(September 25, 2005)

Tom Meehan: Broadway’s show doctor

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Thomas Meehan has had a dream career. Actually, he's had several.

His first time writing for television - a 1970 special for Anne Bancroft - he won an Emmy Award.

His first time writing for Broadway - 1977's "Annie" - he won a Tony Award.

But after writing some movies ("To Be or Not to Be," "Spaceballs") and a dry spell of shows that didn't pan out and movies that didn't get made, he won Tonys for "The Producers" in 2001 and "Hairspray" in 2003.

At 74, Meehan is one of Broadway's hottest commodities. Not bad for a Depression-era kid from Suffern.

"I do pinch myself because as we were coming toward what might have been the end of a career, then suddenly `The Producers' came up and then we did `Hairspray,'" he says.

Tonight, the Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack honors Meehan with its first Helen Award at a black-tie evening celebrating the company's 10th anniversary. The honor comes at a busy time:

  1. "The Producers: The Movie Musical" is being readied for a December release, starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell. Meehan, who wrote the screenplay with Mel Brooks, says a recent test screening in Edgewater, N.J., was received "sensationally well."

  2. Meehan and Maury Yeston ("Titanic") are working on a musical called "Death Takes a Holiday," from the 1934 Fredric March movie.

  3. A Broadway musical version of John Waters movie "Crybaby" is written. It will have music by Fountains of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood and lyrics by David Javerbaum, the head writer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Like "Hairspray," Meehan wrote the book with Mark O'Donnell.

  4. Brooks and Meehan will cloister themselves in Los Angeles for the next month to finish adapting Brooks' 1974 film, "Young Frankenstein" for Broadway.

"Everything else has to take second spot," Meehan says. If schedules allow, Dr. Frankenstein ("pronounced Fronkensteen") could be "putting on the Ritz" on Broadway in spring 2007, Meehan says.

Meehan lives in Manhattan and Nantucket with his wife, Carolyn, who owns the children's store Peanut Butter and Jane on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. Their son, Joe, 35, is Los Angeles-based screenwriter; daughter Kate, 33, lives in Denver.

Meehan suggests that he may have been destined to write the books of musicals - the story and dialogue between the songs. When he was in the eighth-grade in Suffern, he rewrote "Yankee Doodle Dandy," working George M. Cohan's songs into a new libretto of his own.

"It wasn't until many years later that I realized, `Oh my God! I'd written the book of a musical,'' he says.

"As kids in Suffern," he remembers, "we often went on the Short Line bus to New York to see matinees in the cheapest seats up in the second balcony. I was stagestruck. One of the shows I saw - and it must have been running forever by the time I saw it because it had none of the original cast - was `Oklahoma!' at the St. James Theater on 44th Street."

The St. James is now the home of "The Producers."

His companions on those trips were his brothers, who grew to be politicians: Robert, a three-time Rockland County district attorney and judge, died in 2004; Jack, is now running for mayor of Suffern.

Thomas Meehan, the family's lone writer, set out to be a serious novelist, he says, "but every time I wrote something serious, it turned out to be pretty awful. When I wrote lighter humor pieces, everybody liked them, so I sort of went with the flow eventually and decided that's what I should do."

After college, Meehan worked at The New Yorker for 10 years, contributing to the magazine's "Talk of the Town" feature and, eventually, writing humor pieces.

His dream career really started with a dream story Meehan wrote for The New Yorker in 1962. "Yma Dream" is a classic of wordplay right up there with Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First."

In it, Meehan dreams he's throwing a "pretty swell affair" for Peruvian singer Yma Sumac in his tiny Greenwich Village apartment. Throughout the course of the evening, guests arrive and require introductions, so Meehan does the honors, putting all his guests on a first-name basis.

The list includes guest of honor Yma Sumac; actress Ava Gardner; former Israeli diplomat Abba Eban; Charlie Chaplin's wife, Oona O'Neill; Italian playwright Ugo Betti; actresses Ona Munson and Ida Lupino; Aga Khan; novelist Ira Wolfer; Russian novelist Ilya Ehrenburg; Eva Gabor, and Uta Hagen.

At the height of the piece is this incredible string of introductions, as Meehan works Uta Hagen into the party mix: "Uta, Yma; Uta, Ava; Uta, Oona; Uta, Ona; Uta, Ida; Uta, Ugo; Uta, Abba; Uta, Ilya; Uta, Ira; Uta, Aga; Uta, Eva."

David Letterman tried to recreate the flavor of "Yma Dream" - briefly and with decidedly limp results - at the Oscars a few years back. (Oprah, Uma; Uma, Oprah? Guess where he got it.)

In 1969, Martin Charnin was directing a television special for Anne Bancroft and he wanted to include Meehan's cocktail party story. Meehan, who had seen other things he had written adapted for television, decided to adapt "Yma Dream" himself, but he signed on as a writer.

As he remembers it, he met Bancroft, her husband Mel Brooks, and Charnin all on the same day - and after the TV show's success, they promised each other they would work together again some day.

Someday with Charnin became "Annie," "Annie Warbucks," "I Remember Mama," "Ain't Broadway Grand" and a handful of TV shows.

"One of the great things about him is his ability to sit in a room without being hysterical. To listen and to be willing to throw things out," says Charnin. "One of the things you discover is the ability to write is very, very important. The ability to unwrite is even more important."

Someday with Brooks became the 1983 remake of "To Be or Not to Be," which Meehan co-wrote with Ronny Graham for Brooks and Bancroft to star in. It also became 1987's film "Spaceballs," written by Meehan, Graham and Brooks.

And that raised the curtain on Meehan's second act: "The Producers."

"I was going to do the book and the music and the lyrics," Brooks says. "I was going to do it all. And Tom was so helpful - and for free, not for credit or points or money - and telling me where he though the explosions of songs and production numbers should be and how to further the script.

"I kept leaning on him and I finally said, `Mel, this isn't fair.' So I asked him to come on board as a co-writer with credit. And he was happy to do it."

What did Meehan contribute? Belly laughs, Brooks remembers. For example, they had a scene where their main characters, Bialystock and Bloom, are hiring a voluptuous woman to be their secretary.

"In the movie, I wrote the line `We might have a position for you.'" Brooks says. "And Tom added, `We might have several positions for you.' "

Belly laugh.

Meehan also created the secretary's daily ritual: "She says, `Ulla takes a shower at 8 o'clock. Ulla does singing and dancing 8 to 9. Ulla does big Svedish breakfast, many different herrings, 10 to 11. And at 11, Ulla like to have sex. Vat time should I come in?' And (Bialystock and Bloom) both say, `Eleven.' "

Belly laugh

"That's Tom Meehan," Brooks says. "You wouldn't dream he'd come up with those home runs. You'd think: `Tom Meehan. Gentile, structure, taste. But you wouldn't think he'd come up with the jokes. But he's got it. He got it all."

And he may even have a third act. In May, Meehan wrote his first opera libretto - an adaptation of George Orwell's "1984" with Lorin Maazel and collaborator J.D. McClatchy.

"Almost all of my musicals have been upbeat, happy endings," he says. "And this is the darkest piece of work you could possibly think of. I was proud of it. I thought it was very good."

Performed in May at London's famed Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Meehan took a bow from the stage at the curtain call.

But he's still that kid from Suffern. One day, Meehan says a bit wistfully, he should go up and see "The Producers" from the second balcony of the St. James Theater - the same perch from which he first saw "Oklahoma!" as a kid. Out of nostalgia, he says.

Then he pauses.

"But I like it down front better."