Thomas Meehan was a master flatterer who carved a successful and lucrative career by translating the work of others into a raft of musicals described by the venerable American critic Clive Barnes as “cast-iron, copper-bottomed, old-time Broadway hits”.
He had an unerring sense of what could be transferred from comic-strip and film screen to the stage and an impeccable gift for transforming cult creations into hugely popular successes. It seemed all the more remarkable for coming so late. He was 47 when he made his theatrical debut in style, writing the book for Annie, Charles Strouse’s musical version of Harold Gray’s cartoon strip Little Orphan Annie, which premiered on Broadway in 1977 and ran for nearly 2,400 performances.
He went on to win three Tony and two Olivier awards and become the only writer to have had three shows running for more than 2,000 performances on the Great White Way. Central to his success were partnerships with the lyrist and director Martin Charnin (with whom he wrote Annie) and comedian Mel Brooks, co-writing stage versions of his films The Producers and Young Frankenstein.
Born in Ossining, New York, and originally a journalist by trade (notably contributing to the New Yorker magazine), Meehan was a naturally witty man whose easy facility with words disguised an acute sense of compassion for characters often caught in predicaments not of their own making.
The success of Annie (first seen in London at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1978) earned him an invitation to work with Broadway royalty, the composer Richard Rodgers, on what was to be his last musical, the short-lived I Remember Mama in 1979. Even less successful was the misfiring celebration Ain’t Broadway Grand, which survived for a run of only 52 performances in 1993.
A follow-up to Annie the same year, Annie Warbucks, had a respectable run of 239 performances but failed to repeat the success of its predecessor, its sole UK appearance coming at the Theatre Royal, Henley, in 1995.
Suspicions that Meehan might have been a one-hit wonder were gleefully quashed by his first collaboration with Brooks. The musical version of the latter’s 1968 film The Producers was an absurdist love-song to Broadway in which a corrupt producer enlists the help of a naive accountant to make a fortune by mounting a guaranteed failure that turns out to be the season’s biggest hit.
Managing to be even funnier than its source material, it created Broadway history as the first show to charge $100 for a ticket shortly after it opened in 2001, and by picking up a record 12 Tony awards. Its London run, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 2004, added three Olivier awards to its cache of gongs.
In between, 2002’s Hairspray (an adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 film and co-written with Mark O’Donnell) won Meehan his second Tony, transferring to London at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 2007 to collect four Olivier awards.
In 2002, Meehan also shared writing credits with Meera Syal for the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced Bombay Dreams at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. His other stage credits included Elf: The Musical (Dominion Theatre, 2015) and the short-run Broadway outings Chaplin (2012) and Rocky (2014).
He made a sole foray into opera in 2005, adapting George Orwell’s 1984 with JD McClatchy to a score by Lorin Maazel at the Royal Opera House.
Earlier this year, Death Takes a Holiday, which Meehan co-authored with Peter Stone and which was described by The Stage critic Mark Shenton as “a mordant meditation on mortality”, was seen at London’s Charing Cross Theatre.
At the time of his death, Annie’s latest revival at the Piccadilly Theatre – with Miranda Hart making her West End debut as Miss Hannigan – was in full flow, Hairspray was touring the UK and the keenly anticipated horror-film parody Young Frankenstein, first seen on Broadway a decade ago, was in rehearsal before opening at the Garrick Theatre later this month.
Thomas Edward Meehan was born on August 14, 1929, and died on August 21, aged 88.