Martin Charnin obituary


While being far more than a one-hit wonder, Martin Charnin, who has died aged 84, is indelibly associated with one particular show, the high-spirited musical Annie (1977), which he conceived and directed and for which he also wrote the lyrics.

Charnin did so only after securing the reluctant participation of the composer Charles Strouse and the librettist Thomas Meehan, the latter of whom asked why he should write a musical he would not want to go and see. But as the project grew and backers such as the great director Mike Nichols came on board, so the momentum proved unstoppable.

Strouse’s score to Charnin’s lyrics was robustly melodic, with half a dozen knockout numbers, including Hooverville, Hard Knock Life, Easy Street and Annie’s signature song, Tomorrow, which was soon established as a much-recorded standard of optimism and open-hearted get-up-and-go.



Andrea McArdle as Annie and Reid Shelton as Daddy Warbucks in the original Broadway production of Annie, 1977. Photograph: Bettmann

The show, which was based on a long-running American comic strip and was about the tribulations of an 11-year-old orphan in the US of the Depression, won seven Tony awards and initially ran for six years on Broadway and for three in the West End.

It is constantly revived and there have been three film versions, the first made in 1982 by John Huston, the second by Disney in 1999 and the third, a curious hip-hop reconception, in 2014. Charnin stayed close to the show all his life, directing the 1998 London revival starring Lesley Joseph and Kevin Colson, two Broadway revivals and two unsuccessful off-Broadway sequels, as well as 42 US touring productions.

He was born in New York, the son of William Charnin, who sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, and his wife, Birdie (nee Blakeman). He studied at the city’s High School of Music and Art, and later at the Cooper Union, spending a holiday at a summer theatre in the Adirondack mountains acting, writing revue sketches and painting scenery.

There he also discovered that he could sing and so he responded to an audition call for “juvenile delinquents” in the 1957 Broadway premiere of West Side Story. He won the part of Big Deal, one of the Jets ranged in gang warfare against the Sharks, staying in the show from the opening night through more than 1,000 performances.

Charnin’s experience of working at close quarters with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins developed his enthusiasm for being a powerful presence behind the scenes. He was soon a complete man of the theatre, directing off-Broadway revues and nightclub shows for Shirley Jones, Leslie Uggams, Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson.

In 1959 he appeared in The Girls Against the Boys, starring Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker, and he was a waiter in a sketch with Dick Van Dyke.

He wrote lyrics for an ill-received Judy Holliday vehicle, Hot Spot, in 1963, and for a version of Federico Fellini’s movie La Strada (1969) which closed on its opening night. But there was more kudos, and more success, when he collaborated with the composer Richard Rodgers on Two by Two (1970), a Noah’s ark musical based on a Clifford Odets play and starring Danny Kaye on his return to Broadway after 30 years away; it ran to 350 performances.

After Annie he followed up with an adept and charming production of Bar Mitzvah Boy – based on Jack Rosenthal’s 1976 television play, with lyrics by Don Black and music by Jule Styne – in which young Eliot Green flees the synagogue on the brink of his barmitzvah. The show played 78 performances at Her Majesty’s.

A second show with Rodgers, I Remember Mama (1979), one of Rodgers’ weakest, was a flop, despite starring Liv Ullmann, and a polite veil also had to be drawn over The First (1981), about Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the colour barrier in major league baseball, on which he doubled again as lyricist and director. In addition, a 1989 comedy revue starring Sid Caesar had to close after five performances.

One of my favourite revues, however, was his Upstairs at O’Neal’s (1982), above a restaurant on 43rd Street in New York, which collated many songs by former collaborators, as well as by Marvin Hamlisch and Sheldon Harnick. One of its many literate and punchy numbers was a spoof on the fad for short names, invoking Uma, Uta, Ulu, Ava and Oona in a single couplet. In another item, Zubin Mehta was coming later to the the-atre. Some of that material surfaced in a less effective version, The 9 ½ Quid Revue (1999), at the King’s Head in Islington, while he was in London reviving Annie.

Charnin’s first three marriages – to the actors Lynn Ross and Genii Prior, both of whom appeared in West Side Story, and the fashion journalist Jade Hobson – ended in divorce.

He is survived by his fourth wife, the actor Shelly Burch, and by a son, Randy, from his first marriage, a daughter, Sasha, from his second marriage, three stepchildren, three grandchildren and his sister, Rena Mueller.

Martin Jay Charnin, theatre director and lyricist, born 24 November 1934; died 6 July 2019



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