It’s no secret that the dog who plays Sandy in ANNIE has been stealing the spotlight at every show since the musical first premiered in 1976. And it’s no exception for the latest national touring production starring Rainier (Rainey) Treviño in the title role.
Since ANNIE’s inception, Bill Berloni has been training the Sandys. The dog, according to the script by Charles Strouse, Thomas Meehan and Martin Charnin, is described as medium-sized, sandy color of an indistinguishable breed.
Before ANNIE was on Broadway, Berloni, who was a 20-year-old aspiring actor at the time, was asked by one of the musical’s producers to find a dog and train it to be Sandy. From that moment, he made training rescue dogs for the stage his passion and career.
For the national tour, Georgie and Bailey play Sandy. “We look for dogs with well-balanced temperaments. That’s it. If they’re well-balanced, then they can learn anything,” Berloni said of what makes the perfect candidate to be a stage dog. Sandy has a pivotal role in the story. The character is on stage for about fourteen minutes with 15 – 20 stage cues a show. And the Sandys cast are always rescue dogs. Georgie was saved from nearly being turned over to a Pennsylvania high kill shelter. Bailey was rescued from Puppy Love Rescue in Louisiana.
“Animals end up in shelters for many reasons. But many of them end up there because of family hardships or a death in the family— not because of any behavioral issues. We hope to find those animals and hopefully adopt them.” explained Berloni.
Training the dogs to be on a big stage with thousands of people in the audience takes about two to three years. First, they get healthy and housebroken. Then trainers use a basic obedience course where the rescue dogs learn how to walk by your side, sit, stay, lay down, sit up and come when you call them. “Our training begins a conversation with them unlike any conversation they’ve ever had before,” explained Berloni of his process. “Every behavior has a reward. And for the most part, the reward is love. So, there’s never any, ‘if you do that, this is your punishment.’ There is: ‘I’d like you to do this. And if you do, you’ll get a reward.’ It’s a much slower process.”
Once that’s mastered, the dogs learn their cues for the show. For this production of ANNIE, the rehearsal process with the cast began about a month before the first performances. Treviño, the tour Annie, spent many hours bonding with Georgie and Bailey by feeding them, walking them and even sleeping with them. “What differentiates our dogs [from other pets] is that they learn to listen to other people, as opposed to just listening to me,” Berloni said. If at any time the dogs don’t want to perform, they don’t have to and they retire from their stage careers.
What’s even more special about this version is that it’s directed by Jenn Thompson, who played the orphan named Pepper, in the original Broadway production. She’s known Berloni since she was 10 years old. For this new tour of ANNIE, he’s the only person on the creative team that has worked on the show before. With new eyes on the story, music, scenery and costumes – it gives this version a fresh perspective that audiences may not have seen before.
“It’s been really emotional to be together in some ways,” Thompson said of their reunion. “I still look at ANNIE a little bit like a 12-year-old. Being with him has been like coming home.”
While Thompson says it’s her first time directing a production of ANNIE, Berloni disagrees. “It’s 1978 there’s all these kids on Broadway. They’re bored. So, they come up with an idea to do their own production of ANNIE onstage in between shows. Jenn directed the eight orphans doing their version of ANNIE. I knew she was a director because she was always bossing everyone around,” Berloni joked.
Like Thompson, who found her calling for directing at a young age, Berloni discovered his passion through ANNIE too on the day he rescued a dog to play the part. “That one dog helped me find what I do the best.” He hopes, with every Sandy, it helps audiences see a different perspective on animal adoption.
“Somewhere in popular culture, I’ve helped make that type of dog popular to have as a pet,” he added.
Nov 21-26, 2023 • Buell Theatre
This article was reprinted with permission from Annie