It would be easy for Young Frankenstein co-librettist Thomas Meehan to rest on his laurels, including his Tony Awards for the libretti of Annie, The Producers and Hairspray, but relaxing is not what you do during the pre-Broadway tryout of a new musical.
His new collaboration with co-librettist and songwriter Mel Brooks, Young Frankenstein, is playing Seattle Aug. 7-Sept. 1, and Meehan told Playbill.com that he and Brooks intend to see every show at the Seattle Paramount in order to sharpen and strengthen their work toward its fall berth at Broadway's Hilton Theatre.
"We have 32 shows here, and Mel Brooks and I will see all 32," Meehan said. "We'll be taking notes and talking and rewriting and testing. We have the luxury that once we close here Sept. 1, we go back to New York and we don't begin our previews until Oct. 11. So we have all of September, if we have serious work to do, and a month of previews in New York for tweaking and polishing."
Meehan said there has been a lot of laughter in working on this musical-theatre re-animation of the 1974 film comedy, which had a screenplay by Brooks and Gene Wilder. "It felt good to be working with Mel again," Meehan admitted. "We have a good time. It's problem solving, which I love to do, and he does, too: How do we translate this iconic great movie? 'The Producers' was more of a cult movie, but this was a mainstream movie that millions and millions of people know very well. We tried to keep all the feeling of the movie — and yet add 17 new songs."
After Brooks and Meehan watched the movie and examined its body parts, what was the first step?
Meehan said he told Brooks, "The first thing we've gotta do is what we did in The Producers — we've got to make a statement right away that this is not the movie, this is the musical."
The opening scene of Brooks' film spoof of Hollywood's Depression-era "Frankenstein" pictures takes place in the anatomy class of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (played in the picture by Gene Wilder), who learns that his grandfather has died in Europe and that he must go settle the estate.
"The opening scene of the movie is the anatomy class, and we've made the [musical] open with the people in the village, in Transylvania, celebrating the death of old man Frankenstein," Meehan said. "We have a song called 'The Happiest Town in Town.'"
Did Meehan look at director James Whale's famous black-and-white Boris Karloff pictures "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein," both inspired by Mary Shelley's 19th-century gothic novel?
Meehan explained, "I looked at all the 'Frankenstein' movies, up to and including 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,' and one I hadn't seen for many years — 'Son of Frankenstein.' Gene Wilder wrote the original script of 'Young Frankenstein' before Mel came in — way, way back — and had sort of used 'Son of Frankenstein'  as a model — the son of Dr. Frankenstein coming the village."
What was the challenge of writing the libretto? "The Producers has a plot: 'Find the worst show in the world and produce it,'" Meehan explained by phone from Seattle. "This doesn't have a plot; it has a story. It's kind of a 'Wizard of Oz' or 'Alice in Wonderland' kind of story: 'He goes to Transylvania and meets all these people — Igor, Inga, Frau Blucher.' It's a kind of odyssey. We meet the doctor, he finds out his grandfather has died, he has to settle the estate, and he has no interest in getting involved in science. That's similar to the movie — he denies his family. The evolution of the character starts at that point. In the movie he says, 'I am a Frankenstein' about halfway through, and I felt very strongly that that had to be at the end: He can't accept his family and his destiny and everything in his DNA until the very end."
Audiences in Seattle will see that Young Frankenstein, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is broken in two distinct halves. Meehan said, "We had a little struggle with that, but I think we solved that. In Act One, they create the monster, and at the end of Act One the monster escapes and is loose — and mayhem may be coming."
The climax of the show is tricky, he said. "The movie ends on a quiet note. In a musical, you have to have it be all-singing, all-dancing — full ensemble. We've been working on that. We're here in Seattle to work on it."
Meehan revealed that Hensley has nothing to memorize in Act One, except one line: "Uuuuuuuurrr…!" Following a violently pyrotechnic laboratory scene, Hensley becomes prominent in Act Two — particularly in a re-creation (and expansion of) the film's signature musical scene in which doctor and offspring perform Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz."
The idea of fathers and sons helps inform the daffy show, but doesn't weigh it down, Meehan suggested.
"I always thought [the tale] was an analogy of having children — it's about that," Meehan said. "You create a person and then you're responsible for them and you want them to be good. That subtext is in Mary Shelley, too."
Librettist Thomas Meehan's Career at a Glance
Annie (1977) — Best Book Tony Award (Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)