SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S With Martin Charnin, Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse: A Drink with the Annie Creators
By Robert Simonson
When you get Martin Charnin, Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse together at one table at Sardi's, you know what they're going to talk about. Alan Jay Lerner, of course.
Actually, the topic introduced was that of collaboration, and how it works between the three men who created Annie, one of the most enduring titles in musical history. But digressions are inevitable among guys who have known each other a total of maybe 150 years, and whose years working in the theatre total up to an even higher number.
"It's a question we get asked all the time," said Strouse of collaboration. "It's very mysterious. It's very much like a marriage. Some of them work, and you fall for your partner. In the case of Martin and me, Martin was very selective and tough, but very intelligent and artistic in his criticisms and his acceptances. I feel I was the same. Martin's more impatient than I am. But that's good. I needed that. I've always worked with more pliant collaborators. I worked with Alan Jay Lerner. And he was the most pliant man."
Lerner? Pliant? Yes, insisted Strouse.
"On the other hand," he continued, "he was such a fine craftsman with such a deep yearning to find the right word. He used to stay up, couldn't sleep, throw up, get nauseous — his wife told me — because he couldn't find the right word."
"Which wife?" said Meehan, softly. (He says everything softly). "There were eight."
"There was always a right word for everything," said Strouse, not taking the bait.
"He would say that to me all the time," said Charnin, who also knew Lerner. "'There is a right word.' We talked a lot about the word rigamarole, which I do not believe ever appeared in a lyric other than that lyric in Camelot. It's in 'How to Handle a Woman': 'Since the whole rigamarole began.' He was very specific, saying he spent a lot of time looking for that word."
"To the extent that you could believe anything that Alan said," interjected Strouse, "because he was a notorious fabricator. Though I liked him for it. But a lot of people did not. He didn't do it out of lying. He had a sense of extravagance. He lived in a fantasy world."
"I don't know if I ever told you this," began Charnin. "There was a meeting at ASCAP in Lincoln Square, and many of the writers attended the meeting. And it was a time when Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita had first launched Andrew Lloyd Webber. And Andrew was there. Andrew came over to the table we were having a drink at, and he sat down next to Alan and said, 'Can you tell me why is it that people dislike me the first time they meet me?' Alan looked at him straight in the face and said, 'It just saves so much time.'"
The three broke into laughter. "I couldn't believe he said it," said Charnin. "But Andrew didn't take it badly, I guess because it came from Alan. He had a flair."
For a moment it seems the Alan Jay Lerner reverie has ended. But, no — they're not through with him yet. "I came in one day and was talking about taxes," recalled Strouse, "and Alan said, 'My dear boy…' — he called me 'my dear boy' all the time. He said, 'My dear boy, you pay all that money in taxes?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Do you think Rodgers and Hammerstein pay their taxes?' I said, 'Of course!' He said, 'No they don't.' I said, 'Well, what do you do Alan?' He said, 'I bring all my money to the Isle of Wight.' I said, 'What do you do when you need money?' He said, 'I send my lawyer down with a suitcase.' I went to my lawyers and asked if this was possible. They said, 'Pay your taxes!' And Alan died broke."
"He died broke for another set of reasons," corrected Charnin. "He died broke broke because he had eleven wives." (I thought Meehan said eight.)
"He told me he never paid alimony to any wife," replied Strouse, "except to one — the French one. None of them asked him for alimony."
"He lived very well," observed Meehan.
Seems like the time might be ripe for a new Alan Jay Lerner biography. But these three theatre veterans don't know each other because of Alan Jay Lerner. They know each other because of Annie. Actually, that's not true, either. Charnin knew both Strouse and Meehan before the idea for turning Harold Gray's comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" into a musical was hatched. He got to know Meehan after he read a piece by Meehan in The New Yorker and optioned it for a 1970 television project starring Anne Bancroft, called "Annie, The Women in the Life of a Man." As for Strouse, he's known him "since Year 3."
