Scattered renditions of, ‘The sun’ll come out, tomorrow…’ greet me as I arrive at the Annie auditions, an appropriate welcome given it’s an unusually dull Dubai day. And yes, I probably would bet my bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun, particularly after hearing the forecast, at an extremely high pitch, for the 100th time.
There are literally hundreds of young wannabes queuing with their parents for the chance to star in the stage show; but is there, hidden among this motley crew, an Annie in the making? All around, girls aged between seven and 14 are shuffling nervously, waiting their turn. Some have been practising the song for weeks, trying out actions in the mirror. Others are worried because they barely know the words.
Resplendent in trendy black cap, Tanwen Williams stands out as a girl who knows her stuff. She’s been here before as a member of the High School Musical ensemble, and she’s taking the waiting game in her stride. ‘I don’t feel nervous yet. I’m just worried because I’ve caught a cold so I hope I can sing OK. I’ve been practising ‘Tomorrow’, acting it out and singing like I really mean it. I really want to get in,’ she says.
As the line snakes slowly towards the audition hall, hearts beat faster. ‘It’s really terrifying, I feel so nervous,’ says Georgia Sykes, jigging about with her friend, Audrey Kendell. They have been rehearsing together, but they, too, have a bad case of the sniffles and so have dubbed themselves ‘the nasal twins’.
In groups of 10, the girls are led in to meet the casting panel. They sing together for practice, then perform on their own. Mums and dads are wisely left to fret it out in the foyer, as few parents’ hearts could stand the emotional trauma of seeing their precious darling put to the test.
Indeed the sparse audience is close to tears on several occasions: when a tiny tot sings like an angel, when stage fright takes over and one contender sobs her way through her entire rendition, and when a tone-deaf lass basically yells her own version, out of key and out of time. It’s a tricky tune, though, and the producers can often spot talent where us laymen can’t. The shouter, for example, may get through. ‘She’ll never be an Annie,’ says director John Payton, ‘but she could be an orphan. Some of their songs are kind of shouted anyway, plus she wasn’t short on charisma.’
Outside, a rumour is swirling among the waiting hopefuls. Because the character Annie is 11 years old, the girls think the Annie candidate has to be the same age. Marie Toase, who’s travelled all the way from Al Ain, is concerned that at 10, she may be too young, while her friend Scout Woodford could be past it at the grand old age of 12. I reassure the girls, both redheads and blessed with freckles, that they must be in with a chance if looks are anything to go by.
But, explains production manager Lucy Blakeman, ‘It’s more about height and charisma. Annie is boisterous and bolshy, and she’s often on stage on her own, so the successful Annies (there will be two of them) will have to have something big about them.’
The hopefuls are told immediately if they’re invited back for further auditions. In scenes reminiscent of the X Factor, those who’ve made it squeal with delight then dash out to hug their mums. Kate Lowther, 10, punches the air after learning she’s through to the next round. ‘I’m so happy,’ she says, beaming. ‘I don’t want to be Annie, though, I’d rather have a smaller part.’
Annie lookalike Alice Collins is ‘relieved and really pleased’ to have got through, having been declared too short for a part in High School Musical, while Tanwen (who purposefully coughed so the panel were in no doubt she had a cold), can’t wait to rekindle the buzz of being on stage: ‘You see the crowds, you feel like everyone is cheering you on, that you’re special. You meet so many different people and you get to be someone else.’
For others, it’s wobbly lips and a few red eyes, but I spy the nasal twins, who weren’t invited back, trotting off for lunch with their mums. They couldn’t give two hoots.
Pay and display?
Those invited to take part in the Annie stage show must agree to pay Dhs2,000 for the ‘Annie Experience’. This includes two weeks of rehearsals and workshops, including acting, singing, voice coaching and dancing tuition from West End producers, directors and choreographers.
The same system applied to the High School Musical (HSM) show last year, which Time Out sponsored, but we at Time Out Kids got to thinking: is it right that children pay to perform? Is it putting undue pressure on parents who want to help fulfil their darling diva’s dream? Or is it a value-for-money experience?
Many parents, like Nicole Shipley, whose daughter Rebecca took part in HSM and sailed through the first auditions for Annie, believe the opportunity to work with West End experts is invaluable. ‘You can’t put a price on a wonderful experience such as this. Rebecca loved High School Musical. She made such good friends, you should’ve seen the emotion when the show ended – it took her three days to recover,’ she says.
Some parents equate the cost of the show to that of a term of drama and dancing lessons, with the added bonus of a fully-fledged performance at the end of it.
‘I think it’s worth it, absolutely,’ says Frank Tideman, at the audition to support daughter Fleurine. ‘I think drama is really good for development – kids learn to behave and follow rules, and it’s excellent preparation for life. For Fleurine this is an experience. If she doesn’t get through, it costs nothing, and if she does, we should encourage her.’
Another mum, whose daughter was also in the HSM ensemble, has mixed feelings: ‘It is quite expensive and I do feel as if the organisers are winning on all sides, but I can’t deny it’s a great experience.’ Is it good value? ‘We’re here,’ she shrugs. ‘We’re doing it again.’
Some parents, though, are unaware of the charge. ‘I feel as if I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes,’ says one mum, waiting for her two daughters to come out of the audition. ‘Of course, if they get through I’ll not be able to say “no”, but I wish I’d known beforehand.’ Had she not seen the terms and conditions on the website? ‘I saw the link, but you know what it’s like, you don’t always read them, you just click and say “yes”.’
‘I should’ve realised,’ says Caroline McGrain after we inform her of the fee. ‘I think it stinks really, but it doesn’t surprise me in Dubai.’ Will it affect whether her little girl takes part or not? ‘No, probably not. But if she gets through we’ll have to have a serious discussion about how we’re lucky to be in the privileged position of being able to afford it.’
What’s your view? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Annie will be showing at the Madinat Theatre from April 8-18. Call 04 366 6546