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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 18, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 25
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Martin

Charnin: Seattle's artist in residence
Arts & Entertainment
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Martin

Charnin: Seattle's artist in residence

by Eric Andrews-Katz SGN Contributing Writer

Martin Charnin is one of the triple threats of Broadway. He's an actor, director, and lyricist for several musicals, has won several national awards, and is even the main man behind the smash hit Annie. Getting his start as one of the original Jets in West Side Story, Mr. Charnin has worked with some of the greatest theatrical talents, including Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Danny Kaye, Richard Rodgers, and Madeline Kahn, just to name a few. Currently, Mr. Charnin lives with his wife (Broadway Nine actress Shelly Burch) in Issaquah and has been named artistic director of Seattle's own Showtunes theater company. At a quaint coffeehouse in Issaquah, Mr. Charnin gave the SGN an interview about his life, his work and future productions.

Eric Andrews-Katz: What is the first memory that stands out from being cast as an original Jet in West Side Story?

Martin Charnin: The memory precedes being cast, and that was having the guts to do it without any prior information of the show. I saw an article in the New York Times saying that Jerome Robbins was having open calls for "authentic juvenile delinquents," who could sing, dance, and act. The auditions were that day, so I went.

Andrews-Katz: When did you come up with the concept for the musical Annie?

Charnin: Christmas of 1969. I had a friend who was interested in pop culture. I went to buy a present for him and there was a book called The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie. It was a compilation of the 20-plus years of the comic strip. When I got home I started to leaf through it and became inspired. The strip was rich with language and humor along with a definite intellect at work with an artist. I started to realize what the strip didn't cover was how the two of them ("Daddy" Warbucks and Annie) got together, and minus the accoutrement that made her an icon - i.e. the hair, the red dress, Sandy the dog - I was determined to treat the story as a three-dimensional character and to fill in all those gaps of what made her an icon.

Andrews-Katz: How did the theme song "Tomorrow" get written?

Charnin: Both of them [book author Thomas Meehan and composer Charles Strouse] hated the idea of the show when I first presented it. I convinced them. It's always important to me to have one musical number in a show that defines the lead character's total point of view. I think that "Tomorrow" translates into what the show is about. The extent of Annie's belief in herself and her fortitude is stated in the speech she gives Sandy. That develops into the attitude towards Annie's life goals: "It may not be OK today, but tomorrow is around the corner."

Andrews-Katz: What went wrong with the film version?

Charnin: The screen [1982] version was a major disaster and a gigantic mistake. We [the creative team] were seduced by the extreme, excessive amount of money offered for the rights. Originally there was a different producer who was aligned with what we wanted, but he got the boot from Columbia Pictures. Ray Stark inherited the movie and made it clear that he was doing it for the money. He restored Punjab and The Asp characters. All he asked Albert Finney [Warbucks] to do was yell. It's one of the loudest performances in screen history. He chose to make Mrs. Hannigan [Carol Burnett] a drunk because he thought it was funny. Originally we avoided it because we thought it was the wrong kind of villain. In the original, she was a woman trapped by her life and circumstances. But Burnett's character was looped for most of the picture.

Andrews-Katz: So you think the [1999] Disney television remake was much, much, much better?

Charnin: You said three "much," and that might be too many. In comparison, it was better, but&. They wanted to give Kathy Bates [Mrs. Hannigan] more in the second half. I find it ludicrous that Annie spent 11 and a half years with Mrs. Hannigan and we [the audience] are asked not to recognize her just because she is wearing a hat and glasses. They also [like its predecessor] cut out the sentiment.

Andrews-Katz: Annie is scheduled to come back to Broadway in 2012. What changes were made from the original in 1977?

Charnin: It's not necessarily true - a lot can happen in 18 months. It's not going to be revised and people are using that word taking it to mean that the "classic" Annie is going to be changed. It can't be; it's too iconic. At this point, I have no idea what will happen. [Thomas Meehan and I] are supposed to have a meeting in a few weeks. There may be a change here or there by moving a scene to another location, but it's not going to be revised in the sense of "reworked." Those that saw it originally can go with the security of knowledge that when they take the second and third generations, they will be in love with it again, like when they originally saw it.

Andrews-Katz: How do you feel about the parodies on your work?

Charnin: I love them. I encourage them. They are funny, but I think the point is if a parody is on-target and true, then it can't harm what it's making fun of. The target is stronger than the parody of it.

Andrews-Katz: What is your strongest memory working with Richard Rodgers?

Charnin: I think everybody tried to scare me to death about working with Dick, but I found him pleasant and professional. I only suffered the unfortunate fact that he was ill the two times I did work with him [I Remember Mama, Two by Two]. Being ill deprived him of a kind of power and strength that he had previously asserted throughout his professional career, and it affected both musicals. I still believe that Two by Two is one of the greatest undiscovered scores of the 20th century.

Andrews-Katz: For the 1970 musical Two by Two you worked with Madeline Kahn and Danny Kaye. What was it like to work with two such comedic performers?

Charnin: Madeline was a piece of cake, a delight. Danny Kaye was the kind of comedic entertainer of an age that isn't found easily. He was ideal. The best thing about the show was casting Danny Kaye in the Noah part. It was also the worst thing because he hadn't been on Broadway in over 25 years. He wanted all the jokes and ended up not trusting the part.

Andrews-Katz: When did you come to the Pacific Northwest and what brought you out here?

Charnin: Five years ago, I came to do a musical at The Village Theatre. By luck, it turned out my wife and family liked it out here, and we decided to relocate.

Andrews-Katz: How did you get involved with the Showtunes Theater Company?

Charnin: Maggie Stenson Pehrson [Showtunes' executive producer] and I became friendly and I loved their work. I saw a lot of things they did in 2005-2007 and she asked if I wanted to do a musical with the company. I did two when they were still at Kirkland Performance Center and then I was simply asked to become artistic director.

Andrews-Katz: What responsibilities come with that title?

Charnin: It gives me a chance to dig into trunks and find productions that deserve to have the public be reminded of them. In the world, not every show is a Spring Awakening or American Idiot. The great classic musicals that aren't revived often have merit and great songs. It's not so much to rediscover them, but history is not a bad thing, and that something is new doesn't make it the best. Our goal is not to neglect the past. Martin Charnin's body of work is a long list of theatrical history. Aside from being the original Jet, Big Deal, he has written lyrics for over six Broadway musicals and has directed eight Broadway shows. In 1977, Annie brought him three Tony Award nominations and one win for Best Original Score. It also gave him two Drama Desk Award nominations and wins. In 1982 the musical The First brought two more Tony nominations. Showtunes Theater Company found a permanent home at Seattle's Moore Theater as of last year and just completed Sondheim's Follies. Staging concert versions of classic musicals, their next production will be the Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam starting on September 25. The musical is a satire on politics, foreign affairs and American policies on lending money. Songs include, "The Best Thing for You (Would Be Me)," "The Money Song" and the Berlin standard, "The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball."

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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Martin

Charnin: Seattle's artist in residence

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