it worked! The power and light that came from these young performers was palpable.

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Sometimes, when directing, it’s good to remember why YOU connect with the material and then share that connection with your actors.