This January, Theater of the Stars will present a new production of Annie at the Fox Theatre with two-time Emmy Award winning actress Sally Struthers in the role of Miss Hannigan. Struthers relishes the chance to return to the iconic role of Miss Hannigan for Atlanta audiences at a theater she adores.
“I am really excited about coming back to the Fox Theatre because I have performed there two other times, and I love the theater and love the city of Atlanta,” Struthers comments. “It is a great city and I have people coming to visit me there. So, it’s going to be fun.”
For most people, Struthers needs little introduction. Through her role as Archie’s daughter Gloria on the groundbreaking television series All in the Family as well as her recent role in Gilmore Girls as Babette, she has endeared herself to millions of fans.
In addition, she is no stranger to the stage having appeared on Broadway and in regional theater productions. After having played the role of Miss Hannigan in the 20th Anniversary National Tour of Annie and in regional productions, Struthers brings her unique vision of the character back to the Fox Theatre.
“I have always loved playing Miss Hannigan, and I have played it a lot. It is one of my staples that I carry around in my pocket,” she mentions. “Theater owners know that I play it. I get phone calls to do it, and I am always happy to say yes.”
For her the role is one she finds ironic and fun. “The irony that I have helped children for years and I get to play a woman that hates children,” she says. “It makes me laugh inside. I am obviously a bleeding heart for children, and really it is fun to play someone who is not.”
It is her love for children as well as a personal experience that has led Struthers to bring a different approach to the character. When audiences see her as Miss Hannigan, they will see her portray the character as a misunderstood clown rather than the villain of the show.
“I took my daughter Samantha to the movie of Annie that Carol Burnett was in, and [Burnett] so frightened her that she begged me to leave the movie theater,” Struthers describes. “She was crying and screaming, and so we left. We never saw the movie because Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan scared the pants off my little girl.”
Because of the experience, Struthers attempts to make children laugh at her instead of fear the character. “When I play Miss Hannigan, I decided rather than playing her as a frightening, dangerous person, I play her as an inebriated clown, and I don’t want a child in the audience to be afraid of me,” she explains. “Trust me they are not. They start laughing the minute I come out. I think what I have chosen to do works, and the last I want to do is frighten any child – ever.”
To help her create Miss Hannigan, Struthers has analyzed the character’s situation. “My approach is to be a child myself – be a woman that has been so long in the institution with all these orphans and with very little adult company that has become a child herself,” she says. “You mix that with liquor, and it gets pretty silly.”
She continues, “I don’t think Miss Hannigan is a villain. She is a victim of her circumstances. She comes from a large Irish family, and she is living through the depression. She wants to have male companionship, she wants to be in love, she is flirtatious with any male over the age of 18 that enters the orphanage, she is desperate, and she’s got all these loud people and kids around her that step on her feet and scream too loudly. She is miserable, but she is not a villain.”
In playing the role of Miss Hannigan, as she does with any character that she has played, Struthers brings a little of herself into the role, and she isn’t afraid to be “ugly” in order to make the audience laugh. Whether it takes being in an uncomfortable position or acting foolish, she does it to create a funnier, livelier character.
“I bring me. Every actress brings who she is. I am a very physical actress and not very cerebral. I am more comfortable with the Lucille Ball and Jerry Lewis school of comedy,” she says. “I will do everything I can to get everybody in the audience laughing. I have a pretty different view of life and a different sense of humor, and I bring that along with me. I am certainly not Meryl Streep; I am Sally Struthers playing Miss Hannigan.”
When Struthers takes the stage as Miss Hannigan, she will be playing in a theater that she holds much affection for, and it will be her third time playing the role at the Fox Theatre. Not only does she praise the theater’s aesthetic beauty, but she also recognizes the facility’s strengths.
“There’s something special about these humungous theaters that were built so early in the history of our country. The acoustics are great, and the ceilings are great, and the stage is large enough to accommodate all the sets,” she states. “It is a nice experience for an actor to be in a theater that has that much history. Most cities you go to don’t have a wonderful big, old theater like the Fox.”
In addition to her thoughts on these theaters, she also has strong opinions about live music during a production. As someone who holds much affinity for musicians, she champions the use of an orchestra during a performance. She laments the fact that some theaters and producers “will make you sing to tape, which I just had to do in Fredericksburg, Va. That was disgusting.”
She goes on to mention that there is nothing better than live musicians because “live musicians in the pit are 50% of the show and create all the moods that can only be created to music.” Hinting at the economic condition of the arts today, she says, “There are a lot of theaters that won’t pay for an orchestra. There’s a lot of theaters in New York that are cutting back on them. They used to have 20 musicians in the pit. Now they have nine and some sections of the show that are pre-recorded.”
After having a career resurgence, she has a message for her critics. She mentions that some have told her that “you never get the brass ring more than once, but the year I landed Gilmore Girls, I also landed a series called Still Standing. I was doing that at the same time as Gilmore Girls. So I feel like I have had three or four brass rings already.”
While today’s younger audiences know her as the eccentric Babette, for many she will always be Gloria, and her time on All in the Family is a treasure that she will always hold near to her heart. “It was incredible school for me, learning how to act, write and live on a situation comedy. I can’t watch it now though it makes me too sad.”
She comments that after calling Carroll O’Connor “Daddy” so many times on the show, he had become a father to her. “He was wonderful. He became my dad. So now when I see his face, his eyes I just can’t do it; if I am channel surfing, I have to go right by because I miss him so much.”
Perhaps due to her roles as Gloria or Babette, many will bring their children or grandchildren to the Fox Theatre to see her as Miss Hannigan. For all of those seeing show, Struthers feels they will find a captivating show.
“It is an American theater classic, one of the best pieces ever written for theater. I judge that by how long it has been around and how popular it is. You could take all the songs away, and it would still stand up as a play because the book is so good. The book of Annie is just as good as the songs,” she says. “If you want to introduce children to theater or to the arts, it is just a wonderful piece. It is touching and funny. People go away feeling that it was time and money well spent.”
See Sally Struthers as Miss Hannigan in the Theater of the Stars production of Annie at the Fox Theatre January 14 to 22, 2012. For more information, please visit Theater of the Star’s website. Tickets are available at the Fox Theatre box office, all Ticketmaster outlets and http://www.ticketmaster.com/.
By Kenny Norton