"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them," said Henry David Thoreau, but he never met Thomas Meehan, who has spent 35 years on Broadway — from Annie (1977) to Annie (2012) — in a state of what's called "cautious optimism," gingerly walking on eggshells while attending the birth of new musicals.
He's had ten on Broadway (two Off-Broadway) and holds a distinction unequaled and envied by all: He is the only creative to have written three shows that ran more than 2,000 performances on Broadway — the aforementioned Annie, which he did by himself (2,377 performances); The Producers, which he wrote with Mel Brooks (2,502 performances); and Hairspray, which he wrote with the late Mark O'Donnell (2,642 performances). Almost superfluous to say here, he took a Tony at every turn.
This season he joins the rarefied Three-in-One Gang: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Menken, Tim Rice and others who have had a trio of shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Now that Chaplin has opened, he's trotting out a couple of old shows with Christmas climaxes for a one-two holiday punch: On Nov. 8 at the Palace Theatre, Annie lifts off a third time, and on Nov. 9, Elf begins a limited revival (through Jan. 6) at the Hirschfeld.
Then, does Meehan take a break? No. He hops a jet to Hamburg for a musical Rocky later that month, with Drew Sarich playing Sylvester Stallone's prize-winning prizefighter. The $15 million the German backers put up give them first-production privileges, but Meehan's book and the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens score will revert to English when the show charges Broadway in 2013. By then, Meehan and "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Philip Rosenthal will have lined up songsmiths to accompany the book they've already written for Tootsie, or Meehan will be deep into the administration of Dave, a musicalization of the Kevin Kline film about a presidential double.
All of the above, you must admit, is pretty impressive for an 83-year-old fugitive from The New Yorker and its "Talk of the Town" column. Throughout his long and glitzy ride, Meehan has remained remarkably level-headed and uninfected by theatrical tricks. His success at musicals mortifies him a bit. "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." And he has a good eye for a throughline, removing clutter, sharpening focus.
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.)