You can thank Martin Charnin for “Tomorrow,” the anthem of a million dreams, the song that just won’t go away. The lyricist and original director of “Annie,” the musical about a precocious, red-haired orphan and her billionaire savior, has made the show a permanent fixture over the last four decades. Charnin has directed the musical comedy 19 times, and repeats his duties for the current tour, which stops at Shea’s from Dec. 8 to 13. He recently spoke by phone of his creative process and his own rise to stardom, from performer to lyricist, to director, composer, producer and more — he made his Broadway debut in 1957 creating the role of Big Deal in “West Side Story.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Question: So tell me, how does one go from being in the ensemble of “West Side Story,” to writing lyrics for a Broadway musical starring Judy Holliday?
Answer: Well, I got into “West Side” directly out of college, and it was the only show that I ever did. I was blessed to be able to join that illustrious group of people. It’s still, to my way of thinking, the most extraordinary musical that’s ever been written. I had always been very, very interested in lyrics. I wanted to be on the other side of the table, being responsible for creating these things. I got to know [composer] Mary Rodgers; she was very close friends with Stephen Sondheim, and all of the other collaborators on the “West Side Story”. I found that I had kind of a nice, interesting way with words, and I loved rhyming, and so I began to write, and Mary and I began to collaborate.
Q: How does directing make you a better lyricist?
A: The responsibility at the very beginning is to instigate what the show is about. I’ve rarely done shows where I come in later in the process. So wearing both hats gives me a sense of understanding the inner workings of the musical. … As a director, you have to learn how to drown your favorite babies, and get rid of things that just don’t work. I really enjoy thinning things out. I’m very, very partial to simplicity. Similarly, I don’t believe in long, lengthy shows. I believe that you can always make cuts, and alterations, and get down to the bone.
Q: What do you love about the character of Annie?
A: Well “Annie” was written at a time when, in the early ’70s, when the country was going through some really hard times. There was a semi-recession going on, there was Nixon, there was the Vietnam War — it was a really lousy time. When I optioned the piece, I wanted to sort of tap the audience on its collective shoulder and say it’s going to get better. The discovery that we’ve made over the course of these 38, 39 years that “Annie’s” been up on its feet, is that the relevance of 1971, when we wrote it, and 1977 when it got on, is as relevant then, now, as it was then. It’s a very universal experience.
Q: What have you learned about the show this time around?
A: I learn something about it every time that I do it. There’s no way that it’s the same. The thing that I try all the time to maintain is the core material that attracted me to want to write it, pursue it for seven years to get it on. I’ve got to make sure that that is alive in how anybody ever approaches it, which is why I sort of function as the keeper of the flame, [for] at least ones that I have anything to do with. I want to make sure that the heart is there, that the spirit is there, that the sense of optimism that this kid represents is always at the forefront of what the play is about. When those things are there, then everything else falls into place.
When: Tuesday through Dec. 13
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.