Martin Charnin, who made his Broadway debut playing a Jet in the original “West Side Story” and went on to become a Broadway director and a lyricist who won a Tony Award for the score of the eternal hit “Annie,” has died. Mr. Charnin, who lived in Issaquah during the 2000s and became active in the Seattle theater scene, was 84.
He died Saturday at a White Plains, New York, hospital, days after suffering a minor heart attack, his daughter, Sasha Charnin Morrison, told The Associated Press.
“He’s in a painless place, now. Probably looking for Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin,” Morrison wrote Sunday on Instagram.
Mr. Charnin was a keeper of the “Annie” flame, protective of what he created with songwriter Charles Strouse and book writer Thomas Meehan. The 1977 original won the Tony as best musical and ran for 2,300 performances, inspiring tours and revivals that never went out of style.
Mr. Charnin attributed the success of “Annie” in part to its sweet optimism and its message that things were going to get better. After all, it was written during a period of instability, he told The Associated Press in 2015.
“We were living in a really tough time. Right in the middle of Nixon. Right in the middle of Vietnam. There was an almost-recession. There was a lot of unrest in the country and you can always feel it and a lot of depression — emotional depression, financial depression. We wanted to be the tap on the shoulder that said to everyone, ‘It’ll be better.’”
“Annie” nearly didn’t make it past the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1976. But Mr. Charnin brought in noted stage and film director Mike Nichols, who signed on as a producer, and helped him revise the show.
With Andrea McArdle replacing Kristen Vigard as the red-haired moppet Annie and Dorothy Loudon added as Miss Hannigan, the production went on to open in New York in April 1977 with a bang.
The musical contained gems like “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” Mr. Charnin’s lyrics, which earned him and Strouse a Tony for best score in 1977, are playful and moving: “You’re never fully dressed/without a smile” and “No one cares for you a smidge/when you’re in an orphanage.”
The 1982 film version, which featured Carol Burnett in Loudon’s role, was not nearly as popular or well-received. A stage sequel called “Annie Warbucks” ran off-Broadway in 1993.
The original show was revived on Broadway in 2012 and made into a film starring Quvenzhané Wallis in 2014. Mr. Charnin, who won a Grammy Award for the “Annie” cast album, found shards of his work also included in Jay-Z’s 1998 Grammy-winning album “Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life.” His song “Tomorrow” has been heard on soundtracks from “Shrek 2” to “Dave” to “You’ve Got Mail.” In 2016, Lukas Graham used parts of the chorus from “Annie” for his “Mama Said” hit.
“‘Annie’ has touched generations and each one of the generations that it has reached has a very fond, distinct, specific memory of it. Because they love it — they don’t like it, they love it — they pass that memory on like a baton in a relay race,” Mr. Charnin said.
Directing a 30th anniversary touring revival of “Annie” in 2005 at the Paramount Theatre was one of the things that brought Mr. Charnin to Seattle. Lured by the small-town beauty and quiet of the Eastside town of Issaquah, and the warm welcome he received there from the staff of Village Theatre, Mr. Charnin soon moved to Issaquah with his wife, Broadway performer Shelly Burch, and their children.
At Village Theatre, he directed several shows, including the mystery play “Sleuth.” He also reunited with his “Annie” collaborator Thomas Meehan to develop the new musical, “Robin Hood: The Legend Continues.” Mr. Charnin wrote the lyrics, Peter Sipos composed the music, and Meehan created the libretto for the show, which the Village presented in a workshop production in 2004.
In 2012, to support an Issaquah ballot measure for a $200 million school bond, Mr. Charnin directed a video of Eastside children singing “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from “Annie.” (The measure was approved.)
He served as artistic director for Seattle’s Showtunes Theatre Company, which creates concert versions of rarely-produced musicals, from about 2009 to 2015, and maintained ties to the Seattle theater scene even after moving back to New York in 2012.
Mr. Charnin’s gregarious nature and creative zest made him a popular figure in local theater circles. Lynnwood-based performer-composer Richard Gray provided music to Mr. Charnin’s lyrics on numerous occasions, including for the Village Theatre musical revue “Love for Love.” Gray posted a tribute to Mr. Charnin on his Facebook page, saying “I loved collaborating with Martin. I loved our songwriting sessions, our fierce debates, our passionate conversations. He made me a better writer and a better person. He was a great storyteller with an immense catalogue of theatre lore. I am deeply saddened by his passing, but I will cherish every second I spent with this force of nature.”
Born in New York, Mr. Charnin initially set off on a career in fine arts. He was an arts major at The Cooper Union when a friend invited him up one summer at an adult camp in the Adirondacks to wait on tables and act as an extra.
“I got bit,” he would say later.
Mr. Charnin gave up a huge fellowship to go to Rome to paint in favor of life as a struggling actor. One day, he read that director Jerome Robbins “was looking for authentic juvenile delinquents” in an open call.
He went along among 2,000 wannabes, which became 200, then 20 and finally two. “I was one of the two,” he said. That’s how he made his Broadway debut as a Jet in “West Side Story” in 1957. He later played a waiter — and was a standby for Dick Van Dyke — in “The Girls Against the Boys” in 1959.
Three years later, he supplied the lyrics to the show “Hot Spot,” with music by Mary Rodgers. He also wrote lyrics for “La Strada,” a musical based on the Fellini film, but it closed after opening night.
Mr. Charnin had better luck with “Two by Two,” in 1970, that had music by Richard Rodgers, who also directed. The show was a retelling of the story of Noah and his ark starring Danny Kaye and Madeline Kahn. The lyricist then became director of “Nash at Nine,” a short-lived revue based on Ogden Nash poems. He was nominated for several Emmys for directing variety shows for NBC, winning for “Jack Lemmon in ‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous, ‘S Gers.”
Mr. Charnin’s reputation as a polished stage figure got him hired as the director of the new slapstick and envelope-pushing show “The National Lampoon Show,” starring Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and John Bellushi.
NBC executives went to see the show at the Time-Life Building and wanted to do a TV show like it. Around that time, Mr. Charnin had gotten the rights to the celebrated comic strip character Little Orphan Annie and declined the offer to direct the new NBC show. That show became “Saturday Night Live.”
Richard Rodgers and Mr. Charnin teamed up again in 1979 for a musical version of “I Remember Mama,” which featured Liv Ullmann. Mr. Charnin was also either lyricist or director for “The Madwoman of Central Park West” (1979), “The First” (1981), “A Little Family Business” (1982), “Cafe Crown” (1989), “Sid Caesar and Company” (1989) and “The Flowering Peach” (1994).
Mr. Charnin was an old-school lyricist who considered modern lyrics “mind-boggling overwritten.” He hated sloppiness (like, for example, when “mine” was rhymed with “time.”) “They don’t rhyme and they never will, no matter how you finesse the sound.”