‘Annie’ composer reflects on life after ‘Tomorrow’

February 22, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah resident and ‘Annie’ lyricist Martin Charnin discusses long theater career

The list is impressive: gold and platinum records, Emmy Awards, and Drama Desk and Tony awards for a blockbuster musical about a redheaded orphan.

“Annie” elevated Issaquah resident Martin Charnin — already a successful songwriter — into the Broadway stratosphere in 1977. The comic-strip-turned-musical marked another milestone for Charnin, the director and lyricist.

Martin Charnin wrote the lyrics and directed the original Broadway production of the blockbuster musical ‘Annie.’ Contributed

Charnin originated the role of Big Deal, a Jet, in the original “West Side Story” production and later penned the musicals “Two by Two” — a Noah and the ark retelling — the immigrant tale “I Remember Mama” and “The First” — a show about color-barrier-breaking baseball star Jackie Robinson. The lyricist also collaborated alongside Richard Rodgers in the years before the seminal composer died in 1979.

“Annie” — and the chipper anthem “Tomorrow” — continues to define a long theater career.

“You reach a point in your life where it sort of becomes your middle name,” Charnin said. “It becomes Martin ‘Annie’ Charnin and, while I’m not for a moment dumping on that — I think that’s grand — and every author, writer, director, producer should have one of those.”

Charnin settled in Issaquah after a 2004 stop at Village Theatre to direct “Robin Hood: The Legend Continues” — a musical about the aging outlaw and middle-aged Merry Men. The longtime scribe created the lyrics for the show, too.

Charnin agreed to direct the mystery “Sleuth” in the ongoing Village Theatre season. The play runs at the downtown Issaquah theater through Feb. 27.

‘Annie’ lingers

“Sleuth” cast member David Pichette praised the approach Charnin uses to direct the taut thriller.

“When you’re working on a play like this — which is story, story, story, narrative, climax — what you really admire is what you might call nuts-and-bolts directing, which is making sure that each moment is really clear,” Pichette said. “How does that get you to the next one? What is the event?”

In the meantime, Charnin serves as the artistic director for Showtunes! Theatre Co. in Seattle and is readying “Annie” for a 2012 Broadway revival to mark the musical’s 35th anniversary. (Showtunes! specializes in restaging obscure and unknown musicals.)

“He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it out of people,” Showtunes! Executive Producer Maggie Stenson Pehrson said. “I appreciate that from both sides of the table. As a producer, I really appreciate that and as an actor, I appreciate that.”

“Annie” lingers as a key focus for Charnin more than 30 years after the musical debuted on Broadway. The musical is among the top 25 longest-running Broadway shows.

Charnin refers to the 1982 “Annie” film adaptation as “ghastly” — as in, “They made the world’s most ghastly movie out of my musical,” he said.

“Your stomach just keeps churning over and churning over as you see them — for the sake of proving, which Hollywood has a habit of doing, continuously — that they know how to do it better than Broadway,” he continued.

Boldface names

Charnin has assembled a long list of contacts and famous friends after a lifetime in theater: legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and comediennes Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett — Miss Hannigan in the “Annie” film adaptation — to name a handful.

“We were at rehearsal for a show and the phone rang and he said, ‘Oh, hi, Carol’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry, everybody, I have to take this.’ It was Carol Burnett!” Pehrson said.

Charnin and wife Shelly Burch, a Broadway alumna and accomplished actress, reside a little more than a mile from Village Theatre. The house features red carpeting — of course — in the living room and a huge “Annie” poster perched above the fireplace mantel.

The husband-and-wife duo acts as frequent collaborators on local stages. Charnin directed Burch in “Shadowlands” on the Mainstage in early 2007 and often team up on Showtunes! productions and other projects.

“My sister, when she met him and spent time with him the first time several years ago, she said, ‘I’m trying to find things wrong with him — and I can’t,’” Burch recalled. “I said, ‘I know. Do you know what it’s like to live with someone like that?’”

Burch is a force in theater, too. The longtime actress performed alongside Sammy Davis Jr. in “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off” and in the original Broadway cast for “Nine” alongside stage legend Raúl Juliá.

Headed west

“Annie” united Charnin and Burch in the 1970s — and again during the last decade.

Burch sang the disco classic “I Will Survive” for Charnin as she auditioned for a national touring company for the musical. Instead, the director cast her as Star-to-Be in the Broadway production.

The couple dated for a time, but busy schedules interfered and both drifted to other projects.

Charnin and Burch reunited 25 years later, after she agreed to direct “Annie” at a Florida dinner theater. Burch had married and settled in the Sunshine State to raise a family.

“I wanted to steal everything that I remembered from when I was in the show,” she said.

In the end, the production did not happen, but Burch managed to track down Charnin.

The couple later settled in Issaquah, in part, due to the deep talent pool in Greater Seattle and the opportunities on local stages.

In order to remain connected to the Big Apple, Burch prints out a stack of e-mails for Charnin — “I’m a bad Pacific Northwesterner, I suppose. But,” she added a beat later, “we recycle them.” Charnin reads the hard copies each morning alongside The New York Times.

“He sits down to do something, and he does everything one at a time,” Burch said. “You know, you get all of these messages from people and you think, ‘Well, I’ll call them back.’ Well, he calls them back. If there’s a project, he finishes that project before he goes to the next one.”

If you go

‘Sleuth’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Through Feb. 27
  • Show times vary
  • Tickets: $20 – $60
  • 392-2202 or
  • www.villagetheatre.org
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