News

REMEMBERING THOMAS MEEHAN By Peter Filichia

The picture projected on the back wall of the theater showed a
smiling Thomas Meehan holding a very filled martini glass in each
hand.

Perhaps the one in his right hand was in celebration of ANNIE, his
first Broadway smash-hit musical in 1977.

Maybe the one in his left hand was to toast THE PRODUCERS, his
second Broadway smash-hit musical in 2001.

But what about HAIRSPRAY in 2003, his third Broadway smash-hit
musical?

Seems as if Thomas Meehan could have used another hand.

Well, he did plenty with the two he had, as we were reminded on
Monday, Nov. 5 th at Celebrating Thomas Meehan. How nice that the
ceremony took place at the St. James Theatre where THE
PRODUCERS ran for six merry years.

Very few librettists get one or even two blockbusters; Meehan is still
the only bookwriter to see three run more than 2,000 performances.
In fact, each one of those musicals ran longer than the one that had
come before it.

Martin Charnin emceed the ceremony, which was fitting; had it not
been for him, Meehan might not have had his name on eleven
Broadway musicals, three off-Broadway ones and two that may yet
come in (THE LADY EVE and DAVE).

For Charnin – who conceived as well as ultimately wrote the lyrics for
and directed ANNIE — was willing to take a chance on a talented and
funny essayist but one who’d never even attempted to write a
Broadway musical.

We saw a video where Meehan reminisced that when Charnin first
approached him to write the book for a musical about Little Orphan
Annie, he said “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Charnin wasn’t kidding, which is lucky for Meehan, us and his family,
which was well-represented by his surviving wife, brother and
daughter Kate. (She was born on October 28 – the date that Meehan
also chose as Annie’s birthday).

As it turns out, Andrea McArdle – Broadway’s original Annie – was
celebrating her own birthday that day. Although I knew which
birthday it was, I didn’t divulge her age to anyone in attendance.
Considering how stunning she still looks, no one would have believed
me anyway.

McArdle sang a soulful rendition of “a song I never got to sing in the
show: ‘N.Y.C.’” Charnin’s lyrics and even the melody by Charles
Strouse (who was also there to pay tribute) reminded us of why
those of us who live in N.Y.C. are so glad we do.

(Actually, McArdle had just begun a run of ANNIE at the Axelrod
Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ, where she assumed the role
of – time flies! – Miss Hannigan. That means she STILL didn’t get to
sing “N.Y.C.,” so we’re fortunate to have heard her do it.)

Kate Meehan Van Brocklin cited a song from each of her daddy’s
smashes. “Tomorrow” (ANNIE), “We Can Do It” (THE PRODUCERS)
and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” (HAIRSPRAY) were, she said, good
indicators of who her daddy was and what he believed.

“Tomorrow” was, as you might expect, included in the program.
Annabelle Wachtel, currently in SCHOOL OF ROCK, joined what must
be by now at least 525,600 mini-actresses to have sung it – not to
mention Barbra Streisand.

McArdle reported that the super-superstar came backstage early in
the run and asked the kid’s “permission” to record it. “That,” she
said, “is when Tom said to me ‘Call your mother at Manhattan Plaza
and get her over here right now to see this!’”

Ms. Van Brocklin also recalled her father’s enthusiasm when he joined
composer-lyricist Christopher Curtis to write the book of CHAPLIN:
“This man (Charlie Chaplin) will be loved forever. The world will
always remember him.” Ms. Van Brocklin believes the same will be
true of her father.

(And lest anyone doubt that Meehan had affection for his CHAPLIN
musical, the video showed that his office sported a statuette of the
legendary actor-director-producer-composer-editor.)

Susan Stroman said that she’d met Meehan when she was hired to
choreograph THE PRODUCERS. (She’d wind up directing it, too, after
her husband Mike Ockrent, who was to stage it, died.) In tribute,
Stroman choreographed a number where seven women danced to a
snazzy medley of songs found in Meehan hits. “I Want to Be a
Producer” (from THE PRODUCERS, natch) started the section and
when “We Can Do It” came in, one of the dancers emerged wearing
a white mustache – one of Meehan’s trademarks – and pretended to
write fast and furiously on a pad of paper.

Mel Brooks was there to say he was happy to have his lines bettered
by Meehan in THE PRODUCERS. Composer Stephen (RAGTIME)
Flaherty, noted that Sylvester Stallone likened Meehan to Mark
Twain. Flaherty also spoke for his laryngitis-afflicted lyricist Lynn
Ahrens. She’d penned an advance her tribute that included mention
that Meehan’s Christmas parties rivaled Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig’s in A
CHRISTMAS CAROL.

(And don’t forget that Ahrens knows all about the Fezziwigs, given
that she provided book and lyrics to Alan Menken’s music for their
1995 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.)

The lavishness of those Meehan Christmas bashes contrasted with
the reports of a financially challenged Meehan childhood. Brother
Jack Meehan spoke about the children’s struggle after their father
had died unexpectedly when Tom was a mere teenager.

Widow Carolyn Meehan spoke of her husband’s early fifth-floor Lower
East Side walkup apartment before telling of his first jobs. They
included “wrapping boxes of Kotex,” which he liked far less than his
next one: ice-cream man.
“That’s because,” she reported, “Tom said ‘Everybody was always so
happy to see me!’”

So was Broadway. True, not every one of Thomas Meehan’s eleven
Broadway musicals was a smash hit, but one must wonder if ANNIE
worked out so well because Meehan had experienced that tough
childhood … if THE PRODUCERS succeeded because Meehan early on
understood the need to survive … if HAIRSPRAY triumphed because
Meehan knew what being the underdog was like.

No, Meehan didn’t write SEESAW, which includes a song that
proclaims “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” But he
most admirably proved the point.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com .
He can be heard most weeks of the year on
www.broadwayradio.com .