What if the work you did was famous but still, no one really knew who you were? This is the occupational hazard for a musical’s book writer or librettist. “I’m not really famous, but the shows I’ve done are famous,” says three-time Tony Award winning book writer Tom Meehan. “I don’t need to put myself forward.”
Perhaps that explains why, if you Google “Thomas Meehan,” you can find endless references to the hit shows he’s written, including Annie, The Producers, Hairspray and Elf, but much fewer for the writer himself.
That’s why Make Musicals was especially excited to learn more about this “publicity shy” writer, as he revealed the secrets to his success.
MM: Why do you suppose book writers are often invisible?
TM: We’re slightly second class citizens. It’s not called a musical for nothing. At the Tony Awards, we’re not even on the main show. In the group photo you’re in the back standing on your toes, trying to be seen. But there are times when you can laugh all the way to the bank.
The book writer is a very important element, providing some kind of logical structure. But everyone thinks, “It’s Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and, oh, Hugh Wheeler was around, too.”
MM: How did you get started writing musicals?
TM: Martin Charnin was directing a television special starring Anne Bancroft, and she did a sketch adapted from a piece I wrote for the The New Yorker called “Yma Dream” (about the Peruvian singer Yma Sumac). In it, Anne was talking to her analyst, played by Lee J. Cobb.
MM: Lee J. Cobb? The original Willy Loman?
TM: Yeah, “Mr. Funny.” Afterwards, Martin said, “The way you write, you could write the book of a musical. Here’s my number – call me night or day.” I had never been near a stage. It was a real turning point in my life.
[That encounter led to Meehan writing Annie and the movies Spaceballs and To Be or Not to Be with Bancroft’s husband, Mel Brooks.]
MM: Speaking of funny, any advice on writing jokes?
TM: I don’t write jokes. Neither does Mel, actually. Let the moment of the character get a laugh. One of the biggest laughs in Annie is when she gets upset and Warbucks says, “I’ll get her a brandy.” It’s not a funny line by itself, but it breaks the tension – a pin in a balloon.
MM: What are the most important skills for a book writer?
TM: Basically being a good writer. But it’s not like playwriting. No scene is beyond two or three pages. You want to move in a fluid way. The characters sing when the emotion is too strong to talk. The song has to come out of the emotion.
MM: How do you start your process?
TM: The first thing I do is a long, detailed outline with dummy titles for songs and what the song is about. And try not to write too many ballads. One good ballad in each act. They slow down the action.
MM: You frequently collaborate on the book. How do you divide responsibilities?
TM: That depends on the project. Mel Brooks is a fountain of comedy and smarts, but he’s not necessarily good on structure. He doesn’t really write, he talks. I would take notes, then go away and write.
With Bob Martin on Elf, I’d fallen and broken my wrist, so we sat across from each other while he typed.
MM: What advice do you have for creative teams about how to collaborate well?
TM: The show where it most succeeded was Elf, where we were all in the room together, including the director, who was present from day one. We’d come up with an idea and Matt
[composer Matthew Sklar] was at the piano, saying, “You mean something like this….?”
You should look around for people you enjoy being with – because it’s going to be a long
journey. It’s like a little marriage.
MM: Why do so many shows seem to have book
TM: What often happens is that it’s the wrong idea from day one. I’m convinced that for a musical to work you need one or two larger than life characters who have some dilemma or some dream—at least those are the musicals I do and the ones I admire most.
I was brought into Hairspray after it had been through three workshops. Mark O’Donnell had never written a musical before and I saw that it wasn’t enough about Tracy. So we re-focused the show and raised $10 million. You have to have a character to care about – someone you want to succeed.
The shows I’m working on now both follow that rule. [Tootsie with Randy Newman and Rocky with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.]
MM: You won your second Tony (for The Producers) when you were 67, an age when many people are retiring. What keeps you going?
TM: I love what I’m doing. I could go to Florida and play golf, but I hate Florida and I don’t play golf.
When you’re old, you know what it’s like to be every age. So at least you know something about what you’re doing. And if you’re smart, you work with other smart people.