From Broadway to ‘Sconset

~ by Richard Trust ~

The lure of Nantucket, right down to the smell of the ocean in Siasconset, was too much for Tom Meehan to resist. So one of the first things he did after reaping the benefits of writing the script for the original Broadway production of Annie was buy a home in ‘Sconset.

With the little orphan earning him big bucks – and the first of his three Tony Awards – after the musical debuted on Broadway in 1977, Meehan purchased one of the Wade Cottages a year later.

He has spent every summer there since, strolling the tiny lanes and paths of the old fishing village/actors colony when not working in the bedroom he converted to his writer’s nook.

“I first came to Nantucket in the late 1960s, well before the theater business,” Meehan, 85, said, “I had a friend who was a lawyer and he invited my (first) wife and me to his house in Quidnet.

“I fell in love with the island right away. I found it was everything I wanted in a summer place. I was saying at the time, ‘If I ever make some real money and can afford a summer place, this is the place I want to go.’ ”

Tom Meehan was smitten by the feel of an old village meant for a slow, pensive pace, far removed from the pulse and pressures of New York City “It’s the serenity, the sea air, a sense of going back in time” that attracted Tom to ‘Sconset, he said.

“I grew up in a small town (Suffern, N.Y.) where no one ever locked their doors. It’s that same loss of care of urban life, a lack of clamor (that (prevails) in ‘Sconset.

“When you sleep at night, you can hear the ocean. And there’s something about the smell of the sea air and the grass, and the incredible starry nights.”

Tom and Carolyn Capstick Meehan, who were married in 1988, spend July and August in ‘Sconset. But, while the four-bedroom, three-bath home is winterized, they don’t spend the cold months there. If they leave their 1847, two-level West 10th Street brownstone townhouse with high ceilings and an outdoor courtyard garden in the Washington Square area of Manhattan, they’ll head for a warmer climate.

Last summer, Tom interrupted his stay on-island for a trip to Los Angeles and a meeting with movie director and old friend Mel Brooks. Tom Meehan and Brooks, 88, discussed a potential sequel to the film Spaceballs. Meehan and Brooks had collaborated on the screenplay of that 1987 release.

“But I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Meehan said of a Spaceballs 2.

In addition to the original Spaceballs, a takeoff on Star Wars, Brooks and Tom Meehan collaborated on the screenplay for a remake of To Be or Not to Be, starring Brooks and his actress wife, Anne Bancroft.

Brooks and Bancroft, remembered as Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 film The Graduate, were married for 41 years until cancer claimed her life in 2005.

Despite his age, Meehan has no plans to slow down. He hardly knows what it’s like to not be working on a script, or book, as they term it on Broadway.

Meehan has completed two musicals planned for pre-Broadway performances before hitting the Broadway stage itself.

One is a musical adaptation of the 1993 movie Dave, which starred Kevin Kline as U.S. president and his spitting-image double. Meehan said the debut is targeted for the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., during an early phase of the 2016 presidential campaign – likely in the fall of 2015 – before it plays on Broadway in the spring of ’16.

Another musical on which Meehan has put the wraps is a stage version of the 1941 film The Lady Eve, which starred Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. Eve is pegged for Broadway, but dates for its pre-NYC and NYC runs have not been set.

And then there is the musical adaptation of Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film Rocky, which for more than two years has been a big hit in Hamburg, Germany, but suffered a knockout on Broadway. It opened in New York on March 13, 2014, and closed Aug. 17 after 261 performances.

“It didn’t make it on Broadway,” Meehan said. “Audiences seemed to like it. People were cheering. But the New York Times guy hated it. [Reviewers] have so much power.”

Despite its KO in NY, Rocky – the Musical is slated for an October 2015 opening at the Venetian Hotel Resort and Casino, the Las Vegas mega-venue owned by billionaire and Dorchester, Mass., native Sheldon Adelson.