All three live in the New York area — Strouse and Meehan in Manhattan, and Charnin in Mamaroneck. Does Annie cause them to see each other often?
"I think we're on the phone," said Strouse.
"We're on a phone," agreed Meehan. "Annie keeps us in touch. Martin was away for a while and we didn't see him much."
"I was away in Seattle for about seven years and only came back to New York last July," explained Charnin.
"One of the mysterious moves in the theatre," commented Strouse. "One I've never understood."
"He thought another coast might be a good idea," suggested Meehan.
"Well, I was in the middle of a divorce," explained Charnin. "The theatre community there was good for a while. But then you get the itch to come back. The reason I went out there specifically was to do the 30th-anniversary production of Annie, which opened in Seattle. It opened at the Paramount and it went out on the road for a few years. But we stayed. I didn't like it, however, in the final analysis. I'm a East Coast person."
"I knew it before you knew it," said Strouse, who's never strayed from the Upper West Side where he was raised.
It's clear all three men love New York, and feel comfortable in the city. They put that affection for the town in the musical that remains one of the most successful, if not the most successful, entry on their respective resumes. "One thing about Annie, there's no New York in the comic strip," Meehan pointed out. "There's occasionally a city they'd call Metropolis. It took place all over the country and world. We thought, when we were doing the musical, what place do we know best? New York. So we made it in New York. And they wrote the song 'N.Y.C' and celebrated New York."
"They" are lyricist Charnin and composer Strouse, who wrote the score. Meehan — long before his 21st-century boom years of The Producers and Hairspray and many other shows — wrote the libretto.
Charnin's clearly the lynchpin in the Annie story. It was he who became entranced with the forgotten, Depression-era comic and optioned it from the Tribune Company, which owned the rights to the property. Strouse and Meehan weren't as enraptured.
"My father read the Herald-Tribune," told Strouse, "and 'Little Orphan Annie' was in that, so I read it. But nobody liked 'Little Orphan Annie.'"
"I never liked it," echoed Meehan.
"I wanted 'Dick Tracy.' I liked the actions ones," said Strouse.
Well, who did like "Little Orphan Annie"?
"Girls, probably," offered Meehan, who stopped short of saying the comic strip probably had cooties. "The artwork was quite good. A lot of it was very dark and Dickensian, which we took up on, in the show."
Eventually, Charnin wore down their objections.
"For me, it took more, because I had done Superman, which was, as far as we know, the first musical based on a cartoon, and it failed," explained Strouse. "I thought, and still do, that it's very good. So I thought I shouldn't get involved in this. Martin was an old friend. But Tom is such a nice guy, I thought I would enjoy working with him. He spoke very quietly. I didn't know anything about him." [Incidentally, Strouse's musical with lyricist Lee Adams, It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman, is getting an Encores! concert revival, now through March 24.]
"I knew Martin because we both worked in television," said Meehan. "I knew Charles' reputation. When Martin said Charles Strouse was interested, I thought, 'Wait a second…'"
"I never knew this," said Strouse, suddenly interested. "Oh, come on!"
Could Charnin have done one those classic showbiz moves, in which one artist is told, as an enticement, that the other's on board, and vice versa?
"I think it was," said Strouse.
"He went back and forth," agreed Meehan.
"That's the way we did Golden Boy, by the way," recalled Strouse, of his show with Lee Adams. "The producer, Hillard Elkins, asked us, 'Would you be interested in doing a musical of Golden Boy?' We said, 'Absolutely, we would love it!' Then he asked Sammy Davis if he'd be interested in doing it. He said no. Elkins said, 'What if Clifford Odets did the book?' And Sammy said, 'Yeah!' They he said to Clifford Odets, 'Would you be interested in doing a musical of Golden Boy?' 'No.' 'What if Sammy Davis did it?' 'Yeah!' We were kind of dragged along."
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."
"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."
Kerr, who had written the review that had "broken" Strouse, came back after the show opened on Broadway.
