NEW YORK — Thomas Meehan, who won Tony Awards for writing the books for three of the most successful Broadway musicals of the past 40 years — “Annie,” “The Producers,” and “Hairspray” — died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Carolyn Meehan.
Mr. Meehan was one of the go-to writers of Broadway, amassing book-writing credits that included the Christmas-themed musical “Elf” (written with Bob Martin and adapted from a 2003 film) and most recently “Rocky” (with Sylvester Stallone and adapted from his 1976 Oscar-winning movie).
At the time of his death Mr. Meehan had been reworking the musical version of Mel Brooks’ movie “Young Frankenstein,” first seen on Broadway in 2007, for a revival in London.
Thomas Edward Meehan was born on Aug. 14, 1929, in Ossining, N.Y., and grew up across the Hudson River in Suffern. He had an ice cream truck in his youth and also worked at a drugstore, his wife said.
After graduating from Hamilton College in 1951, he secured an entry-level editorial job at The New Yorker, where, somewhat bedazzled by his good fortune, he arrived for his first day of work at 9 a.m. only to find that the office was empty.
“He thought maybe the whole thing was a joke,” his wife said. “Of course, everyone wandered in later because nobody got to work at 9 o’clock.”
Given opportunities to write for the magazine, he produced a short story titled “Yma Dream,” which got the attention of Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, and the lyricist Martin Charnin. They teamed up to work with him on a television adaptation, and the connections would prove fruitful.
In 1972, Charnin asked Mr. Meehan if he would want to work on a musical. Mr. Meehan said he was game. But then Charnin told him his idea: to adapt the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.” Recounting the genesis of the show in an article in The New York Times in 1977, Mr. Meehan wrote that his reaction was swift and succinct: “You’ve got to be kidding,” he told Charnin.
But he eventually agreed to give it a try, and once he read the comics, he realized that it would be harder than he had thought.
“Although I’d read ‘Little Orphan Annie’ as a child in the 1930s,” he wrote, “I’d forgotten that it was basically nothing more than a series of totally improbable adventures, in which Annie, for example, was stranded on a desert isle or lost in the jungles of South America or held prisoner in a waterfront warehouse by a Fu Manchu-like Oriental madman.
“We’d set out to write a realistic, three-dimensional musical,” he continued, “and what I had to work from was a series of unrealistic, two-dimensional, two-inch squares.”
The musical the men eventually fashioned with Charles Strouse, who wrote the music, took five years to get to Broadway. But once it did, in 1977, it ran for 2,377 performances. Today it is a staple of American musical theater.
Mr. Meehan went on to work with Brooks on other projects, including the 1987 movie “Spaceballs” and, perhaps most notable, their adaptation of the 1967 Brooks film “The Producers.” The show became a Broadway juggernaut that dominated the 2001 Tony Awards and ran for more than 2,500 performances.
Mr. Meehan followed that with “Hairspray,” an adaptation, written with Mark O’Donnell, of John Waters’ 1988 film of the same name.
Mr. Meehan, who lived in Greenwich Village, had two children, Joseph and Kate, with his first wife, Karen; their marriage ended in divorce. Besides his wife, Carolyn, whom he married in 1988, he leaves children as well as three stepchildren, six grandchildren, and a brother, John.