By Ryan McPhee
Mr. Charnin’s varied theatre career also spanned performing (including in the original West Side Story) and directing.
Martin Charnin, whose work as a Broadway lyricist lives on in the likes of Annie’s optimistic “Tomorrow” and “N.Y.C.,” has died at the age of 84.
His daughter, Sasha Charnin Morrison, shared the news on Instagram July 7, noting that he was in the hospital after suffering a minor heart attack days earlier. His wife, Shelly Burch, was at his side.
Though he wrote and directed several shows throughout his career, Mr. Charnin’s Broadway journey began on stage. He played Big Deal in the original 1957 production of West Side Story, going on to appear in the short-lived 1959 revue The Girls Against the Boys alongside Dick Van Dyke.
Before the redheaded orphan took center stage, Mr. Charnin first wrote lyrics for the cabaret circuit, working often with Julius Monk—“the doyen of light cabaret,” as Mr. Charnin would later refer to him in 1983. His words made it to the Great White Way in 1963, collaborating with composer Mary Rodgers on Hot Spot. The production, marking the final stage appearance of Judy Holliday, was not a success and closed after 43 performances.
Mr. Charnin recalls that in developing the musical, he and Rodgers had wanted Barbra Streisand in the leading role, personally teaching her scenes and numbers. Her audition for the producers did not go as expected. “I raced outside to the sidewalk and apologized profusely,” Mr. Charnin told Playbill in 2016, “to no avail. Upon coming back into the theatre, I stood on the stage and screamed at the top of my lungs to all, ‘You are making the biggest mistake of your life!’ Weeks later, she signed to do Funny Girl.”
Despite the setback, Mr. Charnin, would continue to write, providing lyrics for the Vernon Duke musical Zenda, Off-Broadway’s Ballad for a Firing Squad (originally Mata Hari), and the 1970 musical Two By Two, with composer Richard Rodgers and book writer Peter Stone.
As Two By Two made its way to Broadway, Mr. Charnin also turned to the small screen. He won an Emmy Award for producing Annie, the Woman in the Life of a Man. Not to be confused with the Annie that brought him later success, the special starred Anne Bancroft in 14 different musical sketches. Among the writers was Mr. Charnin’s future Annie collaborator, the late Thomas Meehan. He went on to earn Emmy recognition the following three years: first nominated for directing George M!., winning in 1972 for ’S Wonderful, ’S Marvelous, ’S Gershwin, and nominated once more the following year for directing Get Happy. 1973 also marked his directorial debut on Broadway, with the revue Nash at Nine.
Mr. Charnin was the one who led the charge in bringing Little Orphan Annie from the comic strips pages to Broadway. He optioned the Depression-era comic from the Tribune Company, then pressuring Meehan and composer Charles Strouse to get on board with the idea. In a joint interview in 2013, Mr. Charnin revealed that he may have enticed the two others by promising the involvement of the other.
It clearly worked, and after a run at Goodspeed Opera House, Annie opened on Broadway in 1977 at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon). Not without obstacles, though: early drafts were passed on, and Walter Kerr’s New York Times review from the Goodspeed run was not favorable (suggesting the three writers were closet conservatives praising Oliver Warbucks in the Nixon era). However, the title got a jolt with Mike Nichols signing on as a producer as the musical prepared for its New York bow.
“There’s a really good punch line to this story,” Charnin told Playbill in 2013. “Three weeks after we opened in New York, [Kerr] re-reviewed the show and said he was wrong.” In 2016, he again spoke with Playbill, recalling the show’s opening night. “The incredible sound of the audience's response to Andrea McArdle singing ‘Tomorrow’ still resonates today and gets me through any and all of my darkest moments, onstage and off.”
The musical earned 10 Tony nominations, winning seven including Best Musical and for Meehan’s book and Charnin and Storuse’s score (Charnin was also nominated for directing). As a director, Mr. Charnin would go on to helm dozens of productions and companies of the musical around the world, as well as the trio’s sequel, Annie Warbucks.
Mr. Charnin followed up Annie by directing Bar Mitzvah Boy in London and penning the lyrics to Broadway’s I Remember Mama. As he pulled off in 1977, he earned double Tony nominations in 1982 for writing (with Charnin) and directing the Jackie Robinson-focused musical The First. He directed on Broadway five more times: A Little Family Business, Cafe Crown, Sid Caesar & Company, The Flowering Peach, and the 1997 revival of Annie.
Mr. Charnin was born in New York City November 24, 1934. He studied at The High School of Music & Art (now merged with the High School of Performing Arts to form LaGuardia) before earning a BFA at The Cooper Union.
Before they were wed, Burch played Annie’s Star-To-Be, singing the self-contained, memorable “N.Y.C.” solo. “Tommy Tune stole her away to play Claudia in Nine,” Mr. Charnin recalled. “I was really pissed and reluctantly went to her opening. She was glorious, and though I never really forgave her, I eventually got over it. About 23 years later, we got married.” Thought their marriage, Mr. Charnin would create and direct night club acts for Burch; in 2016, Mr. Charnin directed her in the Cate Ryan play In the Secret Sea Off-Broadway.
In addition to Burch and Sasha, Mr. Charnin is survived by his son Randy, three grandchildren, and, as Sasha writes, “a kid with no pupils” who continues to hang on ’til tomorrow.