Theater News

Charles Strouse

Leslie (Hoban) Blake talks to composer CHARLES STROUSE about the satisfaction of moving an audience and the thrill of catching people whistling his tunes.

Charles Strouse
Charles Strouse

Like its comic strip prototype, the original Broadway show Annie will never die. And the recent television adaptation–featuring Tony-winner Audra MacDonald as Grace Farrell–proved bigger, stronger, and more multi-cultural than ever. In addition to being a part of theater history, Annie has entered the American zeitgeist, and composer Charles Strouse gets a particular kick not only from the 1999 Peabody Award the Disney T.V. version won, but also the Grammy won by “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” the title song on Jay-Z’s quadruple platinum Best Rap Album (and Billboard’s Album of the Year for 1998). “I can’t take the credit,” he jokes, “but I did take the money.” Rap and Annie in the same sentence–leaping lizards, Sandy, this must truly be the millennium!

During a career that spans four-plus decades, Strouse has amassed a plethora of awards, including three Tony awards (Bye Bye Birdie, 1960; Applause, 1970; and Annie, which also garnered a couple of Grammies in 1976). Moreover, he created the T.V. theme song “Those Were the Days” for All in the Family, as well as scoring Bonnie and Clyde. Strouse has also felt the stings of the occasional flop (the one-night wonder Dance a Little Closer in 1983), yet his hit shows keep coming back in new incarnations. 45 years after his first Tony, the television version of Bye Bye Birdie starring Jason Alexander earned him an Emmy for his new song, “Let’s Settle Down,” written especially for Vanessa Williams. Last year, he also received the ASCAP Foundation Richard Rogers Award for Career Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre.

Strouse remains sanguine, but realistic, about awards. “You know, every time I write out a bio for a playbill, I think about all those Russian generals on May Day with their chests full of medals. And yet, I still keep my son’s award from a relay race, so I guess we all need them. But,” he adds impishly, “I do feel a bit sheepish about it all.” Sitting in his apartment (situated, fittingly enough, directly across from Carnegie Hall), Strouse shows no signs of slowing down. He’s the picture of a working composer, in his traditional sweatshirt and jeans, and as usual, he’s got myriad projects going. “Going is the operative word,” he smiles. “I love composing. I’ve made it into my life-music–it’s like breathing for me. And with lots of balls in the air, some of them do land and get produced.”

His mood suddenly changes. “Of course, I’m both professionally and personally in despair over the loss of Mike [Ockrent]. My son gave blood for him, and we followed his progress and regress.” (Ockrent, his wife–choreographer Susan Stroman–and Strouse had been working on a stage version of The Night They Raided Minsky’s, for which Strouse had originally written the film score. This project, with book and direction by Ockrent, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, and choreography by Stroman, is on hold for now.) Shaking off his emotional moment, Strouse continues, “And there’s a very important production of Rags coming up in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theatre. We keep flailing away at it,” he jokes, “because we keep getting encouraged to do so. It’s always hard to say with musicals because they’re like puzzles, where a little piece that you put in or take out can support or diminish the entire work.”


“Shows never ran seven or eight years like Annie, or as long as Cats,” he muses. “And the prevailing economics has forced us all to turn to the not-for-profit theater and the dreaded workshop/reading syndrome.” I studied with Aaron Copeland, both at Tanglewood and privately at the end of his career. By then, his film music had dried up and he was conducting to make a living. I’d come out of a conservatory background, where you wrote for other composers, but I learned that I really liked writing for audiences. I like people to whistle my tunes, and I tell myself Stavinsky did too or he wouldn’t have written those luscious melodies, and of course Mozart, Verdi, and Aaron, all did too. Everybody poo-poos it, but I believe everybody would love to hear their tunes being whistled.” He pauses for a second, then laughs, “Well maybe not Boulez.”

Two brand new, but very different, projects currently occupy much of his time, and both re-team him with long-time lyric writing partner Lee Adams. One is a musical adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, recently workshopped under the direction of Jerry Zaks, and the other is their Broadway-bound adaptation of Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty, with book by Rupert Holmes, scheduled to star Jason Alexander. As if this were not enough, he’s also in the early stages of collaborating with his Nick and Nora partner Richard Maltby on a new musical based on John Jakes’s North and South. Another air-born ball is his opera, Nightingale from the Hans Christian Andersen tale, which was performed in London starring Sarah Brightman. “The album is selling well,” he notes, “no doubt due to her presence.”

Unlike his first top-ten Billboard hit song, “Born Too Late,” written in 1958, Strouse was obviously born at just the right time. Rumor has it that Annie is a sure bet for an Emmy nomination this fall. By then, Strouse will no doubt have even more projects percolating on his back burners. “I’ve found terrific satisfaction in my life from writing, amusing, and moving an audience,” he says and then quotes from a blurb he wrote for an upcoming New York Times article about Alan Jay Lerner (book-writer, lyricist, and director of Dance a Little Closer). “Alan told me, ‘To be interesting is often good, but to be good is always interesting.’ That caught me in my heart–that’s what I want to do. To feel that I’m writing well makes me happy. I don’t know how else to put it.”