Martin Charnin, Tony-Winning Creator of 'Annie,' Dies at 84

Martin Charnin

Martin Charnin photographed in 1978.

Martin Charnin, the Tony-winning lyricist, writer and librettist best known for creating and directing the sensational Broadway musical Annie, has died. He was 84.

Charnin died after suffering a heart attack on Wednesday, his daughter, Sasha, wrote on Facebook. "As loving as he was, [he] has kept all of us completely directionless. Which way do we go Daddy? Damn," she wrote. "Like he said and as corny as this sounds … the sun'll will come out tomorrow."

With more than 40 productions to his credit, Charnin penned lyrics for seven Broadway shows and directed seven shows as well, and he won his Tony Award for best original score, with composer Charles Strouse, for Annie

He also received three Emmys for his work on television variety specials and won a Grammy for Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," which sampled his lyrics from an Annie song.

Charnin conceived the musical Annie, which premiered at Goodspeed Opera House in 1976 and opened on Broadway in 1977, from the Harold Gray comic strip about Little Orphan Annie, a youngster who goes to live with a wealthy bachelor during the Great Depression.

"I guess when you're in the business of making musicals, you look for ideas, you look for source material anywhere," he told The Guardian in 2016. "At that particular moment, all of Dickens had been taken, it all had been musicalized. If I'd found it in a bubblegum wrapper, I guess I'd have tried to get the rights to it. I read that book before I gave it away and ultimately ended up not giving it away, I was so taken by Harold Gray's original drawings."

Charnin directed the original production and wrote the lyrics for the musical, which had music by Strouse and book by Thomas Meehan. It played for 2,327 performances on Broadway and has become a fixture of the American musical theater canon.

"No matter how you bend it, it just doesn't break — it's just one of those iconic musicals in the history of theater, and we are very grateful and lucky and thrilled about how it has survived," Charnin told Broadway World in 2014. "In point of fact, there really aren't a lot of things out there like Annie."

Actor David Alan Grier, who played Daddy Warbucks and said he was "discovered" by Charnin, paid tribute to him on Twitter: "Rest In Peace Martin Charnin. He discovered me. Gave me my first job in this business. My thoughts and prayers are with his family in this difficult and sad time."

Born Martin Jay Charnin on Nov. 24, 1934, he grew up in New York, the son of an opera singer. He received his BFA from Cooper Union, and after he graduated, he spotted an open call for actors, singers and dancers for West Side Story, then an unknown musical.

Although Charnin had no performance training, he went to the audition as landed a part of Big Deal, one of the original Jets, in the original Broadway production in 1957. He went on to perform the role 1,000 times in New York and across the country.  

"Director Jerome Robbins was looking for authentic juvenile delinquents, and I thought I could be one of them," he said. "It was astonishing. I had never done a musical before, and to this day I have no idea why I got the role. I guess I was eccentric. I made [playwright] Arthur [Laurents] laugh when I read some of the lines he gave me to do."

He launched his lyric writing career off-Broadway, wrote lyrics for cabaret shows and revues and produced shows featuring such performers as Dionne Warwick and Leslie Uggams. He made his Broadway lyricist debut with Hot Spot in 1963, which he wrote with his frequent collaborator, Mary Rodgers.

Earlier, Charnin and Rodgers had collaborated on a 1961 television show, the Hugh O'Brian-starring Feathertop, a musical based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story. They had met on West Side Story, as Rodgers was good friends with lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Laurents.

Charnin wrote lyrics for Two by Two, which had music by Richard Rodgers and a book by Peter Brook and played on Broadway in 1970. However, he devoted much of the early '70s to writing and producing TV and variety specials, and he won three Emmys — for outstanding variety program for Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man, which starred Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks; and two (for outstanding directorial achievement and  variety program) for S'Wonderful S'Marvelous S'Gershwin, which starred Fred Astaire, Jack Lemmon and Ethel Merman.

He made his Broadway directing debut in 1973 with the revue Nash at Nine, and he went on to direct Music! Music! at City Center and The National Lampoon Show, which starred John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray.

Throughout his career, Charnin directed several productions of Annie. He had mixed feelings about other productions, which included the 2011 Broadway revival directed by James Lapine and three major film adaptations.

"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 said. "So it keeps growing, it keeps changing."

After Annie, Charnin wrote the lyrics for I Remember Mama, and he directed, wrote lyrics and co-wrote the book for The First, a musical about Jackie Robinson. In the '80s, he directed Cafe Crown and Sid Caesar and Company, which also featured his songs, for Broadway.

In the 1990s, he directed The Flowering Peach on Broadway and worked on a sequel to Annie called Annie Warbucks, which he wrote alongside Meehan and Strouse. The musical had out-of-town tryouts in Chicago and was slated for Broadway, but the Main Stem production never came about after a major investor pulled out. The show opened off-Broadway in 1993.

Charnin directed several revues off-Broadway including Upstairs at the O'Neals and The No Frills Revue. He was also the artistic director of Showtunes!, a theater company in Seattle dedicated to reviving lesser-known musicals.

Charnin worked up until his death, directing shows, and he was always looking for the next project. When asked if he ever had plans to retire, he told The Guardian, "Oh, God no, I still have shows to write and direct."

Survivors include his wife, Shelly, children Sasha and Randy and grandchildren Maxwell, Gus and Oliver.

This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.