Meet the Annies
Congratulations to Anita Munro, daughter of Youths Director Mark Munro and wife Trish for her selection to play the leading role of Annie in the musical of the same name, which opens on 7 April at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.
The three little girls in the studio are bouncing off the walls with excitement — literally, bouncing — as they chatter away, laughing at something the other has done, singing random songs out loud, chasing each other around in circles.
It is a happy trio, these three little maids from school.
Chloe Teale is the beautiful blonde; a musical theatre princess. The 11-year-old daughter of a West End (London) dancer, she grew up in Manchester, England, and won her first singing recital at six years old before moving to Australia with her family.
Now living at Griffin on Brisbane's northside, the St Kieran's Primary School student dances every day except Monday after school at the Queensland National Ballet and performs with Brisbane Junior Theatre on school holidays.
Anita Munro lives on the Gold Coast and goes to St Andrews Lutheran College; a bubbly brunette, also 11, whose words struggle to keep up with her racing thoughts and whose big brown eyes sparkle when she smiles. Her great aunt was an Italian opera singer in Milan's famed La Scala hall, she tells me proudly. Tap is her favourite.
Often, says her dad, Mark, later on, the only time she gets to eat dinner is on her lap in the car because she is so busy between school, dance practice and other rehearsals.
Jazmine May, at 10 years old, is the youngest. You worry the cute strawberry redhead from Ipswich won't be able to get a word in edgewise next to the sophisticated Chloe or the energetic Anita. But when Jazzy, a student at Springfield Anglican College, does speak up, the eldest of three sisters shyly informs us she has already performed with the Paris Opera Ballet (as a flower girl) and she is also working on stage in Queensland Performing Arts Centre's The Wizard of Oz. She loves dancing jazz.
Not once do they try to outdo each other. Everybody politely waits their turn to speak. Since being chosen to share the lead role of Annie when the touring production arrives in Queensland, no one has let it go to their head. When Chloe tells the story of finding out about winning the role on the same day of her grandmother's funeral, the others respectfully give her a smile and pat her arm.
Of course, up until today, none of their friends or family has been allowed to know that the girls won the lead role in Annie, which gets alternated every night to give them a rest and which is cast separately for every state.
Has it been hard to keep it a secret?
“Hmm-mmm,” says Anita vehemently. “I want to scream it from the rooftops,” she says. “I GOT ANNIE!”
Everyone keeps asking if they got the part, says Jazzy. “We're like no! We don't know yet, we don't know yet.”
All have been dancing for at least half their lives already, and singing for almost as long, whether formally or just around the house. All are quick to credit their awesome mums and dads for supporting them and helping them all this time.
All want to work on stage when they grow up.
“I want to do both, sing and dance, I want to do some record deals,” Anita shoots off.
“And there's one thing I definitely want to do when I'm older — sing at the Opera House.”
That meets a round of approval from her cohorts.
“I agree a hundred per cent with that one,’ says Chloe.
And sing to the Queen,” Anita says.
For now, at least, the magic of leading a cast of big names such as Anthony Warlow (as Daddy Warbucks) and Nancye Hayes (as Miss Hannigan) is simply that: magical.
“I'm so excited to meet them,” gushes Chloe.
With rehearsals and the Annie workshops about to kick off later this month, there's just one thing left for the girls to sort out. Their hair.
”I think they cut our hair and dye it red,” says Anita earnestly.
“Well, I know they have to cut our hair but I don't know if I want them to dye it,” says Chloe, playing with her ponytail. (Luckily for the girls, this is not a stipulation as they are provided with bright red wigs.)
Jazzy's singing teacher at IT Studios, Sophie Dawson, played Annie in the Queensland leg of the last Australian production, Jazzy tells the group.
“And when she was Annie, she had to get it cut and dyed,” she informs us.
“Well,” says Anita to Jazzy helpfully, looking her over, “maybe all you'd have to do is go a little bit more red.”
Trish Munro, Patsy Jarvis and Janet Teale — the respective mothers of Anita, Jazzy and Chloe — are staring at me like I've just announced I recently got out of the loony bin.
Evidently, I'd chosen the wrong audience for what I'd thought was a harmless anecdote; that, as a young girl, when my ballet concerts finished well after midnight, my mum would often let me take the following day off school.
