Remembering Thomas Meehan
Dramatists Guild Council member, Thomas Meehan, passed away August 21, 2017. He was 88. He was, perhaps, best known for writing the book for the musicals Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray—winning the Tony Award for all three. He joined the Guild in 1976, was elected to Council in 1994, and became a Lifetime Member in 2009. This tribute originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of The Dramatist. He is remembered here by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
I could talk about Tom Meehan’s sly sense of humor, the one-liners he collected—(“Now, that’s a great writer—at his worst!”)— his penchant for martinis, late nights and omelets baveuse; I could describe his elegant, Dickensian clutter of a home, filled to the brim with memorabilia, art and books from his shows and travels with his beloved Carolyn.
But what he’d want me to talk about is his work. Not the specific shows (he was too modest for that), but his process, the sheer pleasure and joy he took in doing it. Even when he was throwing one of his wall-to-wall Christmas parties or heading off for summer vacation—in other words, all year round—Tom was working. He had several new projects going at any given time, always in demand because he understood how to write the book of a musical like no one else alive. And also because he was too kind to say no.
Tom was a master storyteller. He knew just how to move a story forward with economy and speed, how to track and develop a character, how to cut the fat and amplify the emotions, how to set up a joke and then make it land. He had a sense of the whole and a razor-sharp knack for structure. He also had a light, comic touch and an ear for real speech. Above all, his empathy for the characters was always front and center.
He loved collaboration, and did it with supreme generosity. Always enthusiastic and encouraging, he made suggestions gently and was completely open to new ideas. And he loved hearing the songs for the first time. He always asked to hear them twice. He surrendered his dialogue up to the lyricist with utter grace, and I think it tickled him to see his text turn into lyrics and then hear it soar into song. (And I could always tell if he liked the song, because next to his mustache, his dimple would begin to twinkle.)
He wasn’t precious about anything he wrote. If it didn’t work, he’d come up with something else, or if it needed to be shorter, he’d cut it. His attitude toward writing defined “craftsmanship,” but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t inspired. His brilliance, wit and heart are evident in every line he ever wrote, without calling attention. He was that good.
Tom wheedled us into writing Rocky, pretending our doubts didn’t exist. “I know it sounds like a terrible idea,” he murmured in that whisper-soft, husky voice of his that made you lean forward. “But we might surprise ourselves.” And we did. We later agreed that Rocky had turned out to be one of the greatest show experiences we’d ever had, from our extraordinary workshop in the ramshackle Brooklyn Lyceum to three blissful months living in Hamburg. Tom and I shared a cramped rehearsal table for weeks, squeezed in side by side and wrapped up in the puzzle of translation; we sat shoulder to shoulder on opening night, nudging each other in elation at the audience reaction; we climbed into the boxing ring together to take our bows. He and I shared so many dinners at our favorite restaurant in the Portuguese quarter, so many sumptuous breakfasts at the Madison Hotel, we celebrated birthdays, toasted our compatriots and swapped stories. But best of all were the very slow strolls that he and I took together to rehearsal most mornings, down a cobblestone road to the water and across a beautiful bridge, all the while talking about our families, travels and work. Always, the work.
I went down to the Village to visit Tom a week before he passed away. It was his birthday. He was very frail, but sitting up, nattily dressed in a striped shirt and holding court. Carolyn, his stepson Eric, his brother and sister-in law—all were there, talking and laughing. His hair was longer than usual, and I joked that he looked like Mark Twain, which is what Sylvester Stallone used to say, and I earned that dimple. “I just have to get back to work,” he said, and we promised we’d do another project together as soon as he could. One show wasn’t enough.
When I think of Tom Meehan one word instantly springs to mind: kindness. Not a word commonly associated with showbiz, it nevertheless is the one word that best sums up Tom, both in the theater and in the word at large. He treated everyone he met with graciousness and respect, whether they happened to be a Broadway star or the man at the stage door. He was also a dream collaborator.
To be a good book writer by definition means, among other things, that you must give away all your best stuff to the composer and lyricist. All of the great speeches you write will be cannibalized as fodder for songs. Book writers don’t always get the glory when shows succeed but when shows fail they most often get the blame. None of this seemed to deter Tom however, who over the course of a lifetime created the structures for so many iconic musicals. It was as if he were the architect of the entire evening, always aware of what we were building, where the crescendos needed to happen and always conscious of the audience and their collective reaction during the storytelling. He knew when and where we had to edit, had no qualms about throwing material away and was always aware that making a musical is about the collective effort.
Tom was something of a late bloomer, having come to the world of musicals in his forties. I’d started out in New York pursuing my musical theater writing straight out of college in my early twenties. I think the fact that Tom started two decades later is one of the things that fueled him and his work. He’d finally found the thing he most loved and was hell-bent on making up for lost time. He was constantly working on several projects at once, as if trying to fill his allotted time with as much writing as he could muster. And he did it all with such joy. He truly valued and appreciated every day we were in rehearsal, all the late night dinners, the daily struggles and minor victories. He also proved that life could have surprising second and third acts. He showed us the best years could always be ahead. As our Rocky director, Alex Timbers, reminded me after Tom’s passing, “The fact that he won two of his three Tonys while he was in his seventies is completely amazing and inspiring.” He was building artistry and knowledge of craft through each and every year.
When I think of Tom I will remember his wit, his deadpan delivery, his delight in discovering a new laugh, his ongoing pursuit of the next great idea and his kindness. Always his kindness.