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  • Long before he became famous for directing and lyric writing - and for Annie - Martin Charnin was quite gifted writing songs for revues. At Sam's Dream Street Cabaret [263 West 45th Street], with an official opening on October 6th, he's celebrating that lost art form with The Next-To-The-Last Revue.

    The 70-minute show, created by Charnin and a roster of collaborators [some known; others, long forgotten], he says, is much more than just a collection of songs strung together. "It marks the return of sketches, enchanting musical numbers and finger-lickin' fun."There was a time, long, long ago, when revues were a chief part of every Broadway season and the cabaret scene. Revues disappeared, explains Charnin, thanks to the likes of Carol Burnett, Sonny and Cher and Flip Wilson on TV.

    "The variety shows were nothing more than revues," he says. "But whereas the Broadway and cabaret revues were sophisticated, sometime bawdy, TV really lowered the bar. TV was going for Neilsen ratings. In a hundred-seat cabaret, you're not looking for ratings. You can be clever, smart and satirical. You can use more than four-syllable words. You can talk about subjects that are taboo on television."

    The Next-To-The-Last Revue features five fresh talents, whom Charnin calls "mindbogglingly talented," have worked with him before. All were in the January '04 production of Annie: Melanie Adelman, Michael Dilliberto, Elizabeth Inghram, Jenny Neale and Christoper Totten. Musical director is Brandon Sturiale.

    There's material "that's never seen the light of day," but Charnin also wanted the show to be a homage to some of the top revues of the 50s and 60s. So there'll be some memorable chestnuts.

    In 1958, Charnin's first sale was for ten dollars for revue producer Julius Monk. Then, with Bob Kessler, they wrote the revue Fall Out. What a cast: Charles Nelson Reilly, Ruth Buzzi, Dom DeLuise - but it ran only 25 performances at Bleecker Street's long-gone Renata Theatre, which was across from the Bitter End.

    Cabaret and theater weren't in Charnin's plans for his future after college. He was well on his path to being a painter, with a Guggenheim Fellowship in hand to study in Rome. But the summer of his junior year he took a break to paint scenery for summer stock in the Adirondacks at Timberland, "the sort of place Noel Airman worked in Marjorie Moringstar. And I got bit! I didn't want to paint. I wanted to be in theater. Goodbye, Guggenheim Fellowship. Arrivederci, Roma."

    He auditioned for West Side Story. In the initial Broadway run from late September 1957 to late June 1959] he played Jets Big Deal and Snowboy. Before the show hit the road, he performed in The Girls Against the Boys, a short-lived 1959 revue [starring Bert Lahr, Nancy Walker, Dick Van Dyke and Shelley Berman. He went out with WSS, then returned with it to Broadway for another five months in April 1960.

    It was there, Charnin relates, that he realized the life in theater he wanted was on the other side of the footlights. "I grew tired of doing the same thing day in and day out. I wasn't good-looking enough to be a leading man. I didn't have the technique to be a character actor. I liked how the machinery of theater worked. It didn't quite dawn on me then, but later I realized I was the clay of four master sculptors: Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents and Robbins. Hal Prince was a co-producer. I learned everything I ever needed to know by watching them. Do it, fight, solve it, fix it."

    He reported that WSS is the only show that ever went out of town and never got rid of an actor, changed a piece of scenery or costume; where not a single song was thrown out or a new one put in. "The two times Jerry decided to try something new for the Jets," he says, "it became apparent it wasn't necessary. The experience on the road was detail work - whether a skirt flip was high enough, or a finger snap loud enough. I learned about the machinery of a car before I knew how to drive it."

    He stayed in WSS to the end. "The top salary was $265 a week, but I managed to save enough to keep myself going for a year."

    While in the show, he began writing revue sketch material. Through his relationships with Sondheim and Robbins, he met Mary Rodgers. They wrote miniature musicals for The Jackie Gleason Show and an hour musical for Mars Candy, which starred Hugh O'Brian and Jane Powell.

    George Abbott was impressed enough to hire the duo to write Carte Blanche, a musical "about a guy who stole a credit card and went on a spending spree." It was to star Tony Perkins and Carol Burnett, but the project fell apart.

    Then came La Strada. It would seem that such a classic gritty Italian film noir would have made an incredible musical. "You'd think, but it was a terribly, terribly difficult time," he says somberly. "The biggest problem was that no one was talking to anybody. There were five people doing five different shows. Alan Schneider [director] was doing his La Strada. Alvin Ailey [choreographer] was doing his. Charles Peck [book, and a producer] was doing his and Lionel was doing his."

    He and composer Elliott Lawrence got involved at the last moment, in the Fall of 1969. They were working on a TV show, That's Life, for Shelley Berman, Kay Medford and Bobby Morse. "The call came," he recalls, "and we sneaked into Detroit and hid out on the top floor of a hotel, making sure nobody saw us. Lionel wasn't around. He was quite ill and in the South of France. We rewrote every song. It was our take. Nothing got put in during rehearsals."

