Filichia Features: Celebrating Thomas Meehan

Filichia Features: Celebrating Thomas Meehan

By Peter Filichia on November 09, 2018

Answer: Thomas Meehan, with Annie, The Producers and Hairspray.

Question: Who worked on the books of three musicals that ran more than 2,000 Broadway performances?

Why give the question first and the answer second? Because at Celebrating Thomas Meehan , the memorial for the esteemed librettist at the St. James Theatre on Nov. 5th, Meehan's widow Carolyn said that when they were dating, he'd show up at her place at 8:15 p.m. - "because," she revealed, "he wouldn't come over until he'd finished watching Jeopardy. "

Mrs. Meehan also mentioned that when Annie first opened in London and everyone involved got to meet Queen Elizabeth II, Her Highness asked Meehan's mother if she were one of the producers.

"Yes, she said. "I produced the bookwriter."

And isn't Broadway glad that she did?

When she mentioned that Meehan loved most everyone he'd dealt with in the theater - "even the producers" - was she aware of the irony? For Meehan certainly must have loved The Producers , still the record-holder for the most Tony wins: 12.

Hairspray's director Jack O'Brien remarked that we could all name a dozen esteemed Broadway composers and another dozen venerated Broadway lyricists - but could we name nearly as many bookwriters?

No - but Meehan would be one of the first (and maybe the first) on our lists.

O'Brien admitted that Rob Marshall was set to direct Hairspray and then left when the Chicago film was green-lit. Mark O'Donnell had been writing the book until someone noticed The Meehan Touch would help. "Tom was the glue," said O'Brien. "He provided the alchemy."

Usually the original writer of a show resents when a new writer is hired. Obviously O'Donnell was grateful, for he and Meehan went on to provide the book for the much-admired Cry-Baby.

"And," O'Brien added, "Tom was the best person in the world to be out-of-town with on a show when the bar closes."

Yes, much was made of Meehan's fondness for dirty martinis. Perhaps we should all add a little gin and vermouth to our diets.

Marc Shaiman, composer and co-lyricist of Hairspray, sang "Timeless to Me" with some new lines. Lyricists are always urged to save their best joke for last, and Shaiman did: "Now heaven is your home - Shabbat Shalom - you're timeless to me; you're timeless to we ."

We'll excuse the grammatical error, for songwriters are also told to conclude a song with a vowel, which makes the last note much easier to sing and hold.

But Alton Fitzgerald White, fresh from playing 4,308 performances in Broadway's The Lion King , easily handled the consonant ending in the tender "A Younger Man." The Annie Warbucks song (in which Daddy worries that he's too old for Grace Farrell) received one of the afternoon's biggest hands.

Susan Stroman, director-choreographer of The Producers and Young Frankenstein , recalled the thrill when she first met Meehan "because Annie is the perfect musical." She said he was game to revise Young Frankenstein for London but also knew what he meant when he told her "I'm not going to make it there."

Meehan died while the production was trying out in Newcastle. Stroman, costume designer William Ivey Long and set designer Beowulf Boritt had martinis in his honor.

"Four or five each," she noted. "And the next morning I was there at eight teching the show while those two didn't show up for two days."

Mel Brooks, Meehan's Producers co-writer, admitted that after he wrote a line, Meehan greatly improved it. What really astonished him, though, was Meehan's way with a crossword puzzle. "He either chose to do it all horizontally or all vertically," he said. "And he wasn't even a Jew!"

That got one of the many laughs during the two-hour ceremony. Receiving the most, though, was Martin Charnin, who'd jumpstarted Meehan's career by having him write Annie.

Charnin concluded the event by reciting a 1962 Meehan sketch, one that he included in his The No-Frills Revue . To say that it deals with a person who dreams he's giving a party and soon wishes that he'd invited other guests is just scratching the surface. Take a look at No-Frills and see if you don't gurgle with incessant laughter as this audience did.

By the way, after hearing that crossword puzzle story, wouldn't you have loved to have sat with Thomas Meehan when he was watching and playing Jeopardy ? Bet he'd do splendidly on the regular answer/questions and doubly well on The Daily Double.

However, considering that each and every day of the year that there's a performance of Annie and/or The Producers and/or Hairspray somewhere in the world, we'll say that Thomas Meehan long ago hit the Daily Triple.

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