April 29, 2002 12:00 PM

Who would have thought “Tomorrow” could have so many yesterday si Twenty-five years ago—on April 21, 1977—Annie premiered on Broadway, to the delight of 2,377 audiences and the amazement of its star, Andrea McArdle, age 13. “It was this little show about a cartoon character,” she recalls. “It sounded like a horrible idea.” Since then, the world has rarely been without the relentlessly optimistic moppet, who has appeared on film (1982), TV (1999) and in a Broadway revival (1997). Little Orphan Annuity has grossed a Warbuckian $400 million—but what happened to its small star si Has it been “the Hard-Knock Life” or “Easy Street”? PEOPLE found all eight of them and asked.

Andrea McArdle (April ’77 to February ’78)

After a disastrous tryout in East Haddam, Conn., in 1976, Annie director Martin Charnin realized that unless he recast the lead role with a person who had “guts and street smarts,” the show was sunk. So he promoted Andrea McArdle, who was then turning 13, from her role as a bullying orphan to Annie. “She was letter perfect,” says Charnin. “The whole context of the show turned around.”

When Annie opened on Broadway the following April, says McArdle, “it totally exploded. We were like The Producers at the time.” She left in February 1978 to star in Annie’s London production but made return appearances on Broadway in Starlight Express (1987), Les Miserables (1993), State Fair (1996) and Beauty and the Beast (2000).

McArdle, 38, now lives in New Rochelle, N.Y., with her husband, songwriter Edd Kalehoff, 56, and their daughter Alexis, 13, who acted with McArdle (playing Young Cosette to McArdle’s Eponine) in a 1997 Philadelphia production of Les Mis.

Annie is, of course, forever cheerful, hopeful and enthusiastic, and a real, living human being can only take so much. With racy turns in the road tour of Cabaret and Off-Broadway’s The Vagina Monologues, McArdle feels she has moved on from her perky past. Although she had a cameo in the 1999 ABC movie, she says, “I told Alexis and Edd that if I ever pull out the Annie tapes or watch the movie, shoot me.”

Shelley Bruce (February ’78 to March ’79)

From February 1978 until her run ended in March 1979, Bruce was never fully dressed without a smile. Then in 1981 Bruce was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). “It was the downpoint of our life,” says her mother, Marge. Chemotherapy for the disease attacked Bruce’s vocal cords. “It was horrible,” she says. “The one thing I was always sure of was my voice.” A month of treatment led to remission—but also wore down Bruce’s immune system, resulting in a near-fatal bout with bacterial pneumonia.

Cancer-free, Bruce, 36, now cherishes life as a soccer mom in Monmouth County, N.J., with husband Ray, 41, a Kraft Foods manager, and kids Nicolle, 6, and Michael, 11. “It’s so satisfying watching them become little people,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Sarah Jessica Parker (March ’79 to January ’80)

Standing at the back of the Alvin Theatre as she watched Annie with her family in 1977, 12-year-old Parker set her sights on joining the show. Her stepfather, Paul Forste, wasn’t so sure. “He said to me, ‘You’re not Annie material,’ ” Parker told Barbara Walters last month. “He was being realistic.” But Parker, who had made her acting debut four years earlier in NBC’s The Little Match Girl, proved him wrong. She was cast as an orphan in 1978 and promoted to the lead role the following March. “She wasn’t really tough, the way Andrea McArdle was,” says cast-mate Raymond Thorne, who played Franklin D. Roosevelt. “But she was the best actress we ever had.”

After outgrowing the part—she sprouted 6 inches during her run—Parker left in January 1980 to find success onstage (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), screen (Honeymoon in Vegas) and, of course, TV (Sex and the City). Now 37, she is expecting her first child with husband Matthew Broderick. “I have this crazy, privileged life,” she told Walters. “I’m very content.”

Allison Smith (January ’80 to September ’82)

Legwork helped turn Smith into Annie IV. “I didn’t drive,” recalls her mother, Jo-Ann, “so for her to audition, we had to walk one mile to the bus.” After seven trips the Waldwick, N.J., 10-year-old got the part, stepping onstage in January 1980. She left in 1982 to begin seventh grade, not knowing the musical would close four months later. “That was a bummer,” says Smith, 32. “I would’ve loved to have finished it off.” Instead she enjoyed a successful postshow career, with a five-year run as Jane Curtin’s daughter Jennie on the sitcom Kate & Allie.

