BY CARY GINELL
When the curtain on High Street Arts Center’s current production of Annie came up on opening night February 6, sitting in the audience was Irwin Meyer. Meyer was one of the original producers on the 1977 production of the musical when it went to Broadway. Now retired, Meyer attends the theater occasionally, but still loves the story about the spunky redhead with the dog who brightens the lives of everyone she meets during the dark years of the Depression. In the first of this two-part interview, we spoke with Meyer about the Moorpark production, and he also reminisced about the show and its history.
VCOS: I remember seeing you at the Simi Valley production of the show in 2010. Do you always go see productions of Annie?
IRWIN: When I’m invited! There have been three of them out here in the last year or so, so it’s kind of interesting that in one area, three different theaters chose to do the production. I saw the other one at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza that played a few years ago.
VCOS: When you see a production of Annie, is there some kind of benchmark that you look for that makes it a worthy production in your eyes?
IRWIN: No, I’m not looking for anything. I just go for an enjoyable evening, and it’s interesting for me to see how the different directors and choreographers give different interpretations. I think that the show in Moorpark was one of the better ones I’ve seen. The cast was fabulous, the choreography was fabulous, and when I got to meet the director, I was shocked to see that she was a young girl, and I told her “I can’t believe how you put this all together with a big cast on a teeny-weeny stage.” It was just done beautifully. I really enjoyed it.
VCOS: That was Megan Rayzor in her first directing effort. Does seeing Annie ever take you back to when you first saw the show?
IRWIN: It always takes me back. You kind of never forget it. When I saw the Moorpark show, they asked me to make some remarks so I kind of ad-libbed some things. But that reminded me of the original show, more than anything, because of the theater size. It was interesting to see how they could mount a production in a theater of that size, so it was very reminiscent of being back in Connecticut when we first started it at the Goodspeed Opera House, which was a small theater in a little town called East Haddam.
VCOS: Did you see it as a play or was it a musical by then?
IRWIN: It was mounted as this one was – a full musical production. But it was before the Kennedy Center and before New York. It was a different show. A lot changed when Mike Nichols came in and got involved in re-staging the show. Some new musical numbers were added and it was different. It was an interesting experience. This was a little country theater. For me, it was different because I had not worked in small theaters before. I’ll never forget opening night. Scenery fell down and it reminded me of when I was camp back when I was a kid. But it was a completely different production. What I saw the other night, which was taken from the Broadway show, was, in fact, a replica of the Broadway production.
VCOS: What kind of things did Mike Nichols change?
IRWIN: Oh, God, you’re asking me a question that takes me back 39 years. (laughs) It’s hard to remember. But there were a lot of changes. A lot of it had to do with the staging of the show, character emphasis, and a lot of different things.
VCOS: What was your specific input into the show?
IRWIN: I was brought the show – and I actually still have it in my possession – when it was just the book and a 33 1/3 rpm record of Marty Charnin and Charlie Strouse singing the score. There was no play; there was nothing to look at. They had tried for four years to get this production mounted somewhere. I had a connection with the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut and when I said, “Why don’t we go up to Goodspeed?” they said, “We tried, and they turned us down last year.” So I called the head of the theater and I said, “You have to let us come and talk to you.” He said, “No, I have no interest. I don’t like this show and I don’t want to be a part of it. I’ve seen it already and so has everyone else.” But I convinced him to let us come up. So we went, and we sat and talked about it, and he said, “Well, I have a slot open this summer. OK.” It was a subscription theater. And he said, “I’ll put you in for four weeks.” They didn’t run year-round. The show opened, and it was a total failure. The reviews in Connecticut and New York City, from Hartford and New Haven, Bridgeport, all were terrible. The guy who ran the theater wanted to kill me. He said “I told you this show was terrible. I shouldn’t have listened to you.” So I said, “Well, we have to finish out the run.” He said, “No, I’m seriously thinking of closing the show. I don’t want to spend anymore money.” So my partner and I said, “OK, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll give you some money so it will stay open until the end.” The last week the show ran, Mike Nichols came to see it. After the show, he said, “Can I go downstairs and meet the cast?” It was in the basement of this big, old Victorian house. I said, “Sure. Why?” He said, “I just want to go down and talk to them.” And he went downstairs and he thanked them and he said, “I want to tell you that this show is wonderful and it has great potential, and I think you guys did a great job.” Well, the minute he blessed it, the whole thing turned around. You know the old story – everybody who had turned it down for four years suddenly liked it. The Kennedy Center came in, the Nederlander family, who owned the theaters in New York, came in, so we got to open at the Kennedy Center, and from there, we moved in to the Alvin Theatre in New York, which they owned, and it ran with two people who didn’t want to touch the show before that, because it had now been blessed. Then it took off and became an instant success, and it’s been running ever since. I understand that Martin Charnin is going to put it back on the road again. Two movies have been made of it and it just keeps playing and playing.
In our next installment, Irwin Meyer talks about the two motion picture versions of Annie, the original 1982 version starring Albert Finney and Carol Burnett and the recent 2014 remake.