Today we are talking to a remarkably accomplished actor, writer and director who has amassed numerous top entertainment trophies over the course of his long and distinguished career, including multiple Emmy Awards, Tony Awards and even a Grammy – the uniquely talented Martin Charnin. Sharing his thoughts on the forthcoming big screen adaptation of his hit musical property ANNIE as well as previewing what we can expect from the forthcoming 2014-2015 ANNIE national tour, Charnin also reflects on the original production of the classic Depression-era musical and analyzes why it remains a continual cultural touchstone for generations new and old while also looking ahead to a potential Broadway production of the sequel, written with original composer Charles Strouse, titled ANNIE WARBUCKS. Also, Charnin touches upon his time as a member of the original cast of iconic musical WEST SIDE STORY and recounts working alongside legends such as Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and more. Additionally, Charnin sheds some light on his illustrious string of collaborations with recently deceased composer Mary Rodgers Guettel, ranging from more than 50 songs written as a team to a string of special TV musicals as well as working together on the stage musicals HOT SPOT and THE MADWOMAN OF CENTRAL PARK WEST. Besides of all of that, Charnin also reminisces about his heyday as a TV variety special helmer, having created award-winning tributes to a slew of Broadway’s best composers and lyricists including George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and many more. Plus, Charnin shares his thoughts on GLEE, how show business has changed in the last 50 years, the possible future life for his Richard Rodgers collaboration TWO BY TWO and much, much more in this wide-ranging chat with a major Broadway notable.
But You Go On
PC: How did you and Mary Rodgers first meet?
MC: I met Mary through my affiliation with WEST SIDE STORY – she was very close friends with Steve and Arthur and all of those folks and they were always around WEST SIDE, of course, so that’s how I met her. I was an original Jet in WEST SIDE.
PC: And you, Mary and Arthur worked together again on THE MADWOMAN OF CENTRAL PARK WEST many years later, correct?
MC: I did, indeed. But, long before that, Mary and I wrote about 55 songs together…
PC: That’s a lot!
MC: Yeah, it is. We wrote a show that never got produced back then, too.
PC: What was it?
MC: It was written for Carol Burnett and Tony Perkins, but it never saw the light of day. Actually, it was never ever really finished. But, after that, we went on to do HOT SPOT together.
PC: Did you work on anything else large-scale prior to HOT SPOT?
MC: Prior to HOT SPOT, we wrote a television show called FEATHERTOP that is actually being shown at the Paley center later this month.
PC: How auspicious! What is FEATHERTOP about?
MC: FEATHERTOP is a musical of a Nathanial Hawthorne short story called "Feathertop" that a friend of ours, Tony – who was a wonderful choreographer and good friend of both of ours – did. It was produced for Mars candy bars and it aired on Halloween in 1962 or 1963.
PC: What is the story about?
MC: FEATHERTOP is about a scarecrow that a witch turns into a human being in order to get revenge on someone who turned her down as a suitor years and years before.
PC: Now seems a prime time to revisit that with fairy tales being so popular these days.
MC: Yeah, I think so. It was really ahead of its time. It had a lot of really interesting people in it, too – like Hugh O’Brian singing on screen for the first time, before he was Wyatt Earp or whoever he was; Jane Powell was in it; Hans Conreid; Kathleen Nesbitt. It was a really interesting piece of work.
PC: Your whole career is so unique – multiple Emmys, Tonys and even a Grammy Award for Jay Z‘s "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)"! Was that weird to you to win an award for a cover like that?
MC: It was not weird – you have to be very pragmatic about it. You know, if something is in the public consciousness the way that many of the songs from ANNIE are, I think that you have to give people what they want – so, we gave them the rights to do that; it wasn’t, you know, stolen or anything. We were contacted about it and then we were told it was going to be done, and so we thought it would interest a brand new audience.
PC: And it did!
MC: It did! I also have a tremendous amount of respect for Jay Z as an artist – he is a terrific writer. So, with that song, we were told that it would not be defamatory or anything that impinged on the content of the piece, and I think it fit in very well with the album that he was putting together then.
