You know the story.
A plucky orphan girl and her scruffy dog are begrudgingly adopted by a cantankerous billionaire in Depression-era New York, and his emotional resistance toward her is eventually worn down by her irrepressible charm.
That is, of course, the plot of the beloved musical “Annie,” which was inspired by the long-running “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip and premiered on Broadway in 1977. It’s been re-staged and adapted countless times since, and a touring production lands at the INB Performing Arts Center this weekend.
The show was penned by composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Martin Charnin and book writer Thomas Meehan, who saw it as an antidote to the violence and cynicism of the ’70s. All three men are now in their 80s and are still active in theater: Charnin, who recently talked to The Spokesman-Review, estimates he’s been involved in 20 different professional productions of “Annie” over the years.
“ ‘Annie’ has taken me all over the world,” Charnin said. “I’ve sort of been the keeper of the flame in terms of maintaining the … dignity and optimism and spunk of the piece. I don’t want to make a comparison, but you don’t put a mustache on the Mona Lisa. I don’t think you monkey with the original material. Let it be what it is.”
Charnin directed the original Broadway production of “Annie” and is responsible for the lyrics of such indelible showtunes as “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow.” This April marks the show’s 40th anniversary, and yet Charnin admits he never thought he’d still be talking about the plucky, red-haired orphan girl he first saw in a hardbound compilation of Harold Gray’s comics.
“Not a lot of people believed a cartoon could be turned into a viable Broadway musical,” Charnin said. “But my point was not to do it as a cartoon but to do it for real. And that’s what’s up on the stage now. … What we ended up doing was writing a show that reflected not only our political point of view but our point of view about humanity and the concept of optimism.”
Charnin’s path to Broadway was as circuitous as Annie’s journey to a life of luxury. He graduated from New York’s Cooper Union Art Institute with aspirations of being a painter, but he soon found his way into performing, appearing in the original Broadway cast of “West Side Story.” He gained notice as a writer and has had 18 original shows produced on Broadway, including several collaborations with the legendary composer Richard Rodgers.
He’s currently working on a new show about Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary, and he’s also working to reboot a handful of his older, lesser known works, including “Two by Two,” which was originally staged in 1970 with Danny Kaye.
But it’s “Annie” that remains Charnin’s most enduring musical, and he’s resigned himself to the fact that it will likely never go away.
“You’ve now got a grandmother taking her daughter and her daughter’s daughter to see the show,” Charnin said, “so the baton keeps getting passed generation to generation.”
So why has the popularity of “Annie” refused to fade? Charnin thinks it’s the show’s blithe spirit and its assurances of better times always being right around the corner.
“It’s about optimism and it’s about hope, and it’s about family, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing to remind people about,” Charnin said. “Those are good values, especially in this day and age, and I think every now and then you need a tap on the shoulder that says, ‘As awful as things may feel at this moment in time, it’s going to get better. We’re not doomed.’ ”
In other words, the sun’ll come out tomorrow.