'Applause' is well-earned for composer and 'Annie' creator Charles Strouse

Musical TheaterTheaterEntertainmentBroadway TheaterJay-ZJohnny MercerHuman Interest

The studio of Charles Strouse is decorated with posters from his half-century of Broadway shows and movie scores: the likes of "Bye Bye Birdie," "Golden Boy," "Applause," "Rags," "Nick & Nora," "Bonnie and Clyde," and, of course, "Annie." Except that the optimistic orphan cannot be contained by just a poster. Strouse has an entire shelf of Annie tchotchkes, from a soft doll to a cookie jar with red hair.

The composer for stage and screen, who just celebrated his 83rd birthday and who will be honored Saturday night in a performance at Northwestern University, also has a table full of trophies, one of which serves as a stone-like place mat where a visitor can put a soda. "That is one of my very few awards," Strouse said, dryly, on this Friday afternoon inManhattan, "that's actually usable."

The Evanston event is part of the school's Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project, funded in large part by the Johnny Mercer Foundation and intended to celebrate the giants of the American songbook and encourage young composers.

I asked Strouse if he ever met Mercer, who penned "Fools Rush In," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Days of Wine and Roses" and "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)."

"I met him at Warner Brothers," Strouse said. "It was during 'Bonnie and Clyde.' He said, 'Is there a song in it?' And I told him I always write with Lee Adams. That was probably the third dumbest thing in my life that I ever did. Johnny was fertile beyond words, and in touch with a part of America both country and sophisticated."

Of course, the collaboration with Adams served Strouse extraordinarily well, producing some of the most successful Broadway musicals of the 20th century. The most profitable of those titles, "Annie," is about to get a Broadway revival, directed by James Lapine. The upcoming show, which is to be produced by Arielle Tepper, will emphasize more of the grit and strife of the piece and dial back the cute.

With my eye on that big shelf of "Annie" stuff, I asked Strouse if, at the time of the first production in 1977, he had any idea of what was about to happen.

"No," he said. "This was a piece about the Depression. It was dark. The girl was alone. Dickens flavored our writing of that show very much. In fact, I thought we were going to get hung in London for being too much like 'Oliver Twist.'"

Hardly. Rare now is the girl who has not dreamed of a dog and a friendship with a bald tycoon.

"You know," Strouse said, "I wrote songs for Annie with very wide ranges. When we first did the show, there were only about seven girls we could find anywhere in the world who could sing that range. Today, there a million girls who can do it."

Why?

"I think it's a bit like what happened after somebody broke the four-minute mile. People just kept on going."

Frank and forthright, Strouse talked at much greater length about the creation of "Annie," including the way the beloved song "Tomorrow" was written at the 11th hour, to add a few more seconds to facilitate a big scenic transition. (That explains why the number is so short).

"I well remember the first night 'Tomorrow' was in the show," Strouse said. "It got all this applause. I thought everybody was clapping for the set change."

Strouse also chatted about the various disagreements among the creators over, say, the strangely jaunty nature of the famous song "Hard Knock Life," which deals with the difficulties faced by Annie and her friends, but in an upbeat way. In 1998, "Hard Knock Life" was covered by rapper Jay-Z and thereafter provided Strouse with the biggest royalty checks of his career. "Jay-Z saw the song in terms of the terrors of girls in the ghetto who really had to work," Strouse said. "I was grateful that he did that."

At present, Strouse is recovering from the disappointment that "Minsky's," a musical loosely based on the movie "The Night They Raided Minsky's" got a mixed critical reaction inLos Angeles in 2009 and apparently will not make it to Broadway.

"This was a setback in my life," he said. "I think it's a wonderful show and I hope we can find a way to do it somewhere. Maybe in Chicago."

And he's getting over that hiccup by putting together a new revue of the songs he's written during the past 40 years.

"None of them will be from famous shows," Strouse said. "I borrow from the various pieces I've done. The songs say a bit about loss and aging."

And new compositions? No doubt. Strouse said he still writes everyday in his apartment.

"I still get tremendous pleasure out of composing," he said. "I really don't know what else to do except write songs."

"Applause! Applause! A Celebration of Charles Strouse," 8 p.m. Saturday, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, $40; 847-491-7282 or

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