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Two Generations Share More Than a Mother-Daughter Bond With Annie

Tara Kennedy starred in the classic musical at Paper Mill Playhouse in 1983. Now, her daughter Peyton Ella is taking the lead.

In the early 1980s, Tara Kennedy took on the role of Annie at Paper Mill Playhouse after understudying the part on Broadway. Now, three decades later, her daughter, Peyton Ella, has picked up the torch.

Ella is one of two preteens currently playing Annie at Paper Mill, having also brought the persevering moppet to life in two other recent productions. While Kennedy may have left the theater long ago for a career in journalism before becoming a full-time mom to Ella and her four siblings, now she's finding herself in a new role: stage mom.

Despite the inherent pressures of the business, Kennedy is delighted to see her daughter follow in her footsteps, and is particularly proud of Ella's resiliency. For Ella, the sun will always come out tomorrow, whether she gets the part or not.

Peyton Ella and Tara Kennedy show off brochures from their respective productions of Annie at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© David Gordon)

Tara, when did you discover Annie for the first time, and how did you introduce it to Peyton?
Tara Kennedy: When I was 5 years old, I went to see the original Broadway production with Andrea McArdle. I vividly remember sitting there and watching her, and saying, "I'm gonna do this." My dad bought the album, I got a singing teacher, and I worked every day for months and months. I booked my first Broadway show, I Remember Mama, when I was 7. It didn't last very long, but Martin Charnin, who directed Annie, was the director of Mama, and he brought me in to audition for Annie. I got in as Kate, an orphan, and the Annie understudy. I was in the Broadway show for over two years and played Annie 15 to 20 times.

But the first time Peyton really got [that I played Annie] was when we went to see it on Broadway with Lilla Crawford, in 2012, when Peyton was 6.

Peyton Ella: I wanted to be in the business because of that show. I said, "I want to be Annie, too!" Paper Mill is my third production of Annie playing Annie. I did it at the Westchester Broadway Theater this summer, and then a production of Annie Junior when I was 9 with Kids of the Arts.

Tara: I was ambivalent about putting my kids in the business. It's so hard for kids. But her singing teacher said to me, "I know you're against it, but give it six months." And she booked her first role, Gretl in The Sound of Music Live! It hasn't always been easy, but she's a trouper. She worked really, really hard. She's resilient and can take the punches with the good stuff.

Peyton: I really love auditions and callbacks. It's so fun.

Tara: I don't know how she does it. It was hard for me as a kid to go through that.

Knowing your mom is a former Annie, did you ask her for advice?
Peyton: When I did the role at Westchester Broadway Theater, she would give me tips on how to say some lines. She's like, "When I did it, I got really good applause on this line…"

Tara: I googled my Paper Mill review, and it said something about the New Jersey line — "Just Think! New Jersey!" — so I said to her, "I got a really good review for the New Jersey line. Maybe you should say it like I did." And she got some nice laughs.

Peyton Ella and Tara Kennedy have both played Annie at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© David Gordon)

Peyton, do you want to be an actor when you grow up?
Peyton: I'm really into theater. I'm aiming to go to college in Michigan and my dream role when I grow up is Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway.

Tara: That's the closest adult role to Annie, when you think about it, in terms of the notes. But who knows what she'll be when she's 18?

Peyton: If it doesn't work out when I'm older, I really want to be a casting director, behind the table watching people and writing down notes.

For both of you, what's the best part of playing Annie?
Peyton: Annie is tougher than I am. It's really fun to perform that. My favorite song to do is "Hard-Knock Life." When I'm onstage, I'm like, "When 'Maybe' is over, it's time for 'Hard-Knock Life!' " "NYC" is also fun.

Tara: For me, the quintessential moment is when you're at the top of the stairs and Daddy Warbucks puts his arm up.

Peyton: Oh, yeah. When he puts his arm out and I walk down the stairs, it feels so good. It's the best feeling ever. I also love Annie because I get to work with awesome dogs. I just love dogs.

Tara: She does love dogs.

Peyton Ella and Macy as Annie and Sandy at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Mike Nitzel Photography)