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Theater | New York

Booking a 'Bombay' trip

Writer Tom Meehan tinkers with the story of a hot British import to Broadway, where he's in heavy demand.

April 25, 2004|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

At 24, he landed a job at the New Yorker, where his editors responded enthusiastically to his humor stories, including satires of a Hollywood producer trying to adapt James Joyce's "Ulysses" and a sendup of Saul Bellow that infuriated the Nobel Prize-winning writer. Meehan stayed at the august publication for 10 years until the mid-'60s, occasionally writing for television, including the topical satire "That Was the Week That Was."

What he learned during his stint at the New Yorker was simply to ply his craft, week after week, and to learn comic precision from the masters. His favorites were Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the humorists S.J. Perelman and James Thurber. Not that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, along with Charles Dickens, were not part of his pantheon as well. It's just that he felt morecomfortable in an airier, more redemptive atmosphere, which is something of a family trait. "I recently spoke at my brother's funeral," he recalls, "and I said that he was the type who saw the glass not as half-empty but as half-full. And then he drank it."

Still, despite pride in his accomplishments, Meehan appears almost embarrassed by his success. Indeed, not everything he's touched has reaped gold, with such flops as "I Remember Mama," starring Liv Ullmann; "Ain't Broadway Grand," with Mike Burstyn as Mike Todd; and "Annie Warbucks," the crash-and-burn sequel to "Annie."

A couple of times during the interview, he apologetically describes his books for musicals as "Not 'Sweeney Todd,' " referring to the Stephen Sondheim musical with a book by Hugh Wheeler about a vengeful 19th century homicidal barber, who ends up popping his victims into pies. For Meehan, that show is the gold standard of all book musicals, notwithstanding its ending, which is far from happy. In fact, he says, he'd love to work with Sondheim, who in many ways is the reverse of Meehan's previous collaborators. He even has a project that might be suitable: a musical version of "Shadow of a Doubt," the 1943 Alfred Hitchcock film noir about a charming serial killer. "I know Steve, but not well," Meehan says. "I'm working up the nerve to approach him."

Sondheim must be familiar with Meehan's work, but one wonders if he's seen "To Be or Not to Be," the Brooks-Meehan remake of the 1942 Jack Benny-Carole Lombard comedy classic. In this play-within-a-movie, the team concocted a character named Sondheim who is the stage manager for a Polish troupe of actors under Nazi occupation. At one point, recalls Meehan, he wrote the line, "Sondheim, send up the clowns." Brooks said, "No, no, no, no. The line has got to read, 'Sondheim, send in the clowns. You've got to ring the bell.' "

"That's Mel's way of saying that you've got to have the courage to go all the way," Meehan says. "You've got to be willing to ring the bell."

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