The award-winning animal trainer William Berloni on Thursday unveiled the pooch who is slated to star in the Broadway revival of the Tony Award-winning musical "Annie" - Sunny, a 2-year-old female terrier mix rescued from a city pound in Houston.
"The most talented animals are right there under your nose," said Berloni, who makes it a point of using shelter dogs in all his projects. "The message is: Animals in shelters are not damaged, just unfortunate."
Sunny was only 24 hours away from being euthanized four months ago when Berloni spotted her photo online while conducting a nationwide search for Sandy. She had been mislabeled as male and given the name Bruno. Touched, he forwarded her photo to one of the show's producers, Arielle Tepper Madover, who wrote back, "Save her. I don't care what it costs."
"So I adopted her sight-unseen," said Berloni. "I didn't think she was a candidate for Sandy. Her description was so sweet and she looked very much like the original Sandy that we were just saving her to find her a home."
Sunny was shipped to New York and came muzzle-to-face with Berloni. "I met her and went, 'Wow, she could really be a candidate,'" he said. "She's going to be fantastic."
"Annie," starring 11-year-old Lilla Crawford in the title role and Katie Finneran as Miss Hannigan, will begin previews on Oct. 3 at the Palace Theatre and will open on Nov. 8.
Berloni, whose extensive Broadway credits include training animals for "Legally Blonde," ''Joe Turner's Come and Gone," ''Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," ''Awake and Sing" and "The Wizard of Oz," began working as an animal trainer when he plucked the original Sandy in "Annie" from a shelter in 1976 for $7 the day before it was to be euthanized.
He chuckles that his career has come full circle with the new "Annie" revival. "You hear of people ... being remembered for having a signature song?" he asks. "Well, I think I'm the only guy who has a signature dog."
The original Sandy, also a terrier mix, went on to play almost all 2,377 performances of "Annie" and Berloni supplied shelter dogs for all four national tours of the show, as well as the 10th, 20th and 30th anniversary productions. Sunny's understudy, Casey, was rescued from a shelter in Nashville, Tenn.
The revival of the musical, which features music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan, will be directed by three-time Tony winner James Lapine and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Its hit songs include "It's the Hard-Knock Life" and "Tomorrow."
Lapine has yet to plan out exactly what he wants Sunny to do, other than not what any other Sandys have done in the past. Berloni is preparing a list of tricks, and has been told that creators may want the dog to dance. "I have to say, it's the first time I've ever put a dog in a dance number," he said. "That's going to be new and interesting."
The dog food company Pedigree has make the unprecedented step of partnering with the new Broadway production and will donate $2 for every ticket sold through Dec. 31, 2013 - up to $1 million - to a nonprofit dedicated to helping dogs find homes. All proceeds from co-branded merchandise will go to the effort.
Pedigree Senior Brand Manager Lisa Campbell hopes the initiative will put a spotlight on the plight of homeless dogs. "Shelter dogs aren't broken - they just haven't been given the chance," she said. "What a great vehicle to show people that you can find a star in a shelter. A dog that is now a Broadway star very easily could have been euthanized."
The journeys of Sunny and Casey from life in shelters to the bright lights of Times Square will be documented in a 30-minute TV special, "Annie's Search for Sandy," set to air on NBC in October.
Though Berloni concentrates mostly on dogs, he's also trained cats, birds and rodents. He coached a cat in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," a rat in "The Woman in White" and 23 lambs for Bernadette Peters' run in "Gypsy."
He won a special 2011 Tony Award for his contribution to the theater and is a behavior consultant to the Humane Society of New York. After Berloni's animals retire, they often spend their final years at his Connecticut farm.
"I always say anybody could have gone into a shelter and adopted any one of the animals that I've turned into Broadway stars the day before I did," he said. "And they would have been great dogs in someone's home. I just get the opportunity to show that they're great dogs onstage."
To get Sunny used to Broadway, her diet will be carefully monitored, her routine formalized and she'll get used to all the actors in the "Annie" revival to ensure everyone is comfortable. She'll also be brought to current Broadway shows to get familiar with the roar of the crowd.
"The hardest thing for her is to get used to the audience's response. We can mimic every other aspect of it - sets, movements, people, lights and sounds. But there aren't many opportunities for me to bring her to a show and have her hear applause."