PC: It even forms the album’s title: VOL. 2… HARD KNOCK LIFE.
MC: Right. Of course, Jay Z has come back into our lives now because he is one of the executive producers of the African American ANNIE movie that is coming out in December.
PC: He has been involved with creating new songs for the film, as well, has he not?
MC: I think he produced them, yeah, but I don’t think he actually wrote any of them or anything – but, I could be wrong.
PC: How many songs from the original show are in the new movie?
MC: We have 6 or 7 from the original show – I’m not sure yet because they are still cutting the film. So, there are 6 or 7 songs from the original ANNIE score in the project and then there are some other songs that were written by some very talented contemporary writers.
PC: Miss Hannigan has a new song written especially for Cameron Diaz, it has been reported.
MC: I really don’t know the specifics – they do it, they change it and we see it when we see it, you know?! [Laughs.]
PC: Marshall Brickman said much the same thing about the JERSEY BOYS movie when he did this column. Exactly how involved have you been in the process of creating the new ANNIE movie?
MC: We’ve been in contact and we’ve certainly had meetings with Will Gluck, who is the director of the piece. There have been many conversations, so we are mostly on top of it. But, in the final analysis, I have always contended that anything that changes the medium – and certainly a film alters the stage medium entirely – is worth trusting those who know how to do it. That’s what they do – movies – what we do is something else. And, ANNIE is something that has transcended many, many different kinds of exposures – commercials, concerts, cabaret, movies. In truth, when you write a song, you have no control over how anybody is going to sing it anyway.
PC: This is true.
MC: You know, Tony Bennett is going to sing it different than Grace Jones or Lady Gaga. You can’t be the police – let’s put it that way. If it’s out there and people want to do it, I take it as a compliment – if somebody wants to do it and do it their own way, that’s great.
PC: You yourself did the ANNIE Christmas special for TV and some other unique entries in the continuing ANNIE canon, as a matter of fact.
MC: That’s true. No matter how you bend it, it just doesn’t break – it’s just one of those iconic musicals in the history of theatre and we are very grateful and lucky and thrilled about how it has survived. In point of fact, there really aren’t a lot of things out there like ANNIE…
PC: As far as cultural impact, you mean?
MC: Yeah. I mean, you have THE WIZARD OF OZ and PETER PAN maybe, but ANNIE is iconic in a special way and that’s a great thing.
PC: Would you be open to a live presentation of ANNIE ala THE SOUND OF MUSIC: LIVE!?
MC: Doing ANNIE in that manner? Well, I don’t think that’s in the cards for at least another 5 or 10 years – until then, it won’t happen. But, really, the thing about ANNIE is that grandmothers take their kids to it and their grandkids to it and their kids take their kids to it – it’s like a relay race where the baton keeps getting passed to the next generation every time. You know, the kids today are just learning about it for the very first time – they have never heard of it; they have never been exposed to it before…
PC: Thus the need for a new ANNIE for a new generation.
MC: Right. That’s also part of the reason I’m doing this new tour, too – the whole point of this tour is for me to help reconnect the show to the original version of it out there; I don’t want there to be anything out there that reflects any of the so-called changes that have been made to it over the course of the years. Even though from a physical standpoint this tour is going to be totally different – and, obviously, new actors and new choreography and new blocking and whatnot – it is the original Tony Award-winning musical that is going out on tour.
PC: Were you dissatisfied with the recent Broadway revival?
MC: Well, you know, I don’t want to rehash all of that. That was a take on it that I did not specifically approve of, but I know that in the final analysis they did what they did and we tried to make some changes – there were some really good performances in it and some good moments, but it just wasn’t ANNIE. It was like an imitation of it – a copy or something. Who knows?! Whatever it was, it wasn’t the original – and the original is really what I pride myself on being the keeper of the flame of for 37 years now.
PC: When do rehearsals start for the new ANNIE national tour?
MC: I think we go into rehearsals on August 18 and the first show is in September, I believe.