Tom Meehan has won three Tony Awards for Best Book (script) of a Musical – for Annie (1977), The Producers (2001, writing with Brooks), and “Hairspray” (2003, sharing it with the late Mark O’Donnell).

The original Broadway production of Annie ran for nearly six years (with 2,377 performances), setting a record for the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre). The Producers (2,502 shows) and Hairspray (2,642) attracted audiences for six years, making Meehan the only Broadway writer of musicals to have had three shows exceed 2,000 performances each.

Yet never in his wildest dreams as a youth did Meehan imagine that he’d wind up a prolific and honored writer of Broadway musicals.

“I always wanted to write, but Broadway shows? Not really,” Meehan said. “As a young kid and teenager I went to Broadway shows with my parents and sometimes with my brother. I loved Broadway shows. But I’m not very musical. I can’t really sing and I never played any musical instruments. I loved musicals, but I never thought I’d ever have anything to do with them.”

After graduating from Hamilton College in upstate New York in 1951 and then serving a two-year hitch in the Army when drafted during the Korean War, Meehan came to New York City in 1954. There, “luckily,” he said, he landed a job on the New Yorker magazine in 1956, first as a “Talk of the Town” reporter and then as a writer of short stories, “mostly comic stuff,” Meehan interjected.

He was happy at the New Yorker, and stayed full time until 1966 before his life took off on a serendipitous trajectory. After three years in Europe where he worked on a novel (unfinished to this day) and welcomed the births of a son and daughter from his first wife (they divorced amicably, he said, in 1982), one of his New Yorker short stories caught the attention of television director Martin Charnin. Charnin had set out to do a 1970 TV special starring Anne Bancroft.

Said Meehan, “Martin Charnin said Anne Bancroft had read the story and wondered if I could adapt it for television. I said, ‘Sure.’ ”

Meehan wrote an eight-minute sketch for the special, which also included writing by several others – and the show won him and his co-authors an Emmy.

It was at that time that Meehan also met Brooks.

“I got to know Mel a little bit,” Meehan went on, “and he said to me, ‘I like your writing. Can I call you sometime about working on a movie with me? I told him, ‘My God, yes.’ ”

It took years, but Meehan and Brooks did indeed collaborate (Spaceballs and To Be or Not to Be).

The big life changer for Meehan was, of course, Annie, which almost never happened in the first place.

Meehan wrote Annie in 1972 – Little Orphan Annie was Tom’s least favorite comic strip as a kid – but every Broadway producer who was approached turned it down. It wasn’t until 1976 that Michael Price came calling and staged the musical that summer in his Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn.

Then, with an infusion of $1 million generated by director Mike Nichols and his connections in New York City, Annie – after a brief turn at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. – opened on Broadway in April 1977. It was a huge hit.

“It was like some kind of crazy dream come true,” Meehan said. “It wasn’t like I had anticipated being in musical theater. Once I did get into it, I stayed with it. I love it.”

Meehan said he has been asked to write a musical about Nantucket, but he needs to find the time. “Maybe one of these summers,” he said. “I’d be interested, but I’ve just been so busy. After Annie, it was one musical after another.”

While Broadway, Hollywood, and the East Haddams of this world have made Meehan a wealthy man, his is not a household name or face outside of his own household and the close-knit circle of Broadway insiders. An unpretentious and gentle man, he can walk the streets of most towns and not be recognized.

“I’m not really famous, but the shows I’ve done are famous,” Meehan said. “I don’t need to put myself forward.

“But I have no complaints. I have made a great deal of money. We don’t live elaborately but we certainly live well. We’re able to travel and pay for college for two grandchildren and three are coming up. I can afford that.”

With his 86th birthday approaching in August, Meehan sees no end to his productivity. Why keep writing? To him it’s obvious.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “I could go to Florida and play golf, but I hate Florida and I don’t play golf.”

Good reasons why Broadway suits him to a tee.