Although he has written Broadway hits like Annie, The Producers and Hairspray, which all played over 2000 performances in their original productions, Broadway book writer Thomas Meehan admitted that fame eludes him. “The shows I write are famous,” he said, “but I’m not.”
The Emmy Award winner and three-time Tony Award winner has written books for the musicals Young Frankenstein, Elf, Chaplin, Cry-Baby and Bombay Dreams, among others, and has just opened Rocky, a Broadway musical adaptation of the 1976 Sylvester Stallone movie of the same name.
At the very onset of his career, Meehan himself did not imagine where his writing would take him. “I never imagined that I would actually write for the theatre,” he admitted.
Meehan attended Hamilton College and, after a brief time in the army, joined the staff of the New Yorker writing for its “Talk of the Town” section. Eventually, some of his short stories were published in the magazine, and he became known as a writer of comic short stories.
One day, he received a call from television producers who wanted to adapt one of his short stories for TV. The story became Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man, the TV movie starring Anne Bancroft, the Academy Award-winning actress for The Miracle Worker, which won Meehan a primetime Emmy.
This brief television writing stint launched his Broadway career after it helped him meet one of the producers. “The producer/director of that show was a man named Martin Charnin,” Meehan explained. “[Charnin] started his career as a chorus member as one of the juvenile delinquents in West Side Story on Broadway.” Meehan described Charnin as “a Broadway guy.”
Six months after meeting Charnin, he offered Meehan the job of writing a book for a new musical by Charnin and composer Charles Strouse, who had already written two Tony Award-winning shows: Bye, Bye, Birdie and Applause. The idea, however, did not initially thrill Meehan. “[Charnin] said, ‘Here is the idea,’” Meehan explained, “‘Little Orphan Annie’ and I thought, ‘No I don’t want to do that.’ I wanted to do West Side Story, I wanted to do My Fair Lady. I didn’t think it was a good idea.”
Eventually, he decided to take the job for the opportunity to work with Charnin and Strouse. “I told myself,” Meehan explained, “‘Wait a second, these guys are in the theatre. Who am I to tell them no?’”
Drawing from Charles Dickens’ novels as a source of inspiration, he “created a kind of Dickensian plot that is the story of Annie, which is not in the comic strip,” after researching the comic strip at the archives of the New York Daily News.
Meehan shows how immensely he enjoys his job as he sits in the study of his Greenwich Village apartment, complete with bookcases filled with stacks of books and mementos from over 30 years in the musical theatre world, including his three Tony Awards.
After Annie, Meehan said that he “never looked back.”
“I realized,” he said, “that I really loved the theatre and that was it and I was lucky enough to be in it. So, I decided that I’m only going to work in the theatre.”
Meehan described his one foray into film, however, when he took a job writing the hit film Spaceballs with Mel Brooks in California. Meehan then collaborated with Brooks on the Tony Award-winning The Producers and Young Frankenstein.
In all of his musicals, Meehan tried to create a story which with the audience can identify, and he has found that the “David and Goliath” and Cinderella genres are the stories with which audiences relate best.
“There’s something in the human spirit that responds to those stories,” Meehan explained. “The story of Cinderella, they’re all underdogs really. It’s the low person fighting back and finding happiness.”
Unlike other artists who work on Broadway and write both happy and depressing musicals, the characters in Meehan’s shows always find happiness in the end. “I like to do shows with happy endings,” Meehan admitted. “So, in my shows, they get what they want; and the audience finds that very satisfying.”
He found the high emotion and the plot appealing to the audience, especially with his new musical Rocky, which opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 13 after four weeks of previews and a pre-Broadway German production in Hamburg. Meehan acknowledged that it is a different show from others that he has written. “It’s more of a spectacle than any show I’ve ever done before,” he said. “It’s a huge amount of scenery. The boxing ring comes down over the audience.”
Meehan explained that the final fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed is an audience favorite. “That last 20 minutes knocks people out,” he said. “The rest of the show is pretty good too, I like to think,” Meehan said with a chuckle.
His work has always thrilled him, despite the lack of mainstream stardom that is typically attached to his job. His love for the theatre, rather than the prospect of making money, has pushed him to continue working on three new projects for the Broadway stage. “You make money; you don’t make money,” he said. “It can’t be about making money because most of the time, you’re not going to.”
During the preview period of his new show, Meehan stands in the back of the theatre, often with other members of the creative team, to see the audience’s reaction firsthand. “What I get is the rush of a happy audience,” he said. “It’s the greatest reward.”
Richard Bordelon is Opinion Editor at The Fordham Ram. You can follow him on Twitter at @rickybordelon.