Martin Charnin’s Legacy By Peter Filichia
Broadway will never forget Martin Charnin, for he had the idea of making a musical about Little Orphan Annie.
When recruiting a librettist, he believed a humor writer who’d never had experience with musicals could do it.
Thomas Meehan not only won a Tony for the book of ANNIE, but also eventually captured the same honor for HAIRSPRAY and THE PRODUCERS.
Meehan’s Broadway career might well not have happened without Martin Charnin, who died last week at the age of 84.
Yes, composer Charles Strouse had had two Tony-winning hits before Charnin asked him to provide the music to ANNIE. But both of those others – BYE BYE BIRDIE and APPLAUSE – put together didn’t run as long as this 1977 smash.
Charnin’s lyrics won him a Tony, too, and deservedly so. In “N.Y.C.,” Daddy Warbucks proclaims “What other town has the Empire State and a mayor five foot two?” Such a terrific perception wouldn’t occur to many.
It’s followed by “No other town in the whole forty-eight
can half-compare to you.” Charnin brought us into the era when the show takes place, for the U.S. wouldn’t have a forty-ninth or fiftieth state for decades.
He also reiterated that ANNIE’s time-frame was the ‘30s in “I Don’t Need Anything but You.” After Annie sang “Yesterday was just awful,” Daddy sang “You can say that again” – a catch-phrase that many said back then.
One of Charnin’s best lyrics didn’t make the original cast album (which is still one of Masterworks Broadway’s best-sellers). At the end of the first act, after Annie turns down Daddy’s offer to adopt her in hopes that her genuine parents will show up, he vows to find them but expresses his inner thoughts: “What a thing to occur; finding them – losing her. No, you won’t be an orphan for long.”
That was the miracle of ANNIE. It made us genuinely care more than we ever would have imagined about so-called cartoon characters. Charnin directed the show, too, and got all the sensitivity out of Reid Shelton’s Daddy and Andrea McArdle’s Annie.
Thus Charnin received a Tony nomination for Best Director of a Musical. He lost to Gene Saks, who admittedly did provide some nifty staging for I LOVE MY WIFE. Many around town, though, felt that Charnin didn’t win because Mike Nichols came in after the Goodspeed Opera House tryout to produce – and probably re-directed the show.
Sure, give Nichols credit for bringing in long-time ally Dorothy Loudon, which gave the show the guts, sparkle and humor it had been missing. But take it from one who was at ANNIE’S final performance in Connecticut on October 3, 1976. Aside from new songs that would be added (“Little Girls”) or dropped (“We Got Annie”), there was no discernible directorial difference from the Goodspeed closing performance to the one I saw on Broadway on April 22, 1977.
(I’d purposely bought tickets for the second official performance which would take place on the day the reviews came out. I knew the notices would be terrific, and that the cast would be sky-high up to show off their now-established smash-hit.)
I had first discovered Charnin’s work when I attended a backers’ audition of BALLAD FOR A FIRING SQUAD on September 4, 1968. It was a reworking of MATA HARI, which had ignominiously closed in Washington a year earlier.
While he performed the show, he taught me that if an actor wants an audience to cry, he must not. In playing a World War I French soldier who knew the Germans would attack the next day, he stoically sang “I’m afraid, Maman, we are done; they have gas, Maman. We have none.” I wasn’t the only one attending who wept.
Alas, MATA HARI wasn’t the first Charnin musical that had shuttered out-of-town: ZENDA (about The Prisoner of) called it a life in Pasadena in 1963 – not long after his maiden Broadway effort, HOT SPOT, died after forty-three performances at the Majestic (and just about as many previews).
Doing better than both of them put together was LA STRADA – which ran one night: December 14, 1969.
To be fair, Charnin was brought in late in the game to add new songs, because original composer-lyricist Lionel (OLIVER!) Bart was ailing. So even the hardest-hearted Broadway cynics (and aren’t there are plenty of those around?) knew the failure couldn’t justifiably be pinned on him.
As Edison said, “The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Charnin never gave up and was rewarded by ANNIE.
Although people are inclined to say that this was Charnin’s only Broadway hit, he did have another: TWO BY TWO.
Admittedly, ticket demand for the 1970 musical was never intense. You probably could have approached the Imperial Theatre box office a half-hour before most Saturday night performances and come away with a prime pair.
And yet, the true definition of a hit is not a show that runs a long time (SPIDER-MAN) or gets raves (DO RE MI), but a show that returns its investment and realizes a profit. With a cast of only eight, one set and only Kaye pulling in a significant paycheck, TWO BY TWO was able to recoup.
The musical was Peter (1776) Stone’s adaptation of the 1954 comedy THE FLOWERING PEACH. Clifford Odets’ sunniest work treated Noah of Ark fame and his family as middle-class, ordinary Jews. It only ran four months, but Charnin, Stone and – hardly beside the point – composer Richard (too many smash hits to mention) Rodgers thought it’d make a good musical.
Few shows have ever split the critics as this one. According to Steven Suskin’s indispensable MORE OPENING NIGHTS ON BROADWAY, TWO BY TWO received one rave, one favorable, two mixed, one negative and one pan.
And yet it managed 343 performances despite the unconscionable behavior of star Danny Kaye. After he had injured his leg and performed in a wheelchair for much of Act One and on crutches for the rest, Kaye improvised. He mocked the show, unzipped the back of a co-star’s dress, mentioned NO, NO, NANETTE and made other “improvements.” It cost him a Tony nomination, for the committee went on record saying that sustaining the excellence of a performance is always a factor in a nomination.
Charnin’s lyrics were sensitive when they had to be, witty when that was required and always skillful. “You Have Got to Have a Rudder on the Ark,” Noah’s sons insist; Noah says no because God didn’t mention one:
NOAH: This discussion is concluded! I won!
SONS: We won!
NOAH: (amazed that they could make such a claim) You won?!
SONS: (equally amazed) You did?!
Rachel is married to Ham, one of Noah’s sons. The marriage isn’t going well. She sings “All the special feelings? Why don’t they begin? Where’s the love I’m supposed to be in?”
Noah’s wife Esther ruminates on how her husband has aged: “The hug that he gives you is hardly a hug; you remember the hug that it’s not.”
In the original play, God turns the 600-year-old Noah to a fifty-year-old who’d then be fit enough to build the ark. Charnin decided that having him be “Ninety Again!” would be funnier. After all, many theatergoers in their fifties feel fine, but few if any in their nineties could roll up their sleeves and do construction work. There’s a musicality, too, to “You got a newer Noah on your hands.”
And when Noah details the plans for the journey, he sings “Two by two … going boating in a floating zoo.” About Rodgers’ melody, he has a point, too: “It’s catchy, no?”
For the last year or so, I’ve been playing my original cast albums chronologically. I started with the ‘40s and as of late Saturday night the sixth, I had just finished listening to THE ROTHSCHILDS.
I don’t expect anyone to believe this, but I’ll take a polygraph test any time you want: Sunday the seventh, when I got up and had breakfast prior to the podcast I do most weeks on www.broadwayradio.com, I started playing the next one in line.
Just before the title song came on, I received an email from podcast host James Marino that we’d be talking about Martin Charnin because he’d just heard that he had died.
A famous quotation from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE came to mind …
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.