The mothers in front of me are not impressed.
“I would never say that to my daughter,” Munro says pointedly.
“No, no,” agrees Jarvis, shaking her head.
“I would never,” coos Teale, her English accent driving the point home even harder.
“Those words,” continues Munro of my mother's apparently flighty take-the-day-off philosophy, “would never come out of my mouth. Even if Anita had a broken leg, (she'd) still be going to school.”
But I wasn't a professional dancer, I stutter back to them; it would only happen once a year for Christmas pageants. I have to bite my tongue from yelling out I was actually a really good student and I have a great mum.
There is silence. Then:
“They've got to learn,” says Teale, turning away from me to face Munro and Jarvis. &ldquo'If they're going to do this, that's part of it — they're going to be tired. They've still got to do their school work.”
That, says Munro nodding, is the real motivation. If the girls want to keep going with so much dancing, they've got to keep their grades up too.
“The kids just seem to be general all-rounders,” offers Jarvis. “They tend to do their homework and everything. I think they're just really committed kids. They seem to be able to manage really well.“They do!” laughs Teale, sounding slightly in awe about it. “I don't know how sometimes, but they do seem to do it. Education still comes first.”
You wonder how on earth that is possible though, once Munro, Jarvis and Teale start filling you in on the girls' schedules. And their own.
Sure, there are the near-daily singing and dancing lessons. But there are also rehearsals for the school plays throughout the year, recitals and eisteddfods, roles with other performance troupes, piano lessons, weekly school activities — all while trying to fit in around their other siblings.
It works out to about 900km of driving a week, someone estimates. Munro, whose family is based on the Gold Coast, has worked out that the four plays Anita did at her school last year, combined with all the singing and dancing tuition, worked out at nearly 30 hours a week.
“It's a lot of hours outside of school,” admits Munro — who runs her own company with husband Mark, importing tiles and Balinese thatch roofing — of what is practically a full-time career for her 11-year-old.
“So I've got a schedule. I say, you've got a window to do homework, and that's the only time to do homework, and you have to do it now.”
Anita's brother, Vincenzo, is a soccer player, she says; Mark is a director of coaching at Broadbeach soccer club.
“So it's all about soccer for the boys; they go and do their boys' sort of thing, and I'm available to Anita to do whatever she needs to do,” says Munro.
The fact that all three mothers and their husbands have managed to hold down full-time jobs in the midst of such well-ordered to-ing and fro-ing, in addition to running their respective households, is nothing short of inspiring.
Take Jarvis, whose daughters are all musically inclined.
“At the moment it's quite stressful for me, because we've got The Wizard of Oz and we're driving backward and forward into the city for rehearsals,” says Jarvis, who works as a professor's PA at the University of Queensland.
“They had a 10-hour rehearsal on Wednesday. It's quite exhausting. And then there's Annie and I'm like, oh, there's too much happening!” she laughs. “Jazzy's one of those kids that wants to do everything. I have to draw the line. It's like, you can't do everything. She's playing three instruments at the moment — violin, flute and piano. And I told her to give up flute but she won't. She loves the flute.”
No wonder they thought I was crazy earlier with my tales of ballet-induced truancy. These women before me are tough cookies, trying to give their children the best opportunities possible.
They are also extremely down to earth, not at all overbearing; the complete antithesis, in fact, of Kerry Armstrong's extremist Razzle Dazzle Aussie stage mum.
“At the auditions, we saw some really scary mothers,” nods Jarvis. “But generally, they're normal. Everybody's working full-time, trying to get their kids here and there.”
“Letting them have a shot at it,” adds Munro.
“Doing what's best for them,” says Teale.
But yes, admits Jarvis, “there is the occasional parent trying to live through their child.”
UK-born Teale isn't one of them. She doesn't need to live through daughter Chloe — she's already lived that life herself, performing in some of the biggest shows in London's West End for many years.
Now a dance teacher and choreographer who also works in a primary school, Teale never tried to push Chloe into the arts.
But what with all the musical soundtracks playing around the house, the 11-year-old had a better introduction to the genre than most. Things just kind of turned out that way, even if Chloe's younger sister, Abigail, has opted for a gymnastic route over a song-and-dance one.
