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‘Annie’ Lyricist And Director Martin Charnin Dies At 84

Martin Charnin, the Emmy, Grammy and Tony-winning director, composer and lyricist who brought a white-eyed, red-haired comic strip orphan to vivid life on stage died July 6 at the age of 84.

Charnin’s daughter Sasha Charnin Morrison reported his death to The Washington Post. Charnin passed at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. three days after suffering a heart attack. He is survived by Morrison, his fourth wife, Shelly Burch, his sons Randy Charnin, Joel Bennett and Richard Bennett and daughter Dayna Bennett as well as three grandchildren.

Born November 24, 1934 to Birdie (nee Blakeman), a secretary, and William Charnin, an opera singer, Charnin’s theatrical career began in 1957 when he debuted the role of “Big Deal,” a member of the Jets, in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story.” Charnin soon branched out, writing music and lyrics for the revues of theater impresario Julius Monk.

After writing and directing nightclub material for several stars of the day, including Dionne Warwick, Charnin teamed with several prominent composers. In 1963, he provided lyrics for Mary Rodgers’ musical “Hot Spot,” wrote additional lyrics for Lionel Bart’s 1969 adaptation of Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” and partnered with Mary’s father, Richard Rodgers, on 1970’s “Two By Two” and 1979’s “I Remember Mama.”

Charnin’s biggest success came in 1977 when he decided to bring “Little Orphan Annie,” a Depression-era comic strip about a cheery girl who transforms the life of her adoptive father, Daddy Warbucks, to a new generation. Charnin provided the lyrics for such classics as “Tomorrow,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile” and “It’s A Hard-Knock Life” set to composer Charles Strouse’s music. With a book by Thomas Meehan, the show won seven 1977 Tony Awards, including for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score. Charnin also won a Drama Desk for his direction and shared a 1978 Grammy with Strouse for Best Cast Album.

In the years since, Charnin’s musical has been committed to the screen three times – including a 1999 TV movie and a 2014 update starring Jamie Foxx in a re-imagined Daddy Warbucks role – received two Tony-nominated Broadway revivals and, in 1998, earned Charnin a second Grammy award courtesy of rapper Jay-Z’s sample of “It’s a Hard Knock Life” on his record, “Vol 2… Hard Knock Life,” which won Best Rap Album at the 1999 Grammys.

Charnin was also a prolific director for television, earning Emmys for his direction of variety shows “Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man” (the Annie here being Anne Bancroft) and “S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Gershwin.”

While he directed other work after “Annie,” including the 1989 Sid Caesar Broadway vehicle, “Sid Caeser & Company,” the precocious and sweet-hearted scamp became his primary project. He continued to direct productions until the end, totaling 18 according to The Washington Post.

“The fun of it for me is that every time I do it, I learn something new about it, and in theory every production that precedes the one I’m doing makes the one I’m doing the beneficiary of the stuff that I’ve learned,” Charnin told The Guardian in 2016, on the eve of a new production at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. “[I]t keeps growing, it keeps changing.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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