Miss Hannigan: She’s One Of Us

Posted on November 5, 2012 by

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Katie Finneran as Miss Hannigan telling Annie exactly how she feels about little girls.

As a child, there was no character I revered more than little orphan Annie. (Though Tatum O’Neal in The Bad News Bears tied Annie for my first place hero.) My grandmother took me to see Annie when I was eight and I quickly fell in love. What’s not to love? She sang like a champ. Took care of other little kids. Had a dog who came when she called him. Got a bunch of farty, old politicians to sing about being hopeful for the future.

If Annie was my idol, then Miss Hannigan, the orphanage dominatrix who insists the girls clean the floors “until they shine like the top of the Chrysler Building,” won the award for adult most likely to be afraid of. Miss Hannigan single-handedly belittled the mother- and fatherless girls at all times of the day—middle of the night inspections were her favorite—forcing them to not only hide her severe drinking habit from other adults, but screamed, belittled and completely neglected the girls. DYFS’s worst nightmare. She represented the kind of dark adult that I couldn’t possibly understand in 1977: some adults hated children.

But more, I remember Dorothy Loudin’s mannerisms distinctly—her thrusting pelvis during “Easy Street,” the song in which she and her brother Rooster concocted the plan to kidnap Annie. She was evil to the core. The kind of lady you wouldn’t take a ride home from if she pulled over to offer.

It’s been 35 years since I saw Annie on Broadway. And because I literally memorized every single song as a child acting out most of the parts–even knowing the names of the obscure orphans–I started playing the album for my 3-year-old daughter. You might thing this is odd, but take my word for it when I tell you that Elke has memorized most of the words to the songs on the radio including Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” So when she began singing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” and I mean every word to the song, I immediately bought tickets to the new revival on Broadway, hoping she wouldn’t want to leave about 15 minutes in.

Good news. She loved it. She held my hand, mesmerized. Kissing me throughout the play. Hugging Andy throughout. But outside of Elke’s fascination with the play–Why is the dog named Sandy? Why don’t the kids have moms and dads? Why does Annie want the sun to come out tomorrow?–I found myself fascinated with my changing views around the play. Now I understand the pro-FDR underlying politics of the depression-era songs including “We’re getting a New Deal For Christmas,” and “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover,” where the hungry homeless living in shanty’s sing, We got no Turkey for a stuffing. Why don’t we stuff you?

But this time I also have a whole new understanding of Miss Hannigan. Though her crimes are slightly on par with Maleficient and Nurse Ratchet (she could easily be booked for attempted kidnapping, neglect and abuse), I now see her as a troubled soul, a woman who has made a lot of bad choices, choices that left her ending up drunk, destitute and desperate, spending her days in an underfunded orphanage. And when she sang her tour de force “Little Girls,” crooning How I hate little shoes, little socks and each little bloomer, I couldn’t help but feel her pain. I hate the socks too, Miss Hannigan! And the shoes! Oh all the shoes!

Even Katie Finneran who plays her in the revival said she partly sees the character “a tough, desperate woman out of a Eugene O’Neill play.” Because really, isn’t Miss Hannigan really more symbolic of an over-loaded, over-stressed and exhausted parent? What mother doesn’t want to “wring little necks” by the end of the day? And after seven days without power (and even on the days I’m not without power) I realize that Miss Hannigan is more than just an evil caricature. She’s one of us.

(Image: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

For your viewing pleasure, Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan singing “Little Girls”