By ANDREA FURLONG
|Williamsburg resident Michelle Lindhart, center, poses in character as Annie from the musical “Annie,” with cast members Daddy Warbucks (J played by Jonathan Swenson) and Grace (played by Heather Akers). Lindhart was chosen from 169 other girls to play the role for Theatre Cedar Rapids.|
It’s 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in Cedar Rapids and actors are rehearsing songs at Theatre Cedar Rapids Lindale for its upcoming production of “Annie.” The cast of orphan girls begins the opening verses of “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” then pauses as Michelle Lindhart, Williamsburg, sings Annie’s solo.
The head of the 4 foot 6 inch star is barely visible above the orchestra pit, but her voice resonates easily within the theater’s walls.
“I’m so loud and I feel so embarrassed because I just can’t sing in my head voice,” Michelle said.
In the world of musical theater, there are few lead roles for children, leaving Annie as one of the coveted parts for elementary and junior high girls who love to sing. Michelle, 12, competed for the role against 169 other girls, many from towns 20 to 40 times larger than her hometown of 4,000 residents.
Michelle has been ready for this role for a long time. She started performing Annie’s most well-known solo, “Tomorrow,” as a three-year-old in talent competitions and beauty pageants. It has been her signature song ever since.
“I’ve always loved that song. That was my favorite song,” she said.
Michelle didn’t even have to memorize the words when she performed it during auditions for the musical, because she’s sung the lines by heart the last nine years.
“Ever since I was three . . . the one song that was perfect in my range was (and still is) ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie,” she said.
Since falling in love with the song before she was even in preschool, Michelle has dreamed of singing “Tomorrow” as Annie. Little did she know she would get the chance right in time for her 12th birthday.
It was August, one month before Michelle’s birthday, when the Theatre Cedar Rapids show schedule arrived in the mail. Among the upcoming musicals and plays was “Annie.”
“I said (to my mom), ‘We’re going to that.’ And right then, no matter what, I knew I was going to try out,” Michelle said.
About 170 girls auditioned in mid-September for a singing role in the musical. The potential Annies were tested on their dance skills, singing talents and acting abilities, before the first cut was made, leaving 70 girls.
Both Michelle and her sister Jenna, 10, made the first cut.
Callbacks for a second audition were held a few hours later. The choreography stepped up a notch. When callbacks were announced, Michelle found she made the second cut, but her sister did not.
“I was about to quit. I almost said, ‘I’m not doing it anymore, Jen, just because you didn’t make it. I don’t want to.’ My sister, who’s known it’s been my life dream, said, ‘You’re going to do it. Even if I make it and you don’t make it, you’re still going for it,’” Michelle recalled.
Directly before the third callback, the director asked Michelle’s parents if she would stay on with the show if she was chosen as one of the orphans instead of Annie.
“The more I thought about it, the sadder I got, because it would be fun, but I still wanted to be Annie.”
But Michelle’s optimism convinced her that even an orphan role would “a great life experience,” so she decided to stay for the third audition.
Forty girls were present at the third audition. Every girl was to sing the last verse of “Tomorrow” — starting with Michelle.
“I had to go first in front of 40 people. I was like ‘Oh no.’ I was so nervous and it was so high for me. My voice cracked twice,” she said.
But despite the imperfect performance, the director saw something in Michelle and asked her to read some of Annie’s lines. At the end of the rehearsal, the director asked only four girls to stay — Michelle, another 12-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old.
Michelle thought she was a good match for her competition until she heard the 16-year-old sing.
“She had a beautiful voice and she was a pretty good actor, and I thought, ‘Man, I am not going to get it compared to her.’I thought, ‘Let’s pack up our bags and head out of here,” Michelle said.
But Mary Sue, Michelle’s mom, thought Michelle still had a fair chance.
“The 16-year-old had an amazing voice, but she was too old for Annie,” Mary Sue said.
Michelle, on the other hand, had talent, stage experience and was 12 — just one year older than the character of Annie.
“You’re only the right age and right size for Annie for a couple years,” Mary Sue said.
The director left the four girls in suspense at the end of the audition, telling them the cast decisions would be posted on the Internet at 10:30 a.m. the next day — which was hard for Michelle, since the next day was a school day.
“I couldn’t wait til 10:30,” she said.
So, Michelle asked her mom, who had a doctor’s appointment that morning, to check the Internet for her as soon as she was done with her appointment.
“I said, “When you get back, you either call the school and tell them what I got or you come and find me,” Michelle said.
Michelle sat through most of the day, looking at the clock.
“I waited and waited and 10:30 passed. The next thing I knew it was 11.”
At 11:25 a.m., Michelle’s sixth grade class was dismissed for recess and she had still had not heard back from her mother.