“I don't know how we fit it all in,” she laughs. “Sometimes I wonder myself. When you look at the schedules we all must have, it's like, OK, I guess it's just juggling, isn't it?”
The highs and lows of performing must also take their toll, I say.
While landing the role of Annie is every little girl's Holy Grail of performing, there have been plenty of rejections along the way — including the role of Jane Banks in Mary Poppins, for which all three auditioned, and were unsuccessful.
“The head of performing arts at Anita's school told us the Annie auditions were coming up, and to prepare for them,” says Munro. “She told us it was really good to go to as many professional auditions as you can, purely for experience, and you never know what you're going to get. You just keep going.
“Last year, she auditioned for Young Talent Time, Australia's Got Talent, Mary Poppins... each one does it differently, so it was good to have that experience.”
“I guess as a parent,” muses Teale, “your first instinct is to try and protect them. But seriously, I think they've got to know if they're going into this business, they have to suffer the rejections as much as the acceptances.
“Besides,” she adds, “the kids go into the auditions fine.
“We're the ones who are out there a nervous wreck!”
“That's why,” jokes Munro, “they're the ones on stage.”
Jarvis's dilemma was a bit worse.
“I have three red-headed (daughters) and they're all in the arts,” she smiles with a grimace.
“They're all competing against each other. They all auditioned.
”My first reaction when we found out about Jazzy was, how are they going to cope with one getting in and the others not? At the beginning, the middle sister was quite upset. But she's adjusted. She's got more parts in The Wizard of Oz than Jazzy,” Jarvis winks.
Annie the Musical opens at QPAC on April 7. To see the girls in action behind the scenes, go to uonsunday.com.au
No show with appeal like Annie Les Miserables has the little Match Girl. The Sound of Music has the boisterous Von Trapp family. Mary Poppins has the dutiful Banks children.
But a Broadway show with one kid in the lead role? For 35 years, there has only ever really been one. Annie.
Before there was YouTube and reality TV, this was the gig that launched many an aspiring starlet's theatrical dreams.
Whether they played Annie herself (such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Catherine Zeta-Jones) or one of her ragamuffin orphan friends (such as Molly Ringwald and Alyssa Milano in the early US touring shows), this was their first big break. Singing Tomorrow or It's the Hard-Knock Life on stage was a rite of passage.
Fast forward to 2012, and the performing environment has changed. Young Talent Time is back on the air. Gold Coast schoolboys such as Cody Simpson can sign million-dollar record deals from their bedroom thanks to the internet.
Still, nothing quite compares to the appeal — or the success — of Annie.
“I felt like I was at a kiddy rock concert on Sunday,” jokes director Karen Johnson Mortimer of watching a matinee show last week in Sydney (where Annie opened earlier this year).
“When Annie first comes on, you hear all the grannies saying ‘That's Annie!’ and all the little girls going ‘Oh!’ They went ballistic.”
It is only the third time Australian audiences have seen Annie, following its initial run in the '70s and its second season in 2000.
“Brisbane was an absolutely fantastic surprise, because we found our Annies in a couple of days up there,” says Mortimer, who auditioned between 400 and 500 girls for the role.
“The calibre of children was superb.”
It's Annie's touching quality that has sustained the curly little redhead's appeal for almost a century: first as a comic strip that began as Little Orphan Annie in 1924, then as the Tony Award-winning 1977 Broadway musical, and as a feature film in 1982.
Newer generations are continually reinventing the classic. Rapper Jay-Z topped the charts with his ghetto version Hard Knock Life in the 1990s. Will Smith announced last year his production company was producing an Annie movie remake, with his daughter Willow in the lead role. And another Broadway revival is happening later this year, for the musical's 35th anniversary.
“I think the more things change, the more they stay the same,” says Mortimer, who got her start in theatre on stage at 15 years old in Anything Goes and most recently worked as resident director on the Australian seasons of Chicago and Wicked.
“Particularly with Annie. It's written in the Depression of the '30s... to get outside of your woes and everyday trouble. Something that showed you hope or gave you a lift. It just has heart.”
Marie-Christine Souriss, Sunday Mail
19 February 2012
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