Martin Charnin, director and lyricist who brought ‘Annie’ to Broadway, at 84
WASHINGTON —Martin Charnin, a Tony- and Emmy-winning writer, director and producer who turned a Depression-era comic strip into ‘‘Annie,’’ the hit Broadway musical about a freckle-faced orphan with a ‘‘hard knock life,’’ died Saturday at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. He was 84.
Mr. Charnin had suffered a heart attack three days earlier, said his daughter Sasha Charnin Morrison.
Long before he conceived, directed, and wrote the lyrics to ‘‘Annie,’’ Mr. Charnin was a Broadway actor playing a Jet in the original 1957 production of ‘‘West Side Story.’’ He had responded to a casting call for ‘‘authentic juvenile delinquents,’’ he later said, but found he had little inclination for singing and dancing.
Within two years, he turned toward creative work behind the scenes, writing or directing off-Broadway revues for the impresario Julius Monk, as well as nightclub shows for artists including Shirley Jones, Abbe Lane, Leslie Uggams, Dionne Warwick, and Nancy Wilson.
Collaborating with composers such as Richard Rodgers and his daughter Mary Rodgers, Mr. Charnin wrote the lyrics to Broadway musicals including ‘‘Hot Spot’’ (1963) and ‘‘Two by Two’’ (1970-71), and directed television variety specials that earned him three Emmy Awards in the early 1970s.
All the while, he promoted and developed what he described as an optimistic musical for a cynical time, crafting a show that chronicled the feisty orphan Annie and her dog, Sandy, the cruel caretaker Miss Hannigan, and the balding millionaire Oliver ‘‘Daddy’’ Warbucks.
With a book by Thomas Meehan and a score by Charles Strouse, ‘‘Annie’’ opened on Broadway in 1977 and ran for 2,377 performances, spawning two Tony-nominated revivals, three film adaptations and countless local theater productions, with The New York Times estimating in 2012 that 700 to 900 ‘‘Annies’’ run each year in the United States alone.
In part, the musical’s success was driven by some of the cheeriest, most infectious songs ever performed on Broadway — including ‘‘It’s the Hard Knock Life,’’ which was sampled by rapper Jay-Z in 1998, and ‘‘Tomorrow,’’ in which Annie proclaims: ‘‘Bet your bottom dollar/ That tomorrow/ There’ll be sun!’’
Mr. Charnin’s quest to stage ‘‘Annie’’ reportedly landed him $75,000 in debt by the time his musical opened on Broadway. He had first encountered the characters around 1970 (accounts vary on the year), when he came across a collection of Harold Gray’s ‘‘Little Orphan Annie’’ comics while shopping for a Christmas gift for choreographer Alan Johnson.
‘‘He didn’t give the book to Alan,’’ Charnin Morrison recalled in a phone interview, ‘‘but kept it and thought, ‘Wow, what a great idea for a musical.’ ”
At first, few others agreed with him. Mr. Charnin insisted on casting children and dogs, unnerving potential financial backers. He rebuffed suggestions that he stage the musical as camp instead of straightforward realism. And he struggled to convince Meehan, who had previously worked with him on television projects, and Strouse, who composed ‘‘Bye Bye Birdie,’’ that the project could succeed.
An early version of ‘‘Annie’’ premiered in 1976 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., where a hurricane had just hit town, taking out the electricity and shortening the crew’s rehearsal time. A power outage delayed the curtain on opening night, and once the show got underway, scenery fell and cues were missed.
But Mr. Charnin tweaked the cast and retooled the show, leading it to be picked up by director Mike Nichols, who produced ‘‘Annie’’ for Broadway. Disliking the show, wrote New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes, ‘‘would be tantamount to disliking motherhood, peanut butter, friendly mongrel dogs and nostalgia.’’
The production was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including best director, and won seven, including best musical, best book, and best score, which Mr. Charnin shared with Strouse. He also received Drama Desk awards for outstanding director and lyrics, shared a Grammy for best cast show album and reportedly made a fortune on the musical, which earned a profit of more than $20 million and fetched a record $9.5 million for film rights.
He spent years working on a sequel, reassembling the original ‘‘Annie’’ team for ‘‘Annie 2’’ (1989), which premiered in Washington to disastrous reviews and was rewritten as ‘‘Annie Warbucks.’’ The production opened off-Broadway in 1993 and ran for 200 performances.
The oldest of two children, Martin Jay Charnin was born in Manhattan on Nov. 24, 1934, and was raised in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. His mother was a secretary, and his father was a basso profondo at the Metropolitan Opera who wanted Martin to become an artist.
Instead, Mr. Charnin turned to theater after graduating from Cooper Union in 1955. In addition to ‘‘West Side Story,’’ he appeared in the 1959 revue ‘‘The Girls Against the Boys,’’ alongside comic actors including Bert Lahr and Dick Van Dyke.
He later wrote the Barbra Streisand song ‘‘The Best Thing You’ve Ever Done,’’ as well as lyrics for the Broadway shows ‘‘La Strada’’ (1969); ‘‘I Remember Mama’’ (1979); and contributed to ‘‘The Madwoman of Central Park West’’ (1979).
On television, he won an Emmy Award for the Anne Bancroft vehicle ‘‘Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man’’ (1970), followed by two more Emmys for ‘‘’S Wonderful, ’S Marvelous, ’S Gershwin’’ (1972), featuring Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire.
His marriages to Lynn Ross and Genii Prior, who both danced in ‘‘West Side Story,’’ and to Jade Hobson, a creative director for fashion magazines, ended in divorce. In 2006, he married Shelly Burch, who starred in the soap opera ‘‘One Life to Live’’ and later appeared in nightclub shows directed by Mr. Charnin.