Andrea McArdle talks music, Muhammad Ali, and making theater

Andrea McArdle

When I was in my 20’s I took my roommate to New York for her birthday. I told her to pick any show on Broadway for us to see, and she said “Let’s see Annie!” I responded, “I don’t think you heard me right, you can see ANY show on Broadway.” At the time “A Chorus Line” and “Equus” were popular shows, and I thought we should see something a little more cerebral, but she insisted on seeing “Annie.” 

I am happy to say that she was the smarter of the two of us. “Annie” was fun and phenomenal, and I left the theater humming the tunes and quoting the lyrics. “It’s a hard knock life” became a theme song for that summer. I did not have the pleasure of seeing the incomparable Andrea McArdle, but I certainly belted out “Tomorrow” along with her on the soundtrack for years to come. 

McArdle was the youngest performer ever to be nominated for a Tony Award as Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her role as Annie and she has since become a staple on Broadway and on the cabaret scene. She’ll be bringing her talents to our area this weekend to the RRazz Room in New Hope, PA. She took some time with PGN to answer some questions about her life and career.

What sparked your love of music?

My parents both loved all sorts of music. We didn’t have a decent TV until I was about 7, but we had two stereos. My dad had reel to reel tapes and was into Coltrane and Gilbert and Sullivan, my mom loved Bacharach and pop. 

Do you remember a favorite song as a kid?

I vividly remember the first song that made me stop and say, “What is that?” It was in the house that my dad grew up in, he was one of nine, and it was right by the art museum. The song was “Baby Love” by Diana Ross and the Supremes and I was like, “What is that? I HAVE to have that!” I was only 3 or 4 at the time. Music was like a pacifier to me and I still love it to this day. It never seems like work, ever. 

I read that you were on a Philadelphia staple back in the day, on the Al Albert’s Showcase! What was that like? 

It was actually hard for me to get spots on that show. All the little girls were singing cutesy things like “Five foot two, eyes of blue…” and I was doing songs like, “Abraham, Martin and John” or songs by Louis Armstrong or Jim Croce! I never got picked for the ads for dolls or girly things, I’d get picked for Dixie cup spots or Stride Rite shoe ads! [Laughing] Philly wasn’t ready for me yet. But New York was! All the things that I wasn’t right for were all the things that made me perfect for the role of a lifetime. So the motto is “Do You!”

What are you doing now that you’re bringing to New Hope?

I’ll be doing music from my Broadway journey and music that sticks with you from the formative years, songs that have lyrics with meaning, and I’ll also be doing some holiday music. 

I have to ask you about meeting Liberace.

I have to say, my favorite person of all time was Muhammad Ali, with Liberace right up there with him. I got to meet and work with Muhammad and I’ve never felt such an aura of greatness. He was like sunshine, and Liberace too. He was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met, no ego whatsoever. I never saw him get mad, ever. And he had the biggest fingers of anyone who played like that, they were like crates on a dock.  He couldn’t even have a sip of alcohol before playing because he had to place his fingers so precisely. He let us stay in his guest house for months at a time and it was an enchanted time. 

How did you stay grounded?

My parents were very down to earth. One day I’d be doing book reports for school and the next it would be, William Morris called and you’ll be performing in LA with Liberace! It was an oldish adolescence but at the same time normal. We lived in the same house and my parents both kept their same jobs. I was a daughter and family member before I was anything else. 

There have been several iterations of Annie, including the one that just played December 2nd on NBC. I understand that you were supposed to participate in that but had to withdraw because of your father’s health. How is he doing?

I think we’re going to be looking at a new normal, he has Parkinson’s and diabetes. He was in the ICU for 9 days. So we have some days where everything is lucid and other days not so much, thanks for asking. So I didn’t get to participate in this one, but I was in the Rob Marshall 1999 version and that was incredible. 

What is your connection the queer community?

I’ve always had a big LGBT+ following. They’re my family and friends and I’ve grown up with folks from the community since the 70’s. I’ve even performed for the opening of the Gay Games in Cleveland with Alex Newell, who is a transgender kid with the voice of an angel. One of my favorite places to perform is The Purple Room in Palm Springs, I almost want to pay them to perform there! I just want to do it for my head. For some sugar! 

Well, let’s hope that the RRazz Room becomes the place where you come up North for that sugar!

Absolutely! But people have to come out and support it. So many of these rooms are gone in a blink of an eye, so I hope everyone comes out this weekend to see me or any of the great shows coming up! I live back in this area now, so who knows, you might catch me at one of the shows too!