After spending two years at New York University, Smith left for Los Angeles, where she built up a resume, she says, of “little parts in big movies” and roles in short-lived TV shows like Wasteland. With a recent recurring stint on The West Wing (as Mallory, John Spencer’s daughter-and Rob Lowe’s potential love interest) and marriage last June to attorney Randy Grimmett, 33, a vice president of ASCAP, Smith says she has grand ambitions for tomorrow: “My five-year dream,” she says, “is to be doing a musical and to have a baby on my hip.”

Alyson Kirk (September ’82 to January ’83)

Each day after school, 10-year-old Kirk returned home in “waldwick, N.J., (also Allison Smith’s town) and sang along with Andrea McArdle’s voice on the Annie original cast recording. In September 1982, after nearly two years playing orphan Kate in the show’s national tour and on Broadway, she claimed the lead role. “She was like a sponge,” says Harve Presnell, who played “Daddy” Warbucks. “Everything you suggested to her, it only took her a couple of times and she had it.”

Annie’s closing night four months later hit Kirk hard. During the final curtain call, says director Martin Charnin, “she burst into tears. I had to hold her in front of 2,000 people and tell her it was all right.” Kirk continued to act in TV movies and series like The Equalizer. Then in 1989 she enrolled in Syracuse University, majoring in nutrition. A short-lived career as a dietitian followed before she returned to acting. “I didn’t think a job should be something that doesn’t thrill you,” she says.

Now living back in her hometown, Kirk, who is 32 and single, pounds the pavement in Manhattan, hoping for a second shot at stardom. “It was the best time of my life,” she says. “Not many people get to go to work with a smile on their face.”

Aileen Quinn (1982 film)

During auditions to play Annie in the 1982 John Huston-directed movie, 9-year-old Quinn never got her hopes up. “I never assumed I was going to get the part,” says Quinn. “It was like Sarah Hughes at the Olympics.” So back she went, 10 times. “She never said, ‘I’m too tired,’ ” says choreographer Arlene Phillips. “She was bionic.”

Locked in to a contract for possible Annie sequels, Quinn, now 30, saw her film career stall when none materialized. In 1994 she graduated from Drew University in Madison, N.J., as a Spanish major and became a translator. In 1995 Quinn joined a national tour of Fiddler on the Roof; nowadays you’ll find her in Saturday Night Fever. Although she hopes, eventually, to “end up like Shirley Temple Black and work in politics,” Quinn says that, here and now, Quinn (in ’82) visited she’s “excited about doing theater Today after being cast. again. I’m on a creative roll.”

Brittny Kissinger (March ’97 to October ’97)

One day in 1997, just before a pre-Broadway performance of Annie in Boston, star Joanna Pacitti got bronchitis. Her understudy Kissinger filled in. Shortly afterward, producers gave Kissinger the role permanently. “It all just happened so fast,” says Kissinger of the whiplash turnaround, which caused a furor at the time. “Brittny handled it with great grace and aplomb,” says John Schuck, her “Daddy” Warbucks. “I’ve never seen a kid who loved being onstage more.”

When the revival closed that October, Kissinger—the second of three children of Kerry, 46, a Pizza Hut manager, and homemaker Danielle, 46—stayed on for a two-year national tour. Going home to Ballston Spa, N.Y., was a big adjustment. “I was so much more adult than anyone else,” says Kissinger, now 13. Still, the seventh grader insists, “I’m not like the other girls who ‘go out’ with boys. I mean, they can’t even drive yet. Where are they going?”

Alicia Morton (1999 TV movie)

Alan Cumming feared the worst when he signed on to play Rooster in ABC’s 1999 Annie adaptation. “I had these images of hideous showbiz children,” says Cumming, who relaxed after meeting Morton, then 12. “She was charming,” he says, “and not at all precocious.”

Still, Morton struggled with the role’s dramatic moments. “The emotional scenes were hard for me,” she says, until an acting coach suggested she draw on her father Jon’s 1997 death from cancer (mom Kathy, 46, co-runs a family carpet-and-flooring business in their Gonzales, La., hometown). Morton, who turns 15 on April 29, is learning that Hollywood auditions can be tougher than Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Undeterred, she says she hopes to land a TV series. And “hopefully, I’ll record an album,” she says, “but not until I’m older. Maybe 18.”

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