Long before David Letterman's "Oprah, Uma" gag at the 1995 Oscars, there was Tom Meehan's "Oona, Yma."
In 1962, the then-New Yorker writer wrote a comic essay about a dream in which he is hosting a party for the famed Peruvian vocalist Yma Sumac. Because Sumac finds surnames too formal, he soon finds himself in a roundelay of escalating silliness as guests, including Ava Gardner, Abba Eban and Oona O'Neill, pour through the door: "Oona, Yma"; "Oona, Ava"; "Oona, Abba." Meehan's "Yma Dream" became an instant short-story classic, and the writer later adapted it into a sketch for Anne Bancroft's 1970 Emmy-winning TV special, "Annie: The Women in the Life of a Man."
"It was just two pages long, didn't take me even a day to finish a draft, and it's led to all this," recalls Meehan, now 72 and still registering some astonishment at the curious turns this one piece of writing brought into this life.
The director of that TV special was Martin Charnin, who 14 years later would invite Meehan to write a musical he was developing about an orphan called "Annie." On that same project, Meehan also met Mel Brooks, Bancroft's husband, who would later invite him to collaborate on two films, 1983's "To Be or Not to Be" and 1987's "Spaceballs." Oh, and Brooks was also thinking about a musical adaptation of his film "The Producers." Its phenomenal success -- a record 12 Tony Awards, including one for best book of a musical -- would lead Broadway producer Margo Lion to tap Meehan to adapt with Mark O'Donnell a John Waters movie into a musical: "Hairspray."
So the "all this" that Meehan refers to includes an additional two Tony Awards, royalty checks as fat as "Hairspray's" Edna Turnblad and indisputable status as Broadway's busiest writer. He is working on no fewer than six projects simultaneously, writing with Brooks both the script of the musical film of "The Producers" and a Broadway adaptation of Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," as well as developing a musical of Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" and Waters' "Cry-Baby." As if that weren't enough, Meehan is working with his wife, Carolyn Capstick, on a new book for a revival of the 1956 classic "Carnival." And in May 2005, "1984," an opera he's written with J.D. McClatchy based on the George Orwell classic, will premiere at Covent Garden.
All of those projects are on hold for now, while Meehan readies for Thursday's opening of the Broadway production of "Bombay Dreams," the lavishly kitsch Indian musical written by Meera Syal and composer A R Rahman, which Andrew Lloyd Webber presented in London's West End, beginning in the summer of 2002. The production is slated to close this June.
Broadway producers Elizabeth Williams and Anita Waxman decided to hedge their $14-million bet on the transfer by coaxing Meehan to bring his structural expertise and keen editorial eye to a show that critics generally regarded as an entertaining mess. Still, it drew from England's sizable Indian population and became a hit. With its spectacular settings, dime-store villains and bloated romance about a slum boy rising to become a movie star, "Bombay Dreams" was a sendup of "Bollywood" movies, which the multibillion-dollar Indian film industry churns out with the regularity of soap opera episodes.
American audiences, however, are not as familiar with Bollywood as the Brits, and consequently the producers decided to jettison the satire in favor of a more direct approach. "We felt Tom could bring heart and emotion to the show," Waxman says.
'A very unique project'
Sitting in the lower lobby of the Broadway Theatre on a recent afternoon, Meehan was a bit skeptical that he's out of the woods with "Bombay Dreams." It's the reverse side of that sunny Irish optimism that has brought him far since he pounded out "Yma's Dream" on an old upright Royal (now the admitted neat-freak uses a computer to turn out his copy).
"Whether we can pull this off or not is still very much in the air," says Meehan, a modest man with a soft voice and a professorial air.
"It's been very difficult," he adds. "This is a very unique project, unlike anything I've done -- but then that's part of why I wanted to do it. In a city where, on any given night, you can eat Thai, Mexican, Greek or French, why not a little Indian? Broadway should be able to accommodate that."