A few minutes after she was out on the playground, Michelle saw her mother walking down the hill toward her. Michelle remembers the conversation going something like this:
Michelle: Did I get Pepper (an orphan role)?
Michelle: Just state the facts, woman.
Mom: You got it!
“Greatest day of my life. I fell on the grass and I started rolling down the hill,” Michelle said. “I was throwing grass up in the air. My friends were so wild, because they were all hoping I got it, and they started screaming. It was hilarious. We just had the best time of our lives.”
PINCH ME, PLEASE
Michelle found the news unbelievable, kind of like when the poor orphan Annie meets a rich family in the musical, who wants to adopt her. In her solo describing the experience, Annie sings the line “Somebody pinch me, please.” Michelle, however, took to a more practical approach of checking reality.
“When I got home that night, I had to check (the Web site) to make sure. It was so hard to believe that I got this humongous part in Cedar Rapids,” she said.
It turns out the self-confident girl who has loved to entertain and perform on stage since she was three had doubted herself throughout the auditions.
“When I first got there and saw 170 girls, I thought ‘There’s no chance. I have one chance out of 170 girls. One of these girls is going to be Annie and I only have one chance,’” said Michelle.
Michelle competed against girls with formal training in singing. (Michelle’s only vocal coaching comes on occasion from her mom, who has a degree in vocal performance.) Michelle competed against girls who practiced for the role, while her preparation consisted of singing “Tomorrow” a few times before the big day.
“I just winged it. I kind of knew (the song) ‘Hard Knock Life,’ but that was pretty much it,” she said.
Michelle also competed against girls who are used to performing on bigger stages and who know the director personally.
“A lot of the people there knew the producer, so I was thinking, ‘Ok, I bet someone he knows is going to get Annie.’ And I was so surprised when it happened to be me,” Michelle said.
The director, however, had no doubts about casting Michelle, a small town unknown, as Annie.
“She’s very naturally an optimistic girl that is very willing to talk to and befriend anyone. She’s smart. She’s clever. Everyone of those is a trait of Michelle’s (and) is a trait of Annie’s,” explained Casey Prince, the director of “Annie” and managing director of Theatre Cedar Rapids.
“She has an Annie voice. There is a probably a fraction of a percent of girls that are the right age for the part that can actually sing the part. Michelle just breaks your heart when she sings some of her Annie solos. She’s just got it. Right place, right time, right age,” he said.
PLAYING THE PART
Since being cast as Annie, the last month and a half of Michelle’s life has been busy. Auditions are now six days a week, three hours a day at Theatre Cedar Rapids Lindale, which is an hour drive from Michelle’s home.
“I do my homework on the way up and then on the way back, I sleep. It’s pretty simple,” Michelle said about balancing homework and rehearsals.
With the first performance set for Nov. 20, Michelle has the choreography down, the songs down and most of the lines memorized.
“It’s kind of hard because I say a lot of ‘Oh boy’ and ‘Oh golly’ and ‘Oh gee.’ Somebody will say a line like, ‘Would you like to come with me?’ and I’m like, wait, is it ‘Oh gee,’ ‘Oh golly,’ or ‘Oh boy’? I have three choices. It’s not even a 50/50 chance,” she laughed.
And, like the director, Michelle has found that she’s not so different from the character she plays, an orphan who remains optimistic for her future, despite poverty and cruel treatment at the orphanage where she lives.
“I’ve learned to be tough. I mean I am tough . . . but Annie’s just kind of wing-a-ding. She’s kind of crazy, which I am, so it’s kind of like my regular personality except with red hair,” Michelle said.
But Michelle doesn’t want to be Annie just to sing the songs and perform the dances — she wants to give the role her all for the enjoyment of the audience, particularly little children.
“When I was little I went to a Marengo play and I swore the Dorothy that was playing in the “Wizard of Oz” was the real Dorothy. I used to write letters to her in little squigglies. They sent me a picture of her and I’ve always kept that picture. I want to do that for the little kids because I know how special it was to me,” she said.
Michelle said she’ll always enjoy singing, but should she ever try out for another musical, she’s got her next role picked out.
“I have my new goal. I saw ‘Wicked’ and I want to be the green (witch). I can’t remember her name,” she said.
By the green witch, Michelle means she wants to be Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, who is portrayed in ‘Wicked’ as not-so-wicked.
“She’s a belter and I love the songs. I think it’d be cool to be her because she’s tough. She’s kind, she cares for animals — and it’s like ‘Woa, I could be that. I’d loved to do that,’” Michelle said.
“Annie” is playing at Theatre Cedar Rapids Lindale Nov. 20 – Dec. 6, as well as Dec. 11-12. For more information, please visit http://theatrecr.org or call (319) 366-8591. Theatre Cedar Rapids Lindale is located at 4444 First Avenue NE, Cedar Rapids.
UPDATED November 12, 2009 10:25 AM