    The new score was integrated into the show during tech week, which was hell for the actors.
    Bart received credit for the score, with Charnin and Lawrence receiving "Additional Lyrics and Music by." That had to sting, since by the time the show opened in Detroit, only one and half of Bart's songs was left. "Our songs are quite lovely. Except for ëIt's All So Simple,' which has been on a couple of albums, and ëStarfish,' which someone covered, our score's never been heard." [Bart's complete score was recently discovered, remastered and just released on Bayview Records.]

    Charnin stressed that the problem wasn't with stars Larry Kert and Bernadette. "They were perfectly cast. And it wasn't that it was ill-conceived. It was one of the least collaborative experiences I've ever been involved in. Alan, Alvin and Charlie had never done a musical. I was the only person who could've said something constructive, because I'd done a musical [Hot Spot, music by Mary Rodgers and starring Judy Holliday; 1963; five weeks]. Granted the things I'd written weren't successful, but I'd been there and knew how they got made. And I'd seen the masters at work in West Side Story. But nobody would have listened.

    "All we were able to do was frantically write," he continued. "It could have been an interesting, dark musical, but it was a disaster [closing in December 1969 on Opening Night after 12 previews]. As it is, it's not producible. You'd have to go back and reexamine the Fellini screenplay and use our songs or write a new score."

    Things didn't get much better in 1970 with Two by Two. "Mary had stopped writing and I told her I had an idea I wanted to take to her father. She said do it. Rodgers had soloed on No Strings and, with Sondheim, had done Do I Hear A Waltz?, a collaboration that neither was happy with. Though there was a generation gap, there were no clashes. Different opinions, yes. We never became the type of people who would walk down the street with my arm around his neck. It's wasn't ëLet's go get a cup of coffee. It was work.' It has one of the most delicious scores Rodgers ever wrote."

    Unfortunately, they got done in by a very naughty actor, Danny Kaye. "When I brought the project to him," Charnin recalls, "Danny jumped at doing it. But his behavior became preposterous. He didn't want to play the show that Peter Stone and I had written. We could not control him. Audiences, of course, adored him and he went out and kept inserting his schtick."

    One of Stone's last projects was working with Charnin to "deDanny Kayeafy" Two By Two. The revised version opens in late-October at Tennessee's Cumberland Playhouse with a song restored. "It was too funny," reports Charnin, "and Danny didn't like following it on, so he made us kill it."

    Annie resulted from Charnin buying a book of cartoons as a Christmas present for a friend. "The clerk was too busy to wrap it," he says, "and when I got home I started to read it. I felt Harold Gray [creator of the comic strip Annie Warbucks] was an American Dickens. I saw a musical, and the rest is as they sayÖ

    But it was slow history. It took a year and a half for Charnin and composer Charles Strouse to write. The biggest obstacle to seeking investments was that Charnin and Tom Meehan didn't want to go for camp. Their goal was a real story about real people in the Depression. "It took some convincing," Charnin reports. "Everyone thought of it as a joke. Put Bernadette Peters in a training bra and get Bert Lahr to play Daddy Warbucks! I kept saying ëNo! No! No!' We got it on at Goodspeed. I begged everyone to come up. No one came. The last weekend Mike Nichols and Lewis Allen came. They said they loved it, but that they weren't theater producers. Very early the next morning the phone rang. They'd been up all night and decided to become producers."

    In 1977, six frustrating years from inception, it opened on Broadway - becoming one of theater's biggest box office bonanzas and the 11th longest running musical in Broadway history.

    Even though Broadway had pretty much given up on Dorothy Loudon, she was Charnin's only choice for Mrs. Hannigan. He'd known and had written for her in her cabaret and revue days.

    Annie's not done yet. Charnin signed off on a "final version," which was done in January. "I've signed the painting," he laughs, "It's finished. It's dry." It will go on tour next summer, and ultimately make a stop on Broadway for up to ten weeks.

    Another short-lived musical with Rodgers was 1979's I Remember Mama, starring Liv Ullman, George Hearn and George S. Irving. But Charnin's biggest disappointment is the failure of 1981's The First, about baseball legend Jackie Robinson [music by Bob Brush]. It only played 37 performances.

    "It's starting to get noticed again," Charnin reports. "I think of it as historic theater, because it's about a significant moment in time. It has a wonderful score, a really potent story, a funny and poignant book by Joel Siegel. It introduced David Alan Grier, who I found at Yale, and Lonette McKee, who was breathtaking. Darren McGavin was our original Branch Rickey, but he was let go the second week because he couldn't sing the score and David Huddleston came aboard."

    There were two African American musicals aiming toward Broadway. "The other was Dreamgirls," observes Charnin. "For whatever reasons, the public was more interested in the Supremes than the integration of baseball."

    Charnin says he still paints, "but it's onstage now, by virtue of what I'm able to visualize in terms of scenery and costumes."

    He says theater has changed, "but it's always changing. You do theater a disservice by trying to pigeon hole it into any kind of category. It should constantly be surprising you -- something that you have absolutely no conviction about knocks your socks off. The theater can afford to be contemporary in a way television can't. What the theater is is change. If it didn't change, I'd be upset. It has to change, but it can also honor its past. Theater is one place where you can do that without feeling you're living in your own past. And theater is dangerous. That's why it keeps on being fun!"


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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