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Keeper of the Annie flame
JUST think, one of the most celebrated musicals in history might never have come to life if it hadn't been for a too-busy wrapping desk at Christmas time in New York.
In 1970, lyricist Martin Charnin went to a bookstore to buy a Christmas present for his friend. The title of the book he chose was The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie, an anthology set in the Great Depression of Howard Gray's comic strips originally published in The Chicago Tribune.
But when he went to get it wrapped, the clerk gave him a sheet of wrapping paper instead and told him to do it himself.
Charnin, during a phone interview with The Business Times from New York, recounts: "So I took this book home, and instead of wrapping it, I started reading it. And then, well, my friend never got his present that year."
The very next morning, Charnin instructed his attorney to get the rights to the cartoon because he had a "feeling that it would make an extraordinary musical".
He says: "Harold Gray was an amazing cartoon writer who had long and involved stories. Today, papers are filled with comics which have four panels and a punch line, but he would have a story going for three or four months before it would segue into another plot point. That, to me, was very attractive."
Seven years later, the first production of Annie was put on, and it has been playing somewhere in the world every year since.
The reason for its success, according to Charnin, is "Annie's spunk and spirit of optimism".
He expounds: "As writers, we were very conscious of the fact that America in those times was close to a recession and it was just an awful time. Her spirit exemplified the American Dream in the best way possible, and the musical represents the idea of things getting better eventually, which I think resonated both in America and globally."
Another factor that plays an important role in the success of a musical is its score. With songs like Tomorrow and It's The Hard Knock Life, Annie didn't have any trouble there. "Tomorrow ended up being one of the most-sung songs of the last century, and that just added to its iconography," adds Charnin.
But when the musical was adapted for Hollywood, it lost some of its charm. Charnin explains: "Hollywood has an enormous ego problem in that they can't take a Broadway show and make it as it's written; they have to 'improve' upon it. Invariably, they muck it up."
He notes: "I think the only way for a musical to be a success onscreen is to have the original creators involved. And that didn't happen for us. We were rare visitors to the set, and hardly consulted, and none of the Hollywood versions of Annie have worked like the musical did."
This might be the reason the 81-year-old is still the "keeper of the flame," more than 30 years on.
Charnin says: "This version is what I call a reconnection to the original. It's a restoration to what made it so successful in the beginning, and just means you have to get rid of the peach fuzz that collects over the years. Of course there are changes, there have to be when a production's been running this long, but you have to maintain its root values."
Though his career has already spanned more than four decades, Charnin shows no sign of slowing down. He laughs: "I've got four more projects bouncing around waiting to get finished. Hopefully, they'll arrive in 2017, but till then, I love to write and I love to direct, and I won't be stopping anytime soon."
- Annie the Musical is on at the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands till Sept 11. Tickets start at S$65 and are available from Sistic