His passing was confirmed to Playbill by lyricist Martin Charnin, who collaborated with Meehan on the 1977 Broadway musical.
Meehan was 47 when he made his Broadway debut, collaborating with Charnin and composer Charles Strouse on a stage musical adaptation of Harold Gray’s comic strip Little Orphan Annie. The smash hit Annie, which ran for 2,377 performances, earned Meehan his first of three Tony Awards.
He is the only creative to have written the books for three shows that ran more than 2,000 performances on Broadway: the aforementioned Annie (2,377 performances), The Producers in 2001 alongside Mel Brooks (2,502 performances), and Hairspray in 2002, which he wrote with the late Mark O’Donnell (2,642 performances). He earned Tonys for all three shows.
Born August 14, 1929, Meehan attended Hamilton College before beginning his career as a writer with The New Yorker's “Talk of the Town” section. It was his writing there that caught Charnin's attention, leading to his theatrical debut.
“I knew him from his work at The New Yorker,” Charnin told Playbill. “He was a frequent contributor, and I was a subscriber. I read his pieces over the course of the years, and I actually optioned a piece of his called ‘Annie, The Women in the Life of a Man’ as a 1970 TV project for Anne Bancroft. It was the first television show I ever did, and Tom was a collaborator on that. We’ve had a lot of success with that name.”
It was Meehan, who along with Charnin and Strouse, gave Little Orphan Annie an origin story, and fashioned New York City as another character in the musical.
“We loved the city. We loved the '30s, and we thought the Depression was a rich era for us to make a musical,” Charnin said. “The thing that was fascinating about the way we chose to do it is that we know nothing about Annie’s origin in the comic strip. Daddy Warbucks and Annie begin together and stay together for the entire length of the comic strip. The whole point of the musical is Annie discovering Daddy Warbucks, finding him, and being adopted by him—the finding of a family.”
The musical fashioned a makeshift family for its trio of writers, who frequently reunited to celebrate Broadway revivals, tours, and several screen adaptations. “It’s a great loss. It’s incalculable. I have a huge hole in my heart right now,” Charnin said.
While separate projects took them elsewhere in the decades that followed, the often-produced Annie was a touchstone for the writers. The show’s success was enough to entice Meehan, Charnin, and Strouse to reunite for a sequel in the early 1990s. “We did two versions of it,” Charnin recalled. “One was a disaster called Annie II, which opened in Washington, D.C., and closed after five weeks. But we kept working on it and then we brought Annie Warbucks Off-Broadway.”
Meehan dedicated his theatrical career to musicals, and was most prolific later in life—establishing himself as an expert collaborator with a fine-tuned ear for musical comedy storytelling.
His 1987 screen collaboration with Mel Brooks, as co-writer of the sci-fi spoof Spaceballs, paved the way for another Broadway hit: the 2001 juggernaut The Producers. Meehan was in his late 60s when he began working alongside Brooks to adapt the 1967 film for the stage.
It was Meehan who streamlined the arc of The Producers for Broadway, convincing Brooks to drop Lorenzo St. DuBois, a character from the film who only appeared in the musical’s second act, and instead allow Roger De Bris, the gay director already established in the first act, to end up playing Hitler in Springtime for Hitler. Meehan’s inspired idea helped set up a Tony win for actor Gary Beach.
“I told Mel, ‘This man only appears in Act Two, and you have to give him a lot of stage time, and it wouldn't be moving the story forward,’” Meehan recalled in a 2012 interview with Playbill. “We suddenly had a throughline. When we got the story down to its essence, we realized what we had was a love story — between the two men, Bialystock and Bloom.’”
The musical would go on to win a record-breaking 13 Tony Awards in 2001.
Another hit swiftly followed with the 2002 stage adaptation of John Waters’ cult comedy Hairspray, which Meehan co-authored with fellow book writer Mark O’Donnell.
Again, Meehan’s expertise brought a unifying precision and focus to the dramatic arc of the musical. “Mark had a lot of extraneous scenes that were well-written and funny, but off the track of Tracy Turnblad,” he recalled. “My diagnosis of the story: ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ is the greatest opening number any book writer has ever been given. It establishes the main character, who she is, where she lives, what she wants — this show’s Cinderella — and we must stay with her.”
Hairspray’s swift success at the box office—and its eight Tony Award wins, including Best Book of a Musical for Meehan and O’Donnell—drew comparisons to The Producers.
Meehan received a fourth Tony nomination in 2008 for penning the book to Cry-Baby (like Hairspray, a stage adaptation of a John Waters film) alongside O'Donnell; his myriad additional Broadway credits include Elf, Young Frankenstein (his second Brooks collaboration) and Chaplin. His final project to reach Broadway was the short-lived stage adaptation of Rocky.
Following the death of playwright and librettist Peter Stone, Meehan joined Tony-winning composer-lyricist Maury Yeston to complete work on Death Takes a Holiday, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2011.
Meehan never ceased writing. Just prior to his death, Meehan and Yeston finished work on a stage adaptation of a yet-to-be-revealed comedy classic. “There are no words to describe the continuing joy and privilege it’s been for so many years to collaborate with the wonderful Tom Meehan,” Yeston told Playbill in an email.
“A grand master book-writer of Broadway, he was the sweetest, funniest, warmest, and most supportive partner and friend one could ever hope for in the theatre. Fashioning our Death Takes A Holiday together brought such delicate wisdom out of him... the notion that Death is what limits the time we have and therefore makes life all the more precious. I’m always superstitious about revealing details of a new work, but the script and score Tom and I completed this year, based on a genuine comic classic, truly reflects his singular command of and skill for fashioning a musical book. I will miss him dearly, but his work will be with us always.”
In 2012, Meehan had the distinction of having three productions running in one Broadway season: Annie, Elf, and Chaplin.
“The shameful fact is that I’m not remotely musical. I don’t sing well. I don’t play any instrument. I do have a good ear,” Meehan told Playbill at the time. “Every once in a while, I think about going back to playwriting, frankly. I have a couple of ideas, but once I got on track of doing musicals, I stayed on it because Annie was out to be such an incredible, life-changing experience. Now I can’t afford to go back.”