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When Charnin called two years later with the idea of recasting the Little Orphan Annie comic strip as a musical, Meehan had zero interest. "My reaction was, 'Ugh, that's the worst idea I ever heard.' I still had all these serious ideas of being a serious writer, and I thought if I was going to write a musical, it was going to be something monumental, not comic strips. But he talked me into it."
The Annie theme would replay itself through much of Meehan's subsequent work. Whether the main character is an orphan in the Depression, a down-and-out producer or a working-class prize-fighter, Meehan roots for the underdog. "It wasn't until after Annie opened that I looked around and said, 'Oh, my God, I've written Cinderella,'" he says.
Meehan went on to write books for such lesser-known musicals as the 1979 I Remember Mama and the 1993 Ain't Broadway Grand? But when Mel Brooks, with whom he had co-written the films Spaceballs and To Be or Not to Be, came along with plans to set The Producers onstage, Meehan found himself back in familiar territory.
The Producers isn't exactly a Cinderella story, but it ends on an upbeat note that immediately attracted Meehan. In the show, producer Max Bialystock is back on top, and Leo Bloom, an accountant with big dreams, is a Broadway producer who gets the girl and the money. "Sweeney Todd is the most brilliant job of musical writing that I know of, in terms of both score and book," says Meehan, "but I don't work that side of the street. I only do shows with happy endings."
The real-life ending has been even sweeter for Meehan, who watched The Producers sweep the 2001 Tonys. At that point, Meehan and his wife, Carolyn Capstick, had planned to take some time off and mill about their place in Nantucket. But Meehan was lured back to the stage to work on Hairspray with Mark O'Donnell, the playwright and novelist, who had already drafted the initial script for the musical. "When I came into Hairspray, there was a lot of very funny, very clever stuff that Mark had written," says Meehan. "The thing I helped do mainly was to focus the story."
Meehan calls himself "an enabler," saying he tries to bring out the best in his collaborator. The Producers' director, Susan Stroman, says Meehan's gentle manner encourages her to try out still germinating ideas that she might not risk with someone else. Brooks says simply, "He has the patience of Job. When I am going crazy, he never interrupts me. He knows that I will eventually find my way back to sanity, so he waits. And when I do, he begins collaborating again."
The phenomenal success of The Producers has spurred Meehan and Brooks to review the Brooks film canon for other stageworthy properties. They considered Blazing Saddles, The Twelve Chairs and Life Stinks before settling on Young Frankenstein a year ago. The writing pair currently have eight songs and, says Brooks, "a good-looking, crude draft" of the first act.