“Thomas Meehan was a key collaborator on some of the most memorable productions in recent Broadway history. His work brought deeper meaning and complexity to well-known characters. Audiences all over the world will continue to be delighted and engaged with his stories and his words in years to come,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “He will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.”
UPDATE Wednesday morning: Meehan died Monday of cancer, according to his wife, Carolyn. In addition to his wife, Meehan is survived by his brother, John, five children and step-children, and six grandchildren.
EARLIER: Thomas Meehan, a low-key, literary writer for The New Yorker magazine who found fortune, if not fame, as author of the books for such blockbuster musicals as Annie and The Producers, has died. The man who made Mel Brooks laugh was 88 and lived in Greenwich Village. Sasha Charnin Morrison, the daughter of Meehan’s Annie collaborator Martin Charnin, announced the news on Instagram.
Meehan’s credits as one of the top craftsmen of books for Broadway musicals include I Remember Mama (1979), Ain’t Broadway Grand (1993), Bombay Dreams (2004), Cry Baby (2008), Elf (2010), Chaplin (2012) and Rocky (2014). But it was the books for Annie (1977) and The Producers (2001) that set Meehan in the top ranks of Broadway’s most misunderstood creatives: the writers of the books for musicals. After The Producers, which starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and set box office records at the St. James Theatre, Meehan was sought after and wrote or co-wrote the books for more major shows, including Hairspray (2002) and Young Frankenstein (2007). Meehan took home Tony Awards for Annie, The Producers and Hairspray.
Annie, based on the Harold Gray comic strip, had a score by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics). It began as a workshop production at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT – and might have died there if Mike Nichols hadn’t decided to produce it on Broadway, where it became one of the biggest hits of all time. (A sequel some years later, variously titled Annie Warbucks and Annie II, proved to be a legendary fiasco story of Broadway bombdom.)
As for The Producers, Brooks had declined to turn his affectionate, if dark, satire of Broadway business into a Broadway musical – until Meehan, who’d been his collaborator on Spaceballs (1987) made it seem possible. They were a comedy team unto themselves: Brooks the effusive Jewish gag meister, Meehan the tweedy Irish humorist who wrote casual stories for The New Yorker‘s front-of-the-book “Talk of the Town” and nursed an ambition to be the next Faulkner.
“While I was working on Annie, I told no friends,” Meehan confided to me, in an interview for New York magazine just before The Producers opened. “I was too embarrassed.”
Working with Brooks changed all that. “I can write lines that sound like he wrote them,” said Meehan, who also wrote the screenplay for Brooks’ adaptation of the Jack Benny-Carole Lombard WWII comedy from Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be.
“I lead him down the right path, then he comes up with the solution,” Meehan said. For example? Brooks wanted to open the show, like the movie, in Max Bialystock’s office. Meehan thought otherwise, and so it begins with “The King of Broadway,” an exuberant production number on the opening night of Max’s latest flop. It tells you everything you need to know about him.
“Plus, I weed out his excesses,” Meehan added. “Like an 8-year-old, he gravitates toward bathroom humor.”
Here is a clip of Brooks’ wife, the late Anne Bancroft, performing Yma Dream, a short story Meehan penned for The New Yorker — see if it rings any Letterman-as-Oscar-host bells — followed by some tweets mourning the writer: