The Death of THOMAS MEEHAN and "Reflections on Mourning an Artist"

The Death of THOMAS MEEHAN and "Reflections on Mourning an Artist"

It was on Twitter today where I read the news that Tom Meehan had died. I’ve got to be honest— to read of the death of a Broadway legend via Twitter feels… unsuitable. That being said, I’m not even sure what the alternative would be. It just sort of feels like you should only receive such unsettling news as delivered by a white-gloved butler carrying a silver tray containing one solitary telegram. Anyways, those delusions of grandeur are of my own creation. After all, no one is forcing me to spend every minute of my free time writing and dreaming about the “way back when”, of the days when Broadway used to mean a little something more. And in the times I write about—the times that make me dream—the Broadway theatre was all-important. It had the power to define our lives. Back then, the tunesmiths bent our ears and tickets cost what today wouldn’t cover a service fee. Now, with the exception of Hamilton and The Lion King, people don’t even know what’s playing.

The moment I read of Meehan's passing, I dimmed the imaginary marquees in my mind— as most avid theatre fans do. In case you don’t know (and because it’s kind of the M.O. around here to drop these knowledge bombs) Meehan was the recipient of three Tony Awards for “Best Book of a Musical”. His contributions to the theatre as a whole were unquestionably significant. His staggering list of works includes I Remember Mama, Ain’t Broadway Grand, Bombay Dreams, Young Frankenstein, Cry-Baby, Elf, Chaplin, and Rocky. That’s not even to mention the most priceless jewels set glittering in his crown: Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray.   

It’s almost hard to believe but, during his lifetime, 10,032 audiences saw Meehan’s work on Broadway. That’s not even counting the thousands of regional productions, educational productions, international productions, and national tours. Not only did his three biggest hits enjoy long runs—but some of the longest. In fact, Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray all rank in the top 50 of longest running musicals of all time. Annie is holding strong at #26, sharing its spot with the (first) Roundabout revival of Cabaret. The Producers comes in right ahead of that at #25. Hairspray stuck around the longest, earning it the #22 slot on the board. Despite his loss, I do find some comfort in knowing how many millions of people spent time living inside a theatrical world that Thomas Meehan made function.

And maybe I’m too cynical when someone significant in the theatre dies. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe people really do care. But I doubt it. I am so frequently reminded that the theatre is a microcosm. The people who already care can’t help but care a little too much. Meanwhile, the people who don’t care hold the majority. I can tell by the way that people react to my writing on the subject; the 400 people who already know better than me read my work so they can tell me what I got wrong. And how can I blame the uninformed masses? To explain to them the intricacies of the theatre would be tantamount to my husband trying to explain to me the intricacies of this week’s solar eclipse. After about one sentence, my eyes glaze over and I want to say, “I don’t know what it is you're going on about but I’ve decided not to care.” Most of the world doesn’t even know what a librettist does—it shouldn’t surprise me if they, too, can’t produce a list of their all-time top ten. And later this week my fears will be realized once again when the marquees dim on Broadway in Meehan's honor just long enough for tourists to think there was a momentary power surge.

I guess I just don’t know how to process my feelings when I learn of the death of a theatrical artist. Yes, in some way their work will always remain; I’m pretty sure we haven’t heard the last of Hairspray or Annie. But, when a theatrical artist dies, they take something intangible with them. Their work was intended to be fleeting. It was only meant to live long enough to share its breath with the people in its wake, and then-- as designed-- it vanishes into thin air. Only when the art is successful does it linger in your interpretation thereafter.

As a writer, a little part of you must inhabit every character you create. Thankfully, because Thomas Meehan wrote a few prime chestnuts of the American stage, he is granted a slight reprieve. While it was never spoken by his own mouth, we have been hearing his voice for years. We hear it in Annie when ‘Miss Hannigan’ calls ‘Lily St. Regis’ a, “dumb hotel.” We hear it in Hairspray when ‘Amber’ reminds us that she is the “after” in the Metracal Diet Ad, “and ‘afters’ always win.” Those jokes are a Tom Meehan to a T. And maybe by simply acknowledging that, at some point in history, this man was brave enough, silly enough, industrious enough, and sly enough to put pen to paper means that Thomas Meehan’s voice will always be ringing in our ear.

So, for those of us who care a little too much, it’s okay that we should mourn a little deeper than the rest. We must continue our mission to keep of the work of artists like Thomas Meehan alive. Otherwise, this loss becomes even more tremendous. And I don't know about the rest of you, but I refuse to let another link to that bygone era be severed without taking a moment to acknowledge that it's gone.