It is not, to my mind, a particularly current phrase. In fact, I think of it as something a couple of decades old, like “Where’s the beef?” or “Whasss-uuuup?” The decidedly selective Wikipedia entry for the saying traces it back to at least 1968, and the song “Time of the Season” by The Zombies, while citing widespread acceptance in the late 1980s. There is a 2004 direct to video comedy that took it as its name.
So when I walked by a subway poster emblazoned with the words “Who’s Your Daddy?” emblazoned over a photo of Annie star Anthony Warlow, sporting the trademark bald pate of Oliver Warbucks, I did a double take. For me, the association between “Who’s Your Daddy?” and “Daddy” Warbucks was immediate, being a theatre guy, but there was also some immediate cognitive dissonance. This shopworn saying, which once had a slight modicum of hip attached to it, seemed out of place juxtaposed with a figure from a beloved family musical.
And I laughed.
Now I’ve already seen the new production of Annie that the poster advertised (my 10 year old niece and I had a lovely evening out for it), so I wasn’t moved to run to the box office, which happened to be just overhead. But I have to say that I admired the poster for breaking through the clutter of advertising that assaults us everyday. It was the rare theatre ad that didn’t take itself very seriously and I’m not likely to forget it soon. Naturally I wanted to analyze it.
So I turned to the expert focus group that is my pool of Twitter followers, linked a photo of the ad, and asked for opinions. Some shared my surprise and described similar reactions to my own. They told me of other posters I hadn’t yet seen that were part of the same campaign. Others were more succinct in their reactions.
“Ick.” “Ugh.” “Oh, dear.” “Perverse.” “Terrible.”
I understand the response of this latter group. It flitted across my consciousness as well before I laughed. That’s the dissonance I spoke of. And for that reason, I’d like to take a closer look at the campaign.
Annie is now 37 years old, having premiered in 1976 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut (where I was – full disclosure – general manager from 1994 to 1998 and where I still intermittently consult). Based on the venerable comic strip Little Orphan Annie, it remains a standard in the musical theatre catalogue. Though the strip is gone, the characters and story remain a part of children’s lives for successive generations thanks to the show. The current revival is Annie’s third Broadway stint.
With other family friendly shows on Broadway now (the new Cinderella and Matilda; the long-running The Lion King), many have questioned whether there’s actually too much available for families and whether the audience will be split up, in favor of what’s newest. Although the current Annie is a new production, that’s a distinction the average theatergoer might not make, and even though the show is from the 70s, it’s set in the 30s, replete with jokes about The New Deal and Harold Ickes.
So the new ads, which also feature the phrases “Best In Show” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” are an attempt to blow some dust off of this perennial middle school musical, but it’s worth noting that they’re not using references to the Kardashians or the Harlem Shake. Those would probably send potential ticket buyers, namely parents, fleeing. What they do is take phrases that are all too familiar to people in their 30s, 40s and 50s (I repeat: parents) and match them with images that will immediately be recognized by anyone who has ever read the Annie comic or seen the musical, on stage or in one of its two film versions. They push the envelope ever so slightly, because we don’t expect these phrases with the images deployed, but they don’t take such a wholehearted leap into pop culture – in my opinion – as to descend into complete incongruity or tackiness. They remind an earlier generation of their own love of Annie without playing directly upon nostalgia (even though foreknowledge is required). That’s what I like about them.
I do have some questions, though. If someone actually doesn’t know Annie, the ads are probably mystifying. Yes, I suspect it would be pretty hard to find Americans who don’t know the character or show, but not impossible, and I do wonder whether these ads leave out foreign tourists, who are an important slice of Broadway sales. I also wonder about the diminution of the show logo itself, which is unusually small in relation to the image and slogan, and in subway ads, somewhere around waist level – or is this a brilliant scheme for tykes to read the word “Annie” while the adults get their pop culture chuckle. Do those who immediately expressed a dislike of the ads when I shared them mirror a portion of the ticket buying audience, or are they musical theatre purists who dislike the co-opting of pop catchphrases – but weren’t going to buy tickets anyway? With a new musical from Cyndi Lauper opening shortly, will “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” actually serve to sell some tickets to Kinky Boots?
As someone who is constantly advocating for theatre communications to break out of boring patterns, I’m going to keep an eye on this campaign, to see how long it lasts, to see how the show fares at the box office in the coming weeks and months. I’m not suggesting this irreverent approach, even if successful, will become widespread, or can even be replicated by other shows. But it’s an interesting case study for the moment.
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Update: Less than an hour after I posted this piece, the press office for Annie provided me with original images for the ad campaign (replacing photos taken in the subway), which also showed me the fourth in the series. Regrettably, it has a much more standard slogan than the other three, and I can’t help but think of it as a missed opportunity. Any suggestions of a pop culture catchphrase, song lyric, or snippet of dialogue that might make the image to the left more fun?