"But there's a really good punch line to this story," said Charnin, who has a lot of good punch lines. "Three weeks after we opened in New York, he re-reviewed the show and said he was wrong."
"That was classy," commented Meehan.
"It was very classy," agreed Strouse. "He said we got our politics straight."
Happy ending. And the show ran six years, and has since been produced all over the world, and on every level of stage, from Broadway (where it is now playing, in a new production by James Lapine) to schools, stock and community theatres. Annie is staged hundreds of times every year. So, of all the productions they're seen, which is their favorite?
"First one," said Meehan, without pausing.
"First one," said Charnin, immediately after.
Strouse hesitates. "My memory fails me. Martin has done many of them."
"I've directed 19 productions of the show," said Charnin. That includes the premiere. "But still my favorite is the first one. My second favorite is the one I saw my daughter in, in high school. She was one of the orphans."
"I like this production very much," added Strouse. "It's as if you have a child. Annie is our child. And another family adopts her. You're never going to be totally pleased with the hat they've put on her. But I think that James [Lapine] has done a wonderful job."
One "hat" the collaborators will never be happy with is the one producer Ray Stark and director John Huston put on the ragamuffin for the 1982 movie of the musical. They still hate the film as much as they did 30 years ago.
"I think it's preposterous," said Charnin.
"I never liked it," said Meehan.
"It's terrible," continued Charnin. "How can you like it? It's cock-eyed."
"Ray Stark, who produced it," added Meehan, "decided he's going to release it in the summer, so the story has to take place in the summer. Which is really weird."
"He said it's very expensive to make snow," said Strouse.
"The story's all about the ultimate day of Christmas for a child," said Meehan. "And in his movie, the ultimate day is the Fourth of July, with Miss Hannigan riding around on a elephant. In the musical, we had a half-dozen little orphan girls shivering in the cold. But look at his movie."
"There are dozens of girls having pillow fights, cartwheeling," said Charnin, "having the best time in the world."
Also kind of cock-eyed-sounding is rapper Jay-Z's plan to make a new movie of Annie, set in the present day, and featuring new songs penned by himself. Jay-Z seemingly has an enduring interest in the show. He incorporated the song "It's the Hard Knock Life" into his 1998 song "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," which remains one of the biggest hits of his career.
"What happened was, he made the song, and then he had to call my publishers to OK it," explained Strouse. "And we agreed. He was big at the time, but not that big. That was his biggest record. He thinks it's only the rap angle. He doesn't think it's the tune. I maintain it's something in our tune that helped it." Meehan, quiet as always, quietly agreed.
Meehan passed on writing the script for the new movie, which has been in the works for a couple years. "I wouldn't try to write an Annie that takes place today," he explained. "I don't feel I'd be the right person to do that."
Strouse, however, would like a chance at penning the new songs. "He's contracted to only use six of the songs," said Strouse. "He wants to write new songs. I said to him, we would like a crack at it."
"This one's going to be extremely different," said Charnin. "He's doing it as a contemporary piece. I'm reserving all kinds of judgment. You never know what's going to happen. I don't know specifically what they're up to, and I don't know how they're going to translate it to today. I really don't. I don't know what their plot is. If they're making it today, none of our '30s detail is applicable."
And so the improbable life of Annie continues well on into the 21st century. The show has fostered the careers of dozens on actresses who got their first shot of being theatre pros by playing Annie and her orphan friends. Alyssa Milano. Sarah Jessica Parker. Molly Ringwald. Catherine Zeta-Jones. The list goes on.
"A lot of the kids write to me all the time," said Charnin, "and I keep up with them. A lady name Nancy Carson began here entire casting career because of the girls she sent to us at Annie." There was no glut of stage-ready little girls in 1977. Only boys, because of Oliver!
The show, it could be argued, gives lie to the old showbiz saying about never performing with children or animals. Annie, after all, has both.
"No," corrected Charnin. "It proved you should perform with children AND dogs."
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