It’s not a hard-knock life for ‘Annie’ director-lyricist Martin Charnin

The orphans of “Annie” (led by Issie Swickle, center, as the title character) acknowledge “It’s a Hard-Knock Life.” The show runs in Charlotte at Belk Theater July 14-19.
The orphans of “Annie” (led by Issie Swickle, center, as the title character) acknowledge “It’s a Hard-Knock Life.” The show runs in Charlotte at Belk Theater July 14-19. Blumenthal Performing Arts

Martin Charnin has spent 38 years in rooms full of billionaires, alcoholics, criminals, adorably scruffy dogs and little girls singing at the tops of their lungs. And a happy 80-year-old is he.

Before 1977, people knew him as the lyricist who had written and produced night club acts for Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson, collaborated with Richard Rodgers and Vernon Duke on musicals and won two Emmys for primetime music specials.

After 1977, his name has forever been linked with “Annie.” He has directed 19 productions, including the touring version coming to Belk Theater Tuesday.

A less dedicated soul, thinking of that show’s most famous number, might echo Macbeth: “‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Tomorrow’ creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.” But Charnin has enjoyed his sojourn.

“Every time you do it, you learn something and see if it can apply to the next production,” he says. “It’s not about cloning the first one and redoing it every time. I alter the placement of the beds or the servants, the window dressing in the mansion, the look of the orphanage. Relationships between individuals change, depending on the actors.

“My real job is a keeping of the flame. Audiences have to get rid of the ghosts that have hung around from the Carol Burnett-Albert Finney movie and the Jamie Foxx movie and the way some director approached it in regional theater or high school. Here they’ll see the original approach. It’s more a restoration than a revival.”

Nobody would have given the lyricist-director a brass farthing for his chances in 1976, when New York backers spurned the show based on the Depression-era comic strip. A version finally opened at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, sometimes a tryout venue for New York. In its last weekend, Mike Nichols came to see it. Nichols agreed to make his Broadway debut as a producer the following April, and “Annie” won seven Tonys.

It opened in an America still reeling from the Vietnam War, Watergate and volatile financial markets. Voters had just elected cheerful Jimmy Carter as president; now they voted with their feet for this cheerful musical, which ran 2,377 performances.

“We still need to hear today that the world may be in trouble, but there’s a better day around the corner,” Charnin says. “This kind of spunk and optimism and concept of family exists – or should exist – from generation to generation.”

It would be easy and wrong to write him off as a one-trick pony, especially as he’s trying to get the “Annie Warbucks” sequel to Broadway for the first time. (It fell short in 1993 after a brief off-Broadway run.) Ask him to name three favorite non-“Annie” songs, and you see his range:

“One would be ‘The Best Thing You’ve Ever Done,’ which Barbra Streisand had a success with in the 1970s; it was written on speculation for ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and never made it into the film. Another would be a song from ‘Two By Two’ that Tony Bennett has a stunning recording of, ‘I Do Not Know A Day I Did Not Love You.’ And the third would be a song I wrote for a disastrous show, ‘Mata Hari,’ about the World War I spy. ‘Mama’ is sung by a young soldier who confronts an enemy for the first time.”

Charnin supplied lyrics for two of Rodgers’ last three musicals, “Two By Two” and “I Remember Mama.” He wants to bring the former, which tells of Noah and the ark, back to Broadway; it’s remembered as a flop, though it played for 10 months in 1970-71.

“We sold $3 million worth of tickets on Danny Kaye’s name, but his behavior gave the show an aroma that took a long time to go away,” says Charnin. “He made things difficult for the people onstage and the people who wrote it; we were held hostage (as) he took jokes and bits away from every other actor. Only recently did I resurrect it in a workshop with Jason Alexander and a new book by Peter Stone and me.”

Then there’s “Robin Hood: The Legend Continues,” which he also hopes to get to New York. He teamed with Canadian composer Peter Sipos to tell what happened when the archer came back to England after 20 years and encountered a daughter he never knew.

No wonder wife Shelly Burch recently called him “younger than springtime.”

“Well, I have all these projects,” says the guy who made his Broadway debut as a Jet in “West Side Story” in 1957. “I enjoy work, and I’ve been bouncing around pretty good for a long time. People ask when I’m going to retire, but I have no intention of doing that.”

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The national tour of the 1977 musical about an orphaned girl adopted by a rich guy comes to Charlotte.

WHEN: Through July 19 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $20-$99.50.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.