An Ode to Annie’s Lyricist
By Peter Filichia —
I know, I know. You’ve OD’d on Annie. In fact, you OD’d on it long ago. That’s what happens when a musical becomes a smash hit and never for a second leaves the public consciousness.
As you’re reading this, someone is now either rehearsing or performing the show somewhere in the world. And if not today, well, tomorrow is only a day away.
So, with Annie about to celebrate its 34th anniversary – it opened on Broadway on April 21, 1977 – here’s a challenge for me. What can I tell you about the show that you’ve never heard, read or seen before?
Did you know that little Andrea McArdle, who first played the title role on Broadway, is about to become a grandmother? All right, a step-grandmother, but you get the point: tempus does indeed fugit.
Did you know that 47 years to the day before Annie opened – on April 21, 1930 – a Broadway comedy called Little Orchid Annie debuted? Clearly it took its title from the comic strip that gave birth to the eyeball-less orphan. But the two shows have more in common, for the final scene of both take place on Christmas Day.
There’s more: One character in Little Orchid Annie has the last name of Mudgeon, which is close to the last name of Mudge that Annie supposedly had. (This later turned out to be incorrect information. I’m sure you know why. You don’t need me to take you through the plot of Annie again, do you?)
There was, however, a profound difference between the length of the two shows’ runs. When Annie closed in 1983 after 2,377 performances, only 10 Broadway shows had run longer. When Little Orchid Annie closed in 1930 after 16 performances, 3,673 shows had outrun it. Since then, it’s dropped to a tie for 4,878th place.
The next item you don’t know — unless you were at a party honoring Annie’s lyricist and director Martin Charnin a year or so after his big fat hit opened. I was asked to write a song to commemorate his success, which had been long in coming.
I wanted to set my lyric to an existing show song, ideally one that Charnin had written. I soon remembered the opening song of Two by Two, his 1970 musical with Richard Rodgers. If you don’t know it, there are plenty of pleasures to be had on the disc – including this opening number, which was a lovely little Rodgers waltz. (Nobody wrote waltzes better.)
The show, about Noah of Ark fame, had the old man (played by Danny Kaye) wondering why God had chosen him above all others to build a boat and be saved. “Why me?” he asked in song. Ah, I thought, I can use those two words in a different context.
Given that all the party attendees were people in the Broadway know – and that this song was sung decades ago when the references were topical – some of you today might not catch every nuance. So what I’m doing is boldfacing the actual lyrics, and then I’ll explain them in regular type. And if you don’t know the original Rodgers melody, well, why not try composing your own?
(by Rodgers and Filichia)
Marty first wrote some lyrics for Hot Spot
People said, “What a hit that’ll be!”
But it closed right away
Leaving Marty to say,
“Why me? Why me Why me?”
Hot Spot was a 1963 Judy Holliday musical about the Peace Corps. Charnin wrote the lyrics to Mary Rodgers’ music, and the show, which suffered through an inordinate number of directors, closed after 43 performances and didn’t get a cast album. But it was Charnin’s most successful production of the year:
Marty next wrote some lyrics for Zenda
Broadway opening: Late ‘63
But it closed out-of-town
Leaving Marty to frown,
“Why me? Why me? Why me?”
Yes, that August, the musical version of The Prisoner of Zenda had the esteemed (if unlucky) Vernon Duke writing the music and Alfred Drake and Chita Rivera starring. It didn’t even make it to Broadway, but closed in Pasadena in November.
Note, however, that I said that Charnin wrote “some lyrics.” Leonard Adelson and Sid Kuller were also engaged as lyricists. Again, no cast album – well, not officially. A bootleg of a live recording (with execrable sound) later surfaced.
Marty’s next one was called Mata Hari
Starring what was her name? Something Mell.
We forget, though we’ll always remember
That the dame didn’t die when she fell.
This one, in 1967, closed out-of-town, too, albeit in Washington.
Vincente Minnelli mis-directed minor film star Marisa Mell, who, on opening night, just wouldn’t stay still after she’d been shot by a firing squad.
Danny Kaye, Two by Two quickly followed
Did all right, ‘til the star hurt his knee
Danny improvised words
(treated Marty’s like turds)
“Why me, dear God, why me?”
This was a musical version of Clifford Odets’ The Flowering Peach, in which Noah and his family were treated as an ordinary, middle-class Jewish couple. Two by Two ran longer than all three others combined, of course, especially because of a big advance sale, thanks to Kaye’s returning to Broadway after nearly a thirty-year absence. But Kaye started improvising and strayed far from the text, first when he lost faith in the show and later when he was injured – making for one of Broadway’s most disgraceful stories.
Despite all the setbacks, the guy stays alive
Not once through it all does he work 9-to-5
He’s winning some Emmys,
He’s buying nice clothes
But still, he’s obsessing about Broadway shows.
Yes, Charnin won three Emmys: two in 1972 for ‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous, ‘S Gershwin and one in 1970 for a show starring Anne Bancroft called (note the first word) Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man.
Then fin’lly, one orphan girl catches his eye
He tells Messrs. Meehan and Strouse, “It’ll fly!
With little girls, Christmas, a dog and a car,
We’ll get us a moppet and make her a star.
The men at the theater will change the marquee
A-L-V-I-N to A-N-N-I-E!”
Indeed, shortly after Annie opened at the theater then known as the Alvin (and now known as the Neil Simon), the vertical sign outside the theater did lose the “L” and “V,” had its “N” repositioned, and added an “N” and “E” – which stayed up at the Alvin for quite some time.
Meehan is librettist Tom Meehan and Strouse is composer Charles Strouse; they and Charnin won Tonys for their work on Annie. And speaking of Tonys:
June of ’77, the Tonys
Marty’s there, as is each nominee
Is our lyricist floored
When he gets the award!
“For me? For me? For me?”
“Nominee,” by the way, was the word Charnin chose for that exact spot in the original song – although it meant something a little different. Anyway, what I then did was have the melody change to the end of “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy, and had “Charnin” sing:
For me! For me! For MEEEEEEEEEE!
Yes, I know: Much later, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman had Edna do the same thing at the end of a Hairspray song, and now Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy have the Queen of Hearts doing it in a Wonderland song. Mine, however, came decades earlier.
But let me make this perfectly clear: Shaiman, Wittman, Wildhorn and Murphy were NOT at the party.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.