Filichia Features: Remembering Thomas Meehan

Filichia Features: Remembering Thomas Meehan

By Peter Filichia on September 01, 2017

Eighty-eight is about as many years as any of us can hope to get.

But we wish that Thomas Meehan could have had more.

As you have probably heard, he died on August 21.

We have Martin Charnin to thank for getting Meehan into writing the books for Broadway musicals. In 1970, Charnin hired Meehan, then a writer for The New Yorker, to co-write a TV special starring Anne Bancroft. That worked out so well that in 1972, Charnin asked Meehan to adapt Little Orphan Annie into a Broadway musical.

"Ugh," Meehan famously said - until he took a look at Harold Gray's actual comic strips. He was surprised to find a little girl who was able to make Oliver Warbucks, a Republican entrepreneur, loosen up and love her. However, the idea that Warbucks wanted to adopt her - and that she would turn down the offer in order to hold out for her actual birth parents - was Meehan's.

What a masterstroke to let us see the previously unemotional Warbucks experience parental feelings that he never knew lived inside him. Then having Annie turn down the extraordinarily generous offer because she wanted to find her real parents showed the girl wouldn't just be dazzled by money. Capping off a moving first act curtain was Warbucks deciding to move close to heaven and earth to find Annie's actual mother and father. He'd discovered what real love was - and we loved him for it.

Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin CharninThomas Meehan (left) with Annie composer Charles Strouse and Annie lyricist Martin Charnin.  (© Playbill)

Before Annie opened, the moppet was most famous for exclaiming her favorite catchphrase: "Leaping lizards!"Meehan used the phrase, yes, but not until deep in the second act. A lesser writer would have made it the centerpiece of one of Annie's first lines as a means of establishing that this was indeed Annie. The audience would have groaned with half-closed eyes. Meehan knew to put it after the audience had become so emotionally involved in the story that they'd forgotten they'd been expecting it. Now they relished hearing it rather than resenting it.

Annie won the Tony, Drama Desk, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. Perhaps, however, the Outer Critics Circle (whose members write for out-of-town publications) were even more on the beam by instead calling it the season's "Most Refreshing Musical."

When Meehan worked with Bancroft, he met her husband Mel Brooks. That led to their writing two screenplays; they were planning another when Brooks asked him to hear a song he'd written. Only after Meehan said he liked it did Brooks reveal that he was toying with the musicalizing his 1968 film The Producers.

Meehan agreed, but insisted on "taking the screenplay of The Producers entirely apart" before "adding new pieces where necessary, taking out old pieces that no longer fit the new construction." So we have Meehan to thank for either writing or jumpstarting such new ideas as Leo's wanting to be a producer, becoming more of a friend to Max, betraying him but then atoning and being released from prison with him.

Hairspray's book was originally to be solely written by Mark O'Donnell, but during the process, producer Margo Lion felt he needed some help. So she called Thomas Meehan, and the two delivered a solid smash hit.

The credits read "Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan," and whether or not Meehan deserved top-billing, there are writers who, with two Tonys and a collaborator's lack of any prestige awards, would have demanded it. Meehan obviously felt he was more of a show doctor and didn't mind the billing somewhat suggesting that.

The wild success of Annie, The Producers and Hairspray means that there probably isn't a single night of the year when Thomas Meehan's work isn't on stage somewhere in the world.

I'll always admire all three musicals - but first and foremost, I'll remember Thomas Meehan from the night of May 10, 1979.

This was not long after I'd moved to New York and was still looking for some job, any job, for my already meagre savings were fast running out. What was not diminishing, however, was my love for the Broadway musical. But now with orchestra seats going for a steep $25, I couldn't afford to purchase tickets.

The best I could do was go to each theater offering previews and hope-upon-hope that someone, anyone would be good enough to give me an extra ticket that he'd come by free, or would sell it to me for only a few dollars.

I'd routinely arrive at 7:15 p.m., a full 45 minutes before showtime, because I learned very quickly that I wouldn't be the only beggar hoping for someone's largesse. Indeed, many other schnorrers were in front of the Majestic that May night where I Remember Mama was previewing. Every musical theater enthusiast wanted to see Meehan and Charnin's collaboration that followed Annie - and with Richard Rodgers' music, no less.

Standing outside the theater was Meehan, warmly greeting well-wishers and friends. I recognized him for I'd actually attended the 1977 Tony Awards at the Shubert - when I was still living in Boston, gainfully employed and could afford travel expenses, a hotel room and a $25 balcony seat.

Soon it was 7:30 p.m. Theatergoers were smiling, talking and laughing as they took out their tickets and blithely entered the Majestic not noticing me as they passed by.

At 7:45 p.m., I contorted my face into my best Oliver Twist Please-sir-I-want-some-more look to everyone who approached the theater, but no one was holding up an extra ticket and saying "Um, does anyone need one?"

My rivals weren't getting in, either, and by 7:56 they were leaving, probably to go one street over in order to crash the preview of Murder at the Howard Johnson's. But I held fast at the Majestic.

7:59 p.m. Now the expression on my face was the one of a condemned prisoner as he's hoping for a reprieve from the governor. At this point, the only two people outside the Majestic were Meehan and I. Although I'd been avoiding looking at him, he turned around just before entering the theater and our eyes happened to meet.

He smiled munificently and said in a tender voice "Would you like me to walk you in?"

Thomas Meehan was able to bring such heart to Annie, The Producers and Hairspray because he had such a good one.

Read more Filichia Features. 

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.comand Tuesday at . His book, The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at