SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S With Martin Charnin, Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse: A Drink with the Annie Creators

By Robert Simonson
21 Mar 2013

Andrea McArdle in the original Broadway production of Annie.

For a show that has been perennially popular for nearly 40 years, Annie didn't have a lot of early fans. The creators had a script as early at 1972, but found no takers. Finally, it got a production in 1976 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. And it almost died there.

"Do you know the story about Walter Kerr coming up to see the show?" asked Meehan, mentioning the New York Times drama critic. "Kerr, against all our wishes, came up to Goodspeed and knocked us because he felt we were right-wingers celebrating Oliver Warbucks. The only thing he liked was the little girl playing Molly."

That Kerr would think the creators were closet conservatives because they portrayed Warbucks, a Republican industrialist, as an almost cuddly figure, is funny, given the trio's true politics.

"When we wrote it, it was 1972, and Nixon was President," said Meehan. "And we were three guys who didn't like Nixon."

"A lot!" added Charnin.

"A lot," repeated Meehan. "All of us remembered Roosevelt," — a supporting character in the musical — "and we said, 'What about when we had a President who cared about the people?' That idea's in the show."

The creators had some New York producers who were interested in Annie. But "once that Kerr review came out, they were gone," said Meehan.

"It was in the Sunday magazine section of the Times," added Charnin, "so people kept it around a long time."

"It almost sunk us," said Meehan. "Mike saved us."

"Mike" would be Mike Nichols, arguably the biggest name in the theatre in the mid-70s. He was known, and celebrated, as a director. But Annie turned him into a producer.

"Lewis Allen was the man who had the first financial interest" in the show, said Strouse. "But Mike came in."

Lilla Crawford and Sunny in the current Broadway revival.
photo by Joan Marcus

"Mike came after we had done the work," continued Strouse. "He came in because a friend of mine demanded he come in. A woman by the name of Jay Presson Allen," a playwright, and the wife of Lewis Allen.

Nichols and Jay were "doing a television show called 'Family' in California," interjected Charnin.

"I knew Mike, but I was scared to call him," told Strouse. So Jay Presson Allen called him, while Strouse watched. "Mike said, 'I can't. We're having a baby.' She said, 'Get your ass down here.' He came down."

"His relationship to the project validated it in the eyes of the grownup theatregoer," said Meehan. "It also got us a Broadway theatre. And it got us the last bit of capitalization."

"Everyone wanted a Mike Nichols show," explained Strouse. "It was a coup we became a part of."

"When he become producer," related Meehan, "he came to the first rehearsal in New York and said, 'I'm going to be the kind of producer I always want when I'm directing. Goodbye! You rehearse it and I'll see you in Washington.' And we never saw him."

"He was a terrific producer," enthused Charnin. "He gave us notes in Washington. Some of them worked. Some of them didn't. Part of the reason that this show got on was because of a name — it wasn't Lew's name, it was Mike's name. That made it work."