Martin Charnin's Broadway career got of to an auspicious start when he sang and danced his way through more than 1000 performances of West Side Story. And, even if you aren't a Broadway aficionado and don't recognize the name, chances are you probably know some of the lyrics he wrote for Annie, a show he also directed on Broadway in 1977. Charnin additionally directed the Annie revival currently on stage at the Orpheum.Intermission Impossible talked to him about spending a life in the theater, and the last 40-years with America's favorite orphan.
Intermission Impossible:Annie's 40-years-old.
Martin Charnin:It will be, absolutely. 40 years.
II: And you've been with it from the beginning. How many productions have you directed?
MC:Aside from the original that I directed on Broadway, I did it three times in revivals on Broadway. And about sixteen other productions. Road companies, London, Amsterdam, Australia. And Regional theater things and tours.
II: That makes you the foremost authority on all things Daddy Warbucks.
MC:At this time probably yes.
II: I'm always interested in how shows travel through time. And in this case we're talking about a character that precedes the show by another 40-years at least. So Little Orphan Annie is created during the Great Depression. Annie opens on Broadway in 1977 when America's struggling with recession, an energy crisis, no jobs, inflation. Now your revival's coming to the Orpheum at a moment of extreme political and economic uncertainty. Tell me about the life of this billionaire able to access the power of the US government in ways no ordinary citizen might, and the orphan who always seems to show up when things are dark and gloomy/
MC:The concept of this show is universal. One of the things we discovered, particularly in this production, is that it is extremely relevant. And that relevance surfaces in different dosages every time it’s done depending on where the country’s psyche happens to be. We haven’t changed anything. I’m often asked, “When did you rewrite the show to make it appropriate and fitting for the time.” And the answer I always give is, ‘We have not changed anything.’ From a physical standpoint we have. Every time you cast it you change it because different actors will have different attitudes. But the text and musical content hasn’t changed since 1977. We wrote it with an eye for what we were all really feeling, and conflicted about, and angry about, and disappointed about in the 70’s. That cycle comes around and for whatever reason we always need that moment of reassurance — that tap on the shoulder that says, no matter how awful everything is right now it’s going to get better. That’s one of the underlying messages of the play that’s resonated certainly for the last 40-years and my instinct is it will resonate for the next 40 as well.
II: Unfortunately— or maybe fortunately — I think you're right.
MC:But one of the things that make it fun and interesting is how audiences respond to it, and that thrills me and keeps it exciting for me. An audience makes a very important contribution to a show. They’re the final part of the puzzle. When that response is good, and in some cases overpowering, it’s a wonderful thing to feel and see.
II: Let's talk about you for a minute.
II: You really get your start working on Broadway in the original production of West Side Story.
MC: I was a performer at the very beginning of my theatrical career.
II: For someone who wasn't going to be content just being an actor, this was an opportunity to work with one of the most extraordinary creative teams ever assembled.
MC:I was very fortunate to be attached to that quartet of individuals. Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerry Robbins, especially. It was like boot camp. And the only time those four ever collaborated. They never did anything together again. And I paid a lot of attention to the things each one of them were doing. It was quite exciting to watch Jerry Robbins at the top of his form putting the detail work of West Side together. That has resonated with me all my life.
II: That was the first thing that occurred to me when I was prepping for this interview. How could that not set the bar very high?
MC:Also a really interesting time as far as theater was concerned. It was going through profound changes. West Side happened, point of fact it was miles ahead of its time. To the point that it really makes good sense, but wen it opened it was kind of an anomaly. They’d taken major steps with Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 40’s, when they created Oklahoma and started bringing in that kind of writing. But there were still a lot of song and dance shows on Broadway where the book kind of mattered. My Fair Lady happened the year before. Music Man won 95-percent of the Tony Awards given in the year West Side Story opened.
II: It produces so many songs that have become standards. Which brings us back to Annie. Because you have a few of those too. "Tomorrow" is inescapable — so many people have performed it. Jay Z borrowed "Hard Knock Life." Is there one version out there you have a special affinity for?
MC:I love them all, but the fun of listening to "Tomorrow" is how many different ways it’s constantly reinterpreted. It has a life of its own and has become one of the great iconic musical theater moments. I didn’t set out to make that happen, but it did. And we were all really pleased when, last year, it was named one of the 100 most sung songs of the last hundred years. It also turns up in interesting ways in some very odd locations. And that’s the fun of it. And why its life is so expansive. It’s done in commercials. But it’s in and of itself what Annie’s all about. It’s her attitude toward life.
II: Has it ever surprised you? You agree to let it be used, then you hear it and find it really effective. Or not.
MC: Occasionally it turns up where you least expected it. A bank using it — “You’ll be able to get your loan. Tomorrow.” Things like that. I rarely let that happen because I want to protect the integrity of the song. Right now it’s being used for a heart medication that’s apparently revolutionized one aspect of how heart medications are used.
II: I've seen and written about the show several times. And I'm always struck by one change in Annie's translation to the stage. FDR's such a pivotal and heroic character. But Annie's creator, Harold Gray, hated FDR. I think he even killed off the strip for a while to protest Roosevelt's reelection.
MC:He was a staunch conservative and had a big problem with FDR. But in order for us to make the points we wanted to make, we tempered that attitude he had. We reconciled the two of them for the two hours the play goes on.
II: Was it difficult to make that change?
MC:It wasn’t a struggle once we decided to do it. The reconciliation part is extremely important in the world. You have to make compromises. Particularly in politics in order to get anything done.
II: You've got several projects brewing, can we talk about some of that?
MC:Two things going right now that are kind of fun. In 1992 we did a sequel to Annie which didn’t work at first called Annie 2. But we revised it, called it Annie Warbucks, and did it again Off-Broadway. Because of a snowstorm that blanketed New York we had to close after 8-months. All of a sudden it’s become inspirational and we’re moving toward the possibility of making that happen on Broadway. I’m also involved in a stirring and interesting musical with two young writers, about Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who went to Nazi Germany in the 40’s and was responsible for saving the lives of 100,000 Jews as the. I rather am attracted to subject matter that is relatively important and not frivolous. And Wallenberg is certainly not frivolous.