It takes a certain perseverance and resilience of spirit to create a musical about perseverance and resiliency. Just ask writer-director Martin Charnin who keeps framed rejection letters from the early to mid 1970s mounted on his walls. Those epistles were sent by dubious producers who advised Charnin and his co-creators to abandon the idea of bringing the saga of a certain cartoon orphan to the musical theater stage and move on to a different subject.
“I treasure them,” Charnin says of the letters. “It’s a good lesson. Sometimes people don’t like what you do.”
But sometimes they do. The original production of “Annie,” which lyricist and original director Charnin created with composer Charles Strouse and librettist Thomas Meehan, ran for 2,377 performances on Broadway. There have been two Broadway revivals and multiple touring companies. Between Broadway, road companies, regional and international productions, Charnin has now directed the musical 19 times.
One need not necessarily be a glass-half-full minded individual to identify with “Annie,” but that spirit is part of what keeps Charnin returning to the well. After a successful theatrical career that began in 1957, the Emmy and Tony award-winning Charnin certainly knows that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow,” but he figures that the world can often use a similar wake-up call.
“I really am reminded every time I do it what the show’s initial message was, and that’s how I basically get the optimism that is up on the stage for two hours,” Charnin says. “That’s something that I need. I think everybody needs a tap on shoulder to remind them that, as awful or as bleak or as difficult as it may be today, there might be something better around the corner.”
“That’s a valuable message to have in your wheelhouse,” he continues. “Certainly for the last 38 years that it’s been playing, that seems to be the message every time we enter a political year. The message becomes a little more pertinent.”
Asked whether the show ever served as a pick-me-up in the director’s own life, Charnin harks back to the original production…the one that produced those rejection letters. It took seven years and multiple passes to finally get “Annie” on stage first at the Goodspeed Opera House and then to Broadway. When “Annie” finally arrived in the late 1970s, it premiered when national spirits were not exactly at their highest.
“The country was in dismal shape when we started to work on it,” he says. “Nixon, Vietnam, a bad economy and everything started to turn around in 1976. In 1977, everything exploded in a positive way.”
Set as the musical is in the winter of 1933 against the effects of the Great Depression, “Annie” follows its 11-year-old heroine of comic strip fame as she moves through a series of hardships en route to a fairy tale ending in the home of Oliver Warbucks. Our Annie’s never-say-die spunkiness is intended to be a bellwether for dealing with the types of difficulties faced by post-Depression era America.
In the midst of her quest, Annie belts out a song that articulates her hopefulness… a certain song that has become more than a little bit famous as evidenced by the fact that it is now one of the 100 most frequently performed musical theater songs.
Perhaps you’ve heard the tune? A one-word title that rhymes with the words “you borrow”?
“We needed a moment early in the show that kinds of defines Annie musically,” Charnin recalls. “We find out a lot about her in ‘Maybe’ which opens the show and which tells us things in terms of plot. What we find out in ‘Tomorrow’ is her attitude.”
Over the ensuing years Charnin, has heard “Tomorrow” performed in multiple languages and in a variety of contexts.
“One of the funniest ways that I remember it was when they used it to accompany a commercial showing all of the playbacks from an NFL season,” Charnin says. “The day after the season ended, the players were all getting their gear together and leaving the stadiums. All of the quarterbacks are thinking about tomorrow and the next season.”
“I guess we always live in the present and we go to bed and wake up and it’s the future,” he says. We’re lucky to have locked that title up and made it work on so many levels.”
Any young lady who sings “Tomorrow” has to project not only hopefulness, but the grit that it will require to power through those tough times. Having worked with dozens of young girls – both portrayers of Annies and her fellow orphans – Charnin emphasizes that the character is “not Shirley Temple.”
“That’s a common misperception,” the director says. “She’s got to have a toughness and a sense of stick-to-it-iveness. And obviously she has to have a set of pipes. Annie’s a survivor. She confronts a lot of different things in the context of the script. Basically that’s what she was in the cartoon when we first read it, and that’s what attracted me to the character.”
Charnin cites the impressive history of stage Annies from original Broadway creator Andrea McArdle all the way through the current tour’s Issie Swickle. You want resiliency? How about starting your professional career while you’re still in elementary school and still be able to ply your trade three decades later, maybe even as the mother of an acting child yourself? “Annie” has its share of break-out stars from Allison Smith to Sarah Jessica Parker to a young Welsh actress from the London company, Catherine Zeta Jones.
“I get a big charge from working with the kids,” says Charnin. “We have had quite a lot of luck finding young ladies who were 10 or 11 who have gone on to have terrific careers.”
With the “Annie” tour successfully launched, Charnin is hard at work on other projects including a musical about the life of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust. Charnin is also working on a revival of the “Annie” sequel “Annie Warbucks” potentially for a New York opening during the 2016-17 season. Ideally, Charnin says, “Annie” and “Annie Warbucks” would play in repertory at the same theater so that you can see the shows on alternating nights or – “Nicholas Nickleby” style – as a same day two show weekend marathon.
Of course, wherever his creative journeys take him, Charnin always figures to have the opportunity to return to a production of “Annie” somewhere, sometime. As the last nearly 40 years have established, the appetite for this tale has by no means abated.
With this new incarnation, Charnin hopes that people who saw the musical as a child might revisit it and take home new memories. For audiences who are returning to the musical many years later, perceptions should be based on what is on stage rather than on memories that have been distorted by the passage of time or other versions of the story, Charnin says.
“Part of what this show is about is a reminder to look at it again, and then make your judgment,” Charnin says. “The hope is people take to it in the same way they did and have been for almost four decades.”
Bet your bottom dollar!