MC: Oh, really?! How great! I loved that – it was terrific; it was wonderful. You know, the only people I know of who are really detail-crazy about anything that is done… I mean, for example, Arthur Miller knew every word, comma, breath and punctuation of DEATH OF A SALESMAN. I’m certain that when somebody else did it differently, that at the same time he was seeing what was being done – and probably being done very well, I don’t doubt – he felt, "That ain’t what I wrote!" [Laughs.]
PC: A stickler for the sticking to the script.
MC: But, the room for interpretation is what makes wars and horse races. Everybody is interested in putting their own stamp on something – especially actors – and you can’t blame them. It’s a lot better than what happened on HOT SPOT, I’ll tell you that! [Laughs.]
PC: How did you get Steve Sondheim involved with HOT SPOT?
MC: Well, that was Mary. It was Mary who wanted to get Steve involved, and I, of course, had no problem with it – I had already known Steve for years from WEST SIDE and having been involved with that; it was his first show and it was my first show. He was only there for a minute – it felt like the entire Dramatist’s Guild was in that room for a minute at one point or another! [Laughs.]
PC: What a way to put it! A show in trouble out of town can require many doctors, after all.
MC: Everybody and their brother was there trying to help and trying to make it work but we just couldn’t – it was wrongheaded and it failed, but that’s OK. I mean, honestly, it hangs on my wall as proudly as the 19 productions of ANNIE from all around the world do – I’m not ashamed of it. I’m rarely ashamed of any of the work that I do.
PC: Would you be open to Encores! taking on HOT SPOT someday?
MC: [Sighs.] It would have to really be re-examined, I think. HOT SPOT made sense at the time because of the specifics of the Peace Corps, and, now, today, I doubt that anybody really remembers what the Peace Corps was – unless they are a Kennedy-phile or something, who have a sense of what the administration was up to back in 1957. These days we have no idea of that – I don’t even know if anybody would understand it at all. That is what makes some Encores! work and some Encores! not work – they are relics and they are sometimes things that are wonderful, but only in their own time.
MC: I agree. BAR MITZVAH BOY was a terrific show – I loved it. I directed it in London and we really had a wonderful, wonderful show there.
PC: What went wrong?
MC: The problem with BAR MITZVAH BOY really was just that it was an American show – it should have started in America and then gone to England. The other problem was that the book that it was based on was very sacred – and that’s really the word that it was – and done as piece for television written by Jack Rosenthal. So, it was very difficult to make any kind of adjustments accordingly. But, boy, Jule wrote a splendid, splendid score for the show.
PC: Some real showstoppers, for sure.
MC: It was really terrific. We had such a marvelous time doing it, too – and we had such wonderful actors. I was very, very proud of the staging of it and the whole look of it, too. But, in the end, it should have opened in Philadelphia instead of Manchester.
PC: Do you have any candid memories of Jule Styne in particular? He was such a character.
MC: Oh, I just loved Jule – loved him – and we got along famously. When we came back to the States, we were contemplating sitting down and writing a musical together but that unfortunately never came to be because everybody had other fish to fry. But, we got along really, really well – Maggie, too; his wife. At one point, actually, I was going to do a tribute revue to him that never really got off the ground.
PC: What a shame.
MC: I know. But, as with most of these things, they take time and they take concentration and they take effort. And, in this business, unfortunately… [Pause.] I mean, when I started out in 1971, you didn’t have 9 balls in the air that you were juggling all at the same time – you were really able to focus just on one project at a time. And, now, the competition is so large that you end up doing 5, 6, 7 shows at the same time trying to just get one on.
PC: Back during that period you also directed a number of composer tributes for TV, plus Anne Bancroft variety specials.
MC: We did Gershwin, we did Arlen, we did Porter, we did Anne Bancroft twice! Those were just television shows, though – what they really were was the precursor for what eventually ended up coming to Broadway in terms of tribute shows and things like that. There was no jukebox involved, but the shows that celebrate Duke Ellington or Eubie Blake or Fats Waller – they were all rooted in those type of things; they all come from the same place.
