Book 'Im! Thomas Meehan Is the Go-To Guy For a Musical in Need of Script

By Harry Haun
03 Oct 2012

Rob McClure as Chaplin.
photo by Joan Marcus

Consider the patently absurd idea of making a musical of Little Orphan Annie. It was, suddenly, a do-able thing once he dressed up the Depression in Dickens artifice.

He strengthened The Producers by dumping Dick Shawn's character, L.S.D., and his song, "Love Power," despite Brooks' objections. "It was very dated '60s stuff. 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's solution: let Roger De Bris, the gay director already established in Act One, play Hitler in Springtime for Hitler. "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."

Meehan performed similar surgery on Hairspray. "Mark had a lot of extraneous scenes that were well-written and funny but off the track of Tracy Turnblad. 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."

Basically, this is Play Construction 101 — coming from someone who has written only musical books and never a play. "In the years when Neil Simon plays were so popular, I attempted a comedy that took place over a three-day Fourth of July weekend in a New York City office where this guy meets this girl and they spend the whole weekend in the office. It's called Firecrackers. I've searched and searched, and I have no copy of it anywhere. I think it was — it might have been pretty funny. Every once in a while, I think about going back to playwriting, frankly. I have a couple of ideas, but once I got on a 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."

(This feature appears in the October 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)