The voice, hair and face of Annie, the enormously optimistic orphan from the 1982 movie musical of the same name, is burned into cinematic iconography. Annie was and is the flame-haired symbol of never letting the world kill your spirit, of determination, and of laughter in the face of apparent misery. Frankly, the world needs a bit of Annie right now.
The actress who played her 36 years ago and, in the process, wrote her own little piece of film history is Aileen Quinn. She now fronts a rockabilly band that goes by the perfectly appropriate name of Aileen Quinn and the Leapin’ Lizards (“leapin’ lizards” being an expression used by various characters in the Annie film as a soft alternative to “holy shit”).
Quinn is 46 now, but a lifetime of musical theater has helped her retain the same youthful sparkle in her eyes, and an infectious energy familiar to fans of the musical. Her red hair isn’t quite as large now, and she’s settled into the role of a badass rockabilly queen as if she’s been rolling over hot-rod hoods her entire life. In truth, it was a TV special on the women of rockabilly, including the great Wanda Jackson, that pushed her in that direction.
“I was very inspired by their sassiness, especially for that time period,” Quinn says. “I was inspired by the music and style, and just got into it. Fast-forward to me moving to L.A., and then sometime around 2011 I got paired up with a local guy who was really into that music. A neighbor said, ‘I want to introduce you to my ex-husband — we’re still friends — and he’s putting together a rockabilly band, and he would like a female singer. Six or seven years later and the rest is history.”
Quinn has transitioned with ease from the very regimented world of musical theater into the far more loose life of a rockabilly singer. Oozing sass and trad 1950s cool onstage, the former child star now naturally blends her long-held musical chops with pin-up style. It’s particularly impressive when considering that the Leapin’ Lizards are her first band, although she was part of a songwriting duo while still living in Hoboken, New Jersey, until about six years ago.
“We never really played out,” Quinn says. “We recorded one album, which never got released (I’d like to circle back to that eventually), but I was doing it unofficially. I was friends with a lot of people in bands — I’m sure they inspired me while I was living there for about eight years. A lot of my friends were in modern punk bands and, when you think about it, rockabilly is the punk of that era.”
That duo, though, was coming from an R&B and blues angle, which perhaps marks an organic middle ground between musical theater and rockabilly. When Quinn did move out to Los Angeles six years ago, she became hugely influenced by the classic-car culture, which has further inspired her; now, she’s just loving life in a rockabilly band (completed by Tom Murray on drums and vocals, Chris Smith on bass and vocals, Frank Giffen on guitar, Jorge Reyes on sax and John Piechowski on harp).
“What’s nice about the band dynamic is that it’s a much smaller group than I’m used to on Broadway and in musical theater,” she says. “I’m used to casts of 30 to 40 people. It’s nicer and more intimate to work with a group of five or six. The hardest thing in the beginning was finding the right mixture. The first couple of years were the hardest, finding the perfect personalities to match. We had a few formations of the band, but the formation we have now seems to work the best, both personally and artistically.”
Quinn had more than 20 years of musical theater under her belt before forming the band, busting her ass going from show to show regionally, off-Broadway and on national tours. This was largely because she loves the art form. However, at an early age she was pushed further into theater when, after Annie, her contract didn’t allow her to do any TV or movie work.
“They were going to make more Annie movies,” Quinn says. “An Annie 2 and 3, based on the comic strip. Annie going through the swamps was one. I read some scripts and they were more adventurous, like Indiana Jones. But they never materialized and the next thing I knew, the contract was up. What do I do now? That’s when I went back to my musical theater roots as a late teen.”
And that’s pretty much where she remained. Quinn toured with productions of Saturday Night Fever and Fiddler on the Roof, among many others. It was a treadmill, but a career in the arts. She isn’t complaining at all, but she’s glad to be taking a break from all of that.
“I did it all year round, with a month or two between shows,” she says. “I was on that roller coaster for a while, which is fun, but musical theater is very demanding. Also, the repetition. The thing I like the most about the band, and especially being one of the two main songwriters, is the creativity. In musical theater, you’re just following a formula. Making it your own. But this is really making it your own. Your thoughts and words, and picking songs that you like. That’s artistically satisfying.”
Quinn says it’s a little strange to still be so closely associated with something she did as a child, but at the same time, the role of Annie is one that is beloved and she embraces that. In fact, the Leapin’ Lizards perform a mildly rockabilly version of “Tomorrow.” They also play songs from their debut album, Spin Me, plus a few covers and tunes from the forthcoming sophomore effort.
A lifetime of hard work has had an effect on Quinn, too, and the Leapin’ Lizards will be playing shows regularly throughout this year. This weekend, they play the Whisky, which has become something of a favorite haunt for Quinn.
“It’s just hardcore enough, but not too crazy like other places down the street,” she says. “I really like the way they have the stage, it’s a nice size, it’s got great lightning — it’s one of the most fun live shows that we have. It’s exciting playing there. So many bands have gotten their starts there. I’m always rubbing the walls.”