What do The Producers, the smash of 2001, and Hairspray, the potential smash of this year, have in common? Co-librettist Thomas Meehan—the unassuming, soft spoken, white-haired Broadway veteran who, until the Mel Brooks musical burst onto the American entertainment consciousness last year, was best remembered as the bookwriter for Annie, the enduring hit which first bowed a quarter century ago. Call it the fruits of long experience or just dumb luck, but Meehan can't lose lately. Nor, can he stop working. The Producers led to Hairspray, and the combination of the two have brought on additional projects, including a possible musicalization of Charles Addams' macabre cartoons and another collaboration with Mel Brooks. Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson recently caught Meehan on the phone.
Playbill On-Line: You've been involved in writing the big Broadway hit of 2001, The Producers, and now what looks like the big Broadway hit of 2002, Hairspray.
Thomas Meehan: Yes. They were quite different. In The Producers we had a lot of big book scenes, block comedy scenes, whereas Hairspray is more traditional, with the book used as a vehicle for getting from number to number. It's a whole different genre.
PBOL: When did you come aboard Hairspray?
TM: Early June of last year, right after The Producers won the Tonys. I thought, well, maybe I'll take the summer off and not do anything. Then I got a call from producer Margo Lion, that she was doing Hairspray and they had just had a reading of it that was quite successful—except some people thought the book wasn't quite there. A bright young guy named Mark O'Donnell had done the book. He's a playwright and had never done a musical before. So Margo thought I could work with him. So I just said, the heck with the vacation, I'll just start working again.
PBOL: You struck while the iron was hot.
TM: Right. I listened to a CD of the score and thought it was just terrific. I'd had so much fun on The Producers, loved working with Mel [Brooks], an absolute delight all the time. We had worked on it for almost three years. The whole experience was a great big, sensational roller coaster ride. So, I just got on another roller coaster.
PBOL: Describe what you've contributed to the book of Hairspray.
TM: I think what Mark O'Donnell did was very faithful to the movie. The problem was John Waters—I love his movies, they have so much heart, they're kind of like home movies, they have a great charm to them. But what they don't have is story structure. The mistake made was to follow John Waters' structure of the story. So they had made the same mistakes John had made. It wasn't properly structured as a musical. Movies are really totally different animals. You have to take a movie apart, as we did with The Producers, and put it back together in another form. Almost all movies are constructed with three acts: a short first act, a very long second act and a short third act. Here we have a long first act and a short second act. That has to be really figured out. What is good about Hairspray is what is boils down to essentially is Cinderella. It's important to follow this young girl, Tracy Turnblad. There were a lot of tangents. I focused it back that way. PBOL: What else did you change?
TM: In the movie, Tracy almost instantly gets everything she wants. She gets the boy within the first 20 minutes of the film. That, in traditional storytelling, is not right. What you want is: she meets a guy that she likes, things seem to go well, they break up and then we know they'll get back together. That's something I put in. It really is "boy gets girl, boy loses girl, etc." She has another quest. She wants to figure out how to get on this local television show. In the middle of the first act, she gets on the show. That's step one of the story. The second quest—it's Baltimore 1962 and the show has no blacks on it except once a month. She gets on a one-woman crusade to get the show integrated. At the end, a lot of people who had wishes get them fulfilled—something we did in Annie, too. I wanted to build a story like that. In a way, deep down, Hairspray is closer to Annie than The Producers.
PBOL: Do you feel, after working on The Producers and Hairspray, that this sort of crowd pleasing, old-fashioned musical comedy is coming back?
TM: I felt very heartened by The Producers. Mel was fond of saying that the fun had gone out of musicals. The musical comedy had disappeared. There was a 40-year draught and they were replaced by musical tragedies, which were admirable. I think Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz have incredible stagecraft and are great crowd pleasers. But they're not funny. There's no laughing. With The Producers, we threw that back into the theatre, and we discovered an incredible hunger for that. People liked the idea that going to the theatre was going to be fun. They had felt that going to the theatre was like going to the church. I think Hairspray is riding on that crest. We've gotten a lot of laughs. Harvey Fierstein is a major comic player, and he's also a great actor. He plays a woman all the way through. He never pretends to be a man, he never winks at the audience. It's a brilliant performance.
PBOL: Do you feel you're working at the peak of your form, or is much of your recent success just luck and good timing?
TM: I think it's a combination of both. I think part of it is I've been around long enough. I had a big hit with Annie and I've also been down the road with a show that didn't work. You stick around long enough and you'll finally figure out how to do some of these things. You avoid the mistakes you've made and learn a lot about show business.
PBOL: What is the status of Robin Hood: The Legend Continues, the show you're working on with your Annie collaborator, Martin Charnin?
TM: Robin Hood is written and we did a workshop. I don't think it represents my best work right now. We're still working on it. I think maybe this fall we might be able to go to a regional theatre to see if it works in production. It has some good elements to it. I don't have my heart and soul in it right now. I have a couple other projects I'm working on that are closer to the spirit of the two I've just done.
PBOL: What are those projects?
TM: One is a Broadway musical version of the Addams Family. We might possibly have [Hairspray composer] Marc Shaiman involved. It would be based on the original cartoons. It would be up to me as the bookwriter in that case to construct a story out of it. The movies are a little too outlandish, I don't think there's enough truth in them, enough heart.
PBOL: Are you waiting for permission from the Addams estate?
TM: Yes. So, I don't know if that's going to happen or not. There's one other show in the works. That one I definitely can't talk about.
PBOL: I've heard rumors that The Producers is going to be made into a movie.
TM: It's been talked about, but there's nothing going on. I'm sort of been saying, let's not make a movie. The show can have a long life on the road. We were thrilled when we sold Annie to the movies. But the movie was, to me, a disappointment. It also had a big release and sort of killed the road shows. It has come back. About six years after the movie, we started get some companies back. We're about to have a big production of Annie at the Paper Mill [in New Jersey].
PBOL: Mel Brooks has talked about making a musical of Young Frankenstein. Will you work with him on that?
TM: Yes. We're talking about doing something with it. That would be another project I'd be working on. Whether it will be Young Frankenstein or something else, I don't know. Right after Hairspray opens, we're going to have some meetings and talk. I'm just waiting for Mel to get in the mood to work. He's been taking it easy. Plus, he's very hands on with all The Producers plans for tours and all that. So, he's isn't really on the beach. But he hasn't been writing anything. We started doing a little work on Young Frankenstein and he said, "I'm not comfortable right now. Let's forget it." So, that's where that is.
PBOL: You must be happy to be so busy at this late point in your career.
TM: Yes. In a sense, I could walk away right now and say forget it, but I actually love doing it. Right now we're watching Hairspray very carefully. Our aim is to streamline the show, to further tighten it. I think we have the answers to the problems. And then there's the time after the opening where you hit a sort of postpartum depression. But, right now, this is the high, this is the best in the business, to be working on a show that feels like a hit.
—By Robert Simonson