PC: What interesting early entries in your career nevertheless.
MC: Well, I started out with Mary writing songs for Jackie Gleason‘s return to television, actually…
PC: How did that come about?
MC: We wrote mini-musicals for Jackie and Art Carney back then and we’ve been looking for them recently and we can’t find them!
PC: What a shame.
MC: I know! We can’t find them anywhere – there were 4 of them. We did them for him after THE HONEYMOONERS for a new series he was doing at the time. I remember we went down to Florida and wrote them for him and we stayed in the Doral Country Club. He played golf and we wrote songs.
PC: Hopefully they will be unearthed sooner rather than later.
MC: That would be great if we could find those manuscripts.
PC: You have probably heard some amazing songs from the various projects you’ve worked on over the years that eventually got cut for whatever reason – MATA HARI to LA STRADA and beyond.
MC: I have. I mean, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of people do these numbers since those shows, though – people do them in their cabaret acts or on their albums or concerts or wherever; wherever they do them. Whenever they do one of those like the ones you are talking about I really appreciate it beyond belief. I really do.
PC: "But You Go On" from ANNIE 2 and ANNIE WARBUCKS definitely fits that bill. What a showstopper.
MC: Yes. That was a wonderful melody that Charles [Strouse] had written. It originally had an entirely different lyric and an entirely different point of view and I just loved the melody and we so re-orchestrated it and I rewrote it and we used it in ANNIE WARBUCKS. Dorothy Loudon even did it for me during ANNIE 2 – I told her, "I’ve done this new lyric and this new version of this, would you try it for me?" and she did!
PC: When was this?
MC: This was in the last week of the run of ANNIE 2. She learned it, she did it and it just blew the roof off of the place – so, it was a very specific answer to a question I had asked.
PC: The first version was more of a rouse by the character.
MC: Yes. The first version was a version for the Hannigan character, so it had an entirely different attitude – some of the lines might be the same in both versions, but it was the attitude behind it that made all of the difference. It ended up working perfectly well and properly fit the show when we eventually did it with Donna McKechnie as ANNIE WARBUCKS. And, I’m sure it will work again as we get ANNIE WARBUCKS ready to be moved to Broadway.
PC: Would you ideally like to try it out at Papermill or somewhere out of town before coming in to New York with ANNIE WARBUCKS?
MC: Yeah, I think so. I think it would make sense to get it up on its feet and take a look at it again first before Broadway. I’ve seen a lot of productions of it over the course of the years in regional theaters – the last one I saw was at the Walnut Street Theater in Pennsylvania and it was just spectacular! The production was wonderful and reception was sensational – the reviews were terrific, too. The reviews for ANNIE WARBUCKS have always been very, very good. [Note: For more on ANNIE 2 and ANNIE WARBUCKS, check out Charnin’s recent BroadwayWorld message board post on the subject available here.]
PC: TWO BY TWO is another musical of yours that seems destined for a second look in New York some season soon.
MC: Well, Jason Alexander did it first at Reprise! out in California a while back and then they did it at the York two years ago with Tovah Feldshuh and for 5 performances you couldn’t get a seat – it was the biggest hit that the York ever had for its Musicals In Mufti series, I was told. But, now, it’s on the drawing board again – but all the work has been done.
PC: What specifically did you address in recently revising it?
MC: Well, I rewrote a couple of songs and the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate was also kind of enough to let me go into Dick Rodgers’s basically non-existent trunk and dig out a couple of melodies that had been sitting there. So, I wrote two new songs for the revival version that we did using those melodies that I got from his trunk.
PC: How wonderful it would be to get them recorded.
MC: It would, but that will happen – that will happen. Again, as with all of these things, it’s all about patience, fortitude… all that stuff I told you before.
PC: What a fascinating and informative chat, Martin – thank you so much.
MC: This was a lot of fun. Thank you, Pat. I’m sure we’ll be speaking again soon. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, etc.Tags: actor, concert, director, film, movie, music, producer, television, tour, tv