NEW YORK (AP) — If you catch the latest national tour of “Annie,” you’re in for a treat — the original director and lyricist is running the show. That’s like drinking real Coke after years of only having New Coke.
The new “Annie” making its way to New York City this Christmas is the 19th time Martin Charnin has directed a production of his heartwarming tale of a Depression-era orphan girl and her scruffy dog. It’s the real thing.
“I have a responsibility to the audience,” said Charnin during a recent interview. “They’ve come for a reason. They haven’t come for a new interpretation.”
Charnin, who turns 81 on Tuesday, is a keeper of the “Annie” flame, protective of what he created with songwriter Charles Strouse and book writer Thomas Meehan.
Messing with “Annie” means messing with Charnin.
“When you add a layer of behavior or you change lines or sequences, you are really disturbing the piece,” he said. “It’s like taking a skeleton apart, putting it together again, but the third rib is now the fifth rib. Uh-unh, because you won’t walk straight.”
The tour this winter will include stops in Arkansas, Delaware, Rhode Island, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
Based on the beloved comic strip that debuted in 1924, “Annie” first opened on Broadway in 1977 and ran for almost six years, fueled by songs including “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow.”
“‘Annie’ has touched generations and each one of the generations that it has reached has a very fond, distinct, specific memory of it. Because they love it — they don’t like it, they LOVE it — they pass that memory on like a baton in a relay race,” he said.
Charnin’s lyrics, which helped earn him and Strouse a best-score Tony, are playful and moving: “You’re never fully dressed/ without a smile” and “No one cares for you a smidge/ when you’re in an orphanage.”
Over the years, Charnin has directed “Annie” on Broadway, on the road, in the Netherlands and in Australia, among other places. But the story has also made its way into film versions in 1982 and 2014, and a TV version came out in 1999.
While he’s allowed some changes to accommodate audiences or eras — in England, he changed a reference to Lou Gehrig to the better known Babe Ruth — Charnin is loath to mess with much else.
He was irked by the last Broadway revival in 2012, in which the creators played up wrenching economic stress, layered on thick New York accents and didn’t have the dog Sandy arrive as the final Christmas present.
“They aren’t really big things unless you have allowed those little things to metastasize and build. It starts with a little heartburn and it ends up with a need to buy a ton of Prilosec. There are little choices that some directors make that go against the grain of what the show is about.”
The new tour stars young Issie Swickle in the title role — and she might be someone to keep an eye on: Charnin has previously cast in the show such future stars as Sarah Jessica Parker, Molly Ringwald, Sutton Foster and a 5-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Trends in theater have come and gone, but “Annie” remains. Born in the middle of the Nixon administration, the show keeps on delighting. Charnin said its message — don’t worry, things will get better — never gets unfashionable.
“‘Annie’ is riddled with joy, tempered by some satire, some sarcasm,” he said. “Being optimistic is really not a bad thing to be. If you took it out of the equation of how you’d live, I think everything would be ‘The Hunger Games.'”