Martin Charnin, Tony-Winning Creator of 'Annie,' Dies at 84

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Martin Charnin

He was the lyricist and first director of the show, which played 2,377 performances in its original 1977 Broadway run.

Martin Charnin, the Tony-winning lyricist, writer and librettist best known for creating and directing the sensationally successful Broadway musical Annie, has died. He was 84.

Charnin died Saturday in a hospital in White Plains, New York, three days after suffering a heart attack, his daughter, Sasha, told The Hollywood Reporter.

She wrote on Facebook. "As loving as he was, [he] has kept all of us completely directionless. Which way do we go Daddy? Damn," she wrote. "Like he said and as corny as this sounds … the sun'll come out tomorrow."

With more than 40 productions to his credit, Charnin penned lyrics for seven Broadway musicals and directed seven shows as well. He won his Tony Award for best original score, with composer Charles Strouse, for Annie. The show, produced by Mike Nichols, won seven Tonys in all, including best musical and best actress in a musical for Dorothy Loudon, who originated the role of unscrupulous, boozing orphanage administrator Miss Hannigan.

Charnin also received three Emmys for his work on television variety specials and won a Grammy for Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," which sampled his lyrics from the Annie song of that name.

He conceived the musical Annie, which premiered at Goodspeed Opera House in 1976 and opened on Broadway the following year, from the Harold Gray comic strip about Little Orphan Annie, a street-smart youngster who goes to live with a wealthy bachelor during the Great Depression.

"I guess when you're in the business of making musicals, you look for ideas, you look for source material anywhere," he told The Guardian in 2016. "At that particular moment, all of Dickens had been taken, it all had been musicalized. If I'd found it in a bubblegum wrapper, I guess I'd have tried to get the rights to it. I read that book before I gave it away and ultimately ended up not giving it away, I was so taken by Harold Gray's original drawings."

Charnin directed the original production and wrote the lyrics for the musical, which had music by Strouse and book by Thomas Meehan. It played for 2,377 performances on Broadway in its original run and has become a fixture of the American musical theater canon.

"No matter how you bend it, it just doesn't break — it's just one of those iconic musicals in the history of theater, and we are very grateful and lucky and thrilled about how it has survived," Charnin told Broadway World in 2014. "In point of fact, there really aren't a lot of things out there like Annie."

Born Martin Jay Charnin on Nov. 24, 1934, he grew up in New York, the son of an opera singer. He received his BFA from Cooper Union, and after graduating, he spotted an open call for actors, singers and dancers for West Side Story, then an unknown musical.

Although Charnin had no performance training, he went to the audition and landed the part of Big Deal, one of the original Jets, in the premiere Broadway production in 1957. He went on to perform the role 1,000 times in New York and across the country.  

"Director Jerome Robbins was looking for authentic juvenile delinquents, and I thought I could be one of them," he said. "It was astonishing. I had never done a musical before, and to this day I have no idea why I got the role. I guess I was eccentric. I made [playwright] Arthur [Laurents] laugh when I read some of the lines he gave me to do."

Charnin launched his lyric writing career off-Broadway, wrote lyrics for cabaret shows and revues and produced shows featuring such performers as Dionne Warwick and Leslie Uggams. He made his Broadway lyricist debut with Hot Spot in 1963, which he wrote with his frequent collaborator, Mary Rodgers.

Earlier, Charnin and Rodgers had collaborated on a 1961 television show, the Hugh O'Brian-starring Feathertop, a musical based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story. They had met on West Side Story, as Rodgers was good friends with lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Laurents.

Charnin wrote lyrics for Two by Two, which had music by Richard Rodgers and a book by Peter Brook and played on Broadway in 1970. However, he devoted much of the early '70s to writing and producing TV and variety specials, winning three Emmys — for outstanding variety program for Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man, which starred Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks; and two (for outstanding directorial achievement and variety program) for S'Wonderful, S'Marvelous, S'Gershwin, which starred Fred Astaire, Jack Lemmon and Ethel Merman.

Charnin made his Broadway directing debut in 1973 with the revue Nash at Nine, and he went on to direct Music! Music! at City Center and The National Lampoon Show, which starred John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray.

Throughout his career, Charnin directed several productions of Annie. He had mixed feelings about other productions, which included the 2012 Broadway revival directed by James Lapine and three major film adaptations — two for the big screen and one for television.

"The fun of it for me is that every time I do it, I learn something new about it, and in theory every production that precedes the one I'm doing makes the one I'm doing the beneficiary of the stuff that I've learned," Charnin said. "So it keeps growing, it keeps changing."

After Annie, Charnin wrote the lyrics for I Remember Mama, and he directed, wrote lyrics and co-wrote the book for The First, a 1981 musical about Jackie Robinson. In the '80s, he directed Cafe Crown and Sid Caesar and Company, which also featured his songs, for Broadway.

David Alan Grier, who portrayed Robinson in The First and later Daddy Warbucks, paid tribute to Charnin on Twitter: "Rest In Peace Martin Charnin. He discovered me. Gave me my first job in this business. My thoughts and prayers are with his family in this difficult and sad time."

In the 1990s, Charnin directed The Flowering Peach on Broadway and worked on a sequel to Annie called Annie Warbucks, which he wrote alongside Meehan and Strouse. The musical had out-of-town tryouts in Chicago and was slated for Broadway, but the Main Stem production fell through after a major investor pulled out. The show opened off-Broadway in 1993.

He directed several revues off-Broadway including Upstairs at the O'Neals and The No Frills Revue. He was also the artistic director of Showtunes!, a theater company in Seattle dedicated to reviving lesser-known musicals.

Charnin worked up until his death, directing shows, and he was always looking for the next project. When asked if he ever had plans to retire, he told The Guardian, "Oh, God no, I still have shows to write and direct."

Survivors include his wife, Shelly Burch Charnin, his seven children and three grandchildren.