Getting a Good Revue
Filichia chats with Martin Charnin about his latest projects and reflects on the writer-director's long and productive career.
"I'm the oldest Jewish director still working," says Martin Charnin with that Cheshire cat smile, not looking a whit older or seeming any less energetic than the last time I saw him. At the moment, he's sitting in Sam's, the 45th Street restaurant turned cabaret, where Martin Charnin's The Next-to-the-Last Revue is currently in previews.
Maybe it's the kids who make him young. His producer, Jim Kierstead, was barely out of diapers when, in late 1971, Charnin walked into that Doubleday's bookstore at Fifth and 57th and bought a book on Little Orphan Annie for a friend but read it instead and said, "That's my next musical!" As for his new revue's cast -- Melanie Adelman, Michael Diliberto, Elizabeth Inghram, Jenny Neale, and Christopher Totten -- none of them was even born then. Young as they are, Charnin already has a history with them, for they either appeared in his productions of Annie or Strike up the Band, or both. (For the latter show, he used the plot involving cheese rather than chocolates.) Charnin also directed Totten in Stephen Dolginoff's Thrill Me, which Kierstead produced.
Another reason Charnin feels young is that he's back in a long, narrow, brick-walled room, which returns him to those thrilling days of yesteryear when he worked on cabaret revues. During the time when he was an actor -- and was saying "Krup you" as part of the original cast of West Side Story -- he sold his first lyrics to Julius Monk for all of $10. After that, he contributed lyrics to everything from the Upstairs at the Downstairs series in the '60s to Upstairs at O'Neal's and The No-Frills Revue in the '80s, each of which he conceived. So who better to resurrect the "caba-revue," as he likes to call it?
Charnin is frank: Of the 15 pieces in this show, eight are resurrected from previous revues, while seven are new. There is a never-before-heard opening number for which Charnin provided lyrics and Keith Levinson wrote the music. "But some of this stuff is by the Good Guys, as I like to call them," says Charnin. "Songs you might already know by Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell; Jim Morgan; Weeden, Finkle, and Fay. In the world of musical theater, if one can legitimately revive 42nd Street, Little Shop, Fiddler -- all with the same jokes and no new book -- why not revive these songs from revues? If two, maybe even three generations have never heard or seen this material, what's wrong with giving them the chance now? At Colony, all this stuff is buried in the back of the store. No one's interested in printing it, honoring it, or celebrating it, even though it's one of the great art forms of the 20th century. It's not George Bernard Shaw, but it's sophisticated. And we need that. We've neglected the intelligence of the audience in recent years, and that's why they now applaud key changes and give a standing ovation when a note is held."
Mr. C. also likes that the revue gives young performers the chance to be seen. "Losing the revue meant losing a training ground for young talent," he remarks. "Look who came out of those New Faces revues: Ronny Graham, Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, Maggie Smith, Carol Lawrence -- even Henry Fonda, in New Faces of 1934. They went on to bigger and better things, and maybe these kids here are on their way to that kind of success."
Once this show opens, Charnin is off to the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, Tennessee, where he'll direct a revised version of Two by Two, the 1970 musical that he and Peter Stone were rewriting right up until Stone's untimely death. "We deKaye-ified it," Charnin says, alluding to the harmful changes that original star Danny Kaye brought to the property. "We'd like to give the world another Richard Rodgers musical," he adds, graciously acknowledging the composer of the show.
Then he's off to Issaquah, Washington, to the Village Theatre -- "the Goodspeed of the West," he calls it. "Well, they do have 15,000 subscribers. We are finally going to do Robin Hood: The Legend Continues, which [book writer] Tom Meehan, a Canadian composer named Peter Sipos, and I wrote two years ago." When I ask if the show's in the Mel Brooks mode, he answers, "Hardly, though it is screamingly funny. It's romantic, too. I adored the Errol Flynn movie [The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938] and we combined it with the Jim Goldman film [Robin and Marian, 1976] to come up with a third entity that's something new."
Next, he'll stage another production of Annie for a tour that will stay out more than a year before landing on Broadway in what will be heralded as the 30th anniversary production. Some of us will discover a new song in it that was spurred by the recent Australian revival. Says Charnin, "Anthony Warlow, who was playing Warbucks, said to me, 'My, Warbucks doesn't really have a lot to sing, does he?' It was a gentle hint, so Charles and I came up with 'Why Should I Change a Thing?' for the end of Act I. We liked it so much that it's now officially part of the show, and if you license it from MTI, you'll find it there."
Annie, of course, is the one for which he'll now and forever be remembered. God knows, we can't discount Charles Strouse's peppy music or Thomas Meehan's unexpectedly moving book, but the property wouldn't have happened without Charnin -- and bless him for it. How many millions of young kids were hooked into musical theater by this show? Certainly, we all now know Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alyssa Milano, Deborah Gibson, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler, but Charnin knew them when they were little girls appearing in various productions of Annie. "Actually," he says, "Annie gave rise to a whole new industry: 'girl-kid agents.' There had been 'boy-kid agents' a decade earlier because of Oliver! but once Annie hit, there was a need for girl-kid agents."
With so many Charnin shows getting another chance, I ask about The First, the 1981 musical about black baseball player Jackie Robinson breaking into the all-white major leagues in 1947. Why is there no cast album? After all, three shows from the same season -- Oh, Brother!, Is There Life after High School?, and Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? -- got albums, and combined they didn't run as long as The First (which, admittedly, didn't run long either; only a month). I've always assumed that there was no recording because the show deals with baseball, not a beloved subject to most musical theater enthusiasts. "I could get a recording of The First tomorrow -- if I paid for it," Charnin says. "But sometimes you want someone to say 'I love you' before you say it to her."
But Charnin is looking ahead rather than back. "I just had a physical," he says, "and was told that the guy who did my quadruple bypass 15 years ago did a great job. Young is only how you look at the world." That sounds right coming from the guy who wrote, "The sun'll come out tomorrow."