Former Scarsdale resident Martin Charnin, best known as the creator of seven-time Tony Award-winning Broadway classic “Annie,” died July 6 at the age of 84. The cause of death was a heart attack.
“Annie,” for which Charnin wrote the lyrics and directed, began its Broadway run in 1977 and went on to spawn two Broadway revivals, two films, two stage sequels, and countless cultural references as it became a story recognized around the world. Though Charnin originally conceived of the idea based on a popular 1920s comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” he and writer Thomas Meehan and composer Charles Strouse, created something entirely original that would eventually become ubiquitous with red curly hair and a melody about the sun coming out. Charnin went on to direct 42 productions of "Annie" after its original 2,377 performance Broadway run.
Later in his career, Charnin never felt himself above diving into local and community theater. Charnin and his wife, Shelly Burch Charnin, moved to Scarsdale in 2012 — after residing in Seattle for seven years — and immediately began forming parternships in local theater. In 2013, Charnin spent time coaching local students in the Scarsdale Middle School Drama Club’s production of “Annie.” He directed several shows and events at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, including three original musicals and series of review pieces, producing two shows per year on average.
“He loved it here and was so happy to be home,” said Burch Charnin. “We did everything in Scarsdale. We would go into the city sometimes and he would always be so glad to come home [to Scarsdale.]”
Burch Charnin said Scarsdale welcomed Charnin with open arms. People would stop him in the grocery store and their youngest son, who graduated from Scarsdale High School in 2015, would bring friends home to meet his father.
“He was impeccable … Nobody else could do what he could do,” said Burch Charnin. “It really meant a lot to him to be here. For him this was the mecca and he just loved to come home.”
Though known as a lyricist and director, Charnin’s career in theater began on the stage in 1960 when he was cast as an original member of the street gang The Jets as a character in “West Side Story.” This role was how he realized he wanted to work onstage, according to his daughter Sasha Charnin Morrison.
“He realized he wanted to be behind the scenes and not an actor and so he became a lyricist and has written some of the best lyrics in theater music,” said Charnin Morrison. “He was really smart, it was one of those things where if he set his mind to it, he could do it. It wasn’t common back then to have all these multiple talents.”
Though “Annie” was Charnin’s most notable trademark, he is credited on nearly 50 stage productions, 12 television and film endeavors, and received 15 major nominations and awards for his work. He was working on several projects, including a new musical, at the time of his death, according to his daughter.
“He loved working. He really wanted to work until the moment he was dragged away kicking and screaming,” said Charnin Morrison.
Charnin Morrison said growing up in her household was an “incredible” experience that left her in awe of the man she called her father. Though theater was his first love, he was attentive and doted on his children and it was normal to have people like Cary Grant phoning and theater stars of the time walking in and out of their house. She came from a show business family of actors and her experience growing up immersed in the world of theater was something she described as “intoxicating.” In this respect, her upbringing was not much different from Charnin’s own.
Charnin was born in Manhattan on Nov. 24, 1934 to William and Birdie Charnin. His father was an opera singer at The Met and his mother was a homemaker. He grew up in Washington Heights and was “bit by the theater bug” while waiting tables in the 1950s at a summer stock theater in the Adirondacks. Charnin began his life in the arts as a painter, attending Cooper Union where he studied art after graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. Contrary to what many aspiring artists might have expected, Charnin’s father encouraged him to be a painter before Charnin decided he wanted to do theater instead.
“People have asked me over the past week about how he didn’t have much commercial success and I’m like ‘wait a minute,’” said Charnin Morrison. “Not many people in their lifetimes in theater have a success like ‘Annie’ — a property known around the world — [and] a song that is on par with ‘Happy Birthday’ for being known everywhere, but he was able to do what he wanted to do and work in theater his whole career.”
Charnin Morrison said her father cared less about being rich and famous and more about creating things that allowed people to live in the moment and experience something different every single night.
The week following her father’s death has solidified a big part of his legacy in her mind, she said. There have been countless phone calls from people saying her father changed the trajectory of their lives. The original child actors from “Annie” have sent letters detailing her father as one of the most nurturing directors they ever worked with, while other colleagues from throughout his career called to tell the family that Charnin was one of the most uplifting people they worked with in the industry.
“He made all of these actors feel extremely special that they were part of something really big, even if it was a disaster,” said Charnin Morrison. “It’s important in show business to have somebody behind you, people who have your back, and he was one of those guys.”
Charnin is survived by his daughter Sasha Charnin Morrison, his wife Shelly Burch Charnin, his son Randy, stepdaughter Dayna Bennett, stepsons Richard and Joel Bennett, three grandchildren and his sister Rena Mueller. He was married to Lynn Ross, Genii Prior and Jade Hobson prior to his current wife who lives in New Rochelle.
“The most important thing is that ‘Annie’ was about optimism and hope when everything in the world is falling apart — or you think it is,” said Charnin Morrison. “There’s always something, no matter how hard it is to dig in, to be optimistic about. He always believed there's something to be hopeful about. That’s the greatest thing he’s given anybody — [knowing] that the sun will come out tomorrow.”