Thomas Meehan, co-writer of “The Producers” and other Broadway musicals, said he once dreamed of being on stage.
But luckily for the Tony and Emmy Award-winner’s fans-to-be, the curtain fell on his early ambitions and Meehan decided he wanted to write for — not act on — the stage.
Meehan spoke about his successful comedy-writing career to an audience of nearly 60 at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea on Thursday.
Comedy is very difficult to write, especially on Broadway, Meehan said. He said the only true test for a production’s success is an audience’s reaction, so his work does not end opening night — he often uses reviews and reactions to revise the production’s libretto.
“It’s very hard to know when you’ve got it,” Meehan said.
Before Meehan’s theatrical success, he was similarly unsure about his favorite writing genre.
Through what he described as a mix of initiative and a fortunate set of circumstances, Meehan landed a job as a journalist at New Yorker magazine upon his graduation from college. For 13 years, he wrote short stories and humor pieces for the publication. Well into his thirties, he had not written any theatrical productions. He had, however decided not to pursue a career as a novelist.
“I tried to write a novel and realized that some people run marathons and some, like me, run in 60-yard dashes,” Meehan said.
In 1972, Meehan was asked to write a musical based on the well-known comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.” Meehan said adapting a “one-dimensional” character to fit an entire play was a challenging task, and he looked to Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” for inspiration about the depth of an orphan’s experience. Meehan’s musical, “Annie,” was originally rejected by Broadway producers. But Meehan said four years later, producers, impressed by the musical’s song “Tomorrow,” changed their minds and sponsored the show. The musical went on to become a Tony Award-winning success.
After his success with “Annie,” Meehan said he encountered many more opportunities to write both musicals and movies. He has spent considerable time in California collaborating with other writers on movie screenplays. Meehan wrote “Spaceballs” and “The Producers” with comedian Mel Brooks.
Meehan also said he often changes the first scene of a musical to better attract a live audience. In the case of “The Producers,” he changed the movie’s opening scene from two men speaking in an office to a more audience-enticing production of song and dance.
Nicole Cretacci ’07 said Meehan and Brooks have made extraordinary contributions to the world of performing arts.
“‘The Producers’ is the funniest show I’ve seen in my life,” Cretacci said. “[Meehan] and Mel Brooks work very well together.”
Alex Munns ’07 said Meehan’s life mirrors his fantastical imagination.
“He’s a real person,” Munns said. “His life story is real, and yet is also like the fairy tales he writes. He’s interesting, inspiring, and I’m happy for him.”
Currently, Meehan is at work with Brooks, writing a musical production of “Young Frankenstein.” He is also preparing for the springtime opening of “Bombay Dreams,” a successful musical in London which he modified for Broadway.