Thomas Meehan, Writer
Thomas Meehan wrote the book for the musical Annie and won a Tony for it. Since 1977, Annie has earned him around $200,000 a year. Now, at 68, he and his friend Mel Brooks are finishing up a musical version of the latter’s classic movie, The Producers .
“I think I’ve been lucky, because I never set out to have the career I had,” Mr. Meehan said. He was having a cheeseburger and a Heineken at the White Horse Tavern, a few blocks from his apartment. He was wearing a brown tweed jacket over a lumberjack shirt.
Mr. Meehan grew up sub-middle class in Suffern, N.Y. His father died when he was 13, and his mother supported four kids by working as a nurse. In the eighth grade, the young Mr. Meehan starred in a musical written by himself. On scholarship at Hamilton College, he pulled off the same feat.
“I wrote stories that were serious, very somber, trying to be in the style of William Faulkner,” he said. “They were very dark and mystical and strange. They weren’t very good. But then I used to write class essays and often make them funny, and if I did that, I got better marks on them. My career has always been that every time I try something really serious, it’s no good, but if I try to be funny, then it works.”
Mr. Meehan moved to New York at age 24. He got a $26-a-month Alphabet City apartment, where it smelled like urine, and he started trying to be a serious novelist. Going by a friend’s tip, he landed a $120-a-week job at The New Yorker ‘s Talk of the Town section. It was 1958.
He stayed at the magazine for 10 years. One evening, he was in a bar in the Village and bumped into a friend who’d just been to a party attended by actresses Ina Claire and Uta Hagen. When they were introduced (“Ina, Uta”), everyone laughed. “That is funny,” Mr. Meehan said. Five years later, he awoke in the middle of the night and said, “Wait a second! What if there’s a party where everybody has names of three letters with that rhythm?”
So he wrote a “casual” involving a party for Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. Ava, Abba, Oona, Ida, Aga, Ira, etc. all show up and have to be introduced to one other. The piece made his name at The New Yorker , put him on the comedy map. Someone wrote a song about it. Comedians ripped it off. David Letterman even revived it at the 1995 Oscars, with his much-maligned “Uma, Oprah” routine.
“I think of my career, quote career, it’s just one thing after another,” Mr. Meehan said. “Just bumbling along like you don’t know what’s around the next turn, which is what I always wanted. I became a writer, really, so I could sleep late in the morning and wouldn’t have to show up in an office. After I left The New Yorker , I never worked in an office again.”
In 1967, he took a job writing comedy for the TV show That Was the Week That Was , which paid $5,000 a week. In 1968, he moved his family to southern France and got to work on a serious novel, The Man Who Wanted to Be Humphrey Bogart . It’s in a blue folder now, unfinished.
In1972,aproducerfriend,Martin Charnin, suggested he write the book for a musical based on Little Orphan Annie . Mr. Meehan told him it was the worst idea he’d ever heard, but was soon transforming the old comic strip into a Dickensian romp. It was shelved until 1976, when it got produced in Connecticut. By then, Mr. Meehan was in his mid-40′s and broke. His marriage fell apart; he had two children to support. Then, Mike Nichols went to see Annie and decided to produce it. It made it to Broadway, was a bonanza. The latest version of Annie , which aired Nov. 8 on ABC, was a ratings hit, drawing 40 million viewers.
“Oddly enough, the success of Annie almost sort of handcuffs you a little bit,” he said. “It’s been years that I’ve worked on various things, but it’s only now that I’m working on The Producers that I’m thinking, ‘Well, this can be just as successful and maybe even better.’”
Mr. Meehan said The Producers should reach Broadway in 2000, with luck. The famous “Springtime for Hitler” number will kick off Act 2. David Geffen is the producer.
I asked Mr. Meehan about his days working for William Shawn.
“He was so soft-spoken and seemingly nice, but he actually was a tyrannical man. He was a total control person and he expected utter dedication to The New Yorker , and I think when I left it was good because I felt at some level this was like living in a totalitarian state where everything is the magazine with a capital M. You were supposed to put that first before yourself and I felt, ‘I want to write for television, I want to write for Broadway, I want to write for movies, I want to go to Europe and write my novel.’ I loved the magazine and I loved the people, I admired William Shawn. I never saw such a good editor, pencil editor–his comments and his editing was brilliant. And he was a good man, but he was so single-minded about the magazine. And I saw a lot of people whose careers were destroyed by that, people who stayed there and wrote these endless long back pieces, which half the time never got published.”
“What are you reading right now?”
” Vanity Fair , the magazine, not the novel. I’ve got Ulysses , which I haven’t read since college. I just read the first 30 pages and said, Oh my God, it is so great! Major, major. What I like is a place where I can go and read a book all day long without interruptions. That’s Nantucket. And we have a place in Connecticut where we can get away a little bit. I have all these places only because of Annie .”
“That’s every writer’s dream.”
“I know a lot of guys that I started out with, and most of them were probably more talented than I was, or equally talented, but that little turn in the road didn’t happen.”
Horst of Fifth Avenue
A Town Car with the license plate AMBIENC5 was chugging away outside the Aveda store on Spring Street. Inside was Horst Rechelbacher, the companies founder. He sold Aveda to Estée Lauder two years ago, but he still oversees everything.
Mr. Rechelbacher was wearing a black suit with an orange scarf. His shoes were shiny braided leather. Entirely unscuffed. On each hand he wore a ring. Blue (cool) stone on the left, red (hot) on the right.
“My mother was an Austrian herbalist, so she worked in an apothecary. So I used to be in the kitchen with her. The kitchen was not just making food. It was also a little lab.”
Young Horst left the mountain and went to New York. “So much money!” he said. Then he got in a car wreck in Minneapolis, and had to stick around to pay his hospital bills.
“I was making products with a label called Horst. And some prominent hairdressers started to come. They looked at what we were doing, but they didn’t want to sell a product called Horst. They said, We’re in New York and no offense to you, but we are the big stars. So I changed the name. I was studying at the time Ayurvedic medicine, and all of the scriptures of Ayurvedic medicine are written in Sanskrit. But no one could pronounce Ayurveda! But A means All. Which is holistic. Everything. Veda means knowledge. So Aveda means all knowledge.”
He has written a book called Rituals (Henry Holt). He’s a big fan of rituals. For one, he likes to wake up in the middle of the night and meditate. “Good businessmen are really balanced,” he said in his Austrian accent. “They find somehow to balance out.”
A yogi once schooled Mr. Rechelbacher in Intuitive Diagnostics, the practice of reading vibrations. “I simply relax and pay attention. It’s good vibes. I don’t want to work with people who are very-high-frequency, because they’re not real. They’re not stable. It’s really fear, you see. Fear drives up the frequency, and fear is stress. Fear of what? Fear of eat or be eaten. I have a tiny little penthouse in No. 1 Fifth Avenue. I live on the 27th floor, and I go outside in the evening. I see the Hudson River, and I see a little bit of the East River. The bridges. And I look at the two trade center buildings. I listen to the vibrations of New York and it’s …” Suddenly Mr. Rechelbacher threw his hands up in the air and made a horror movie face. He was being electrocuted.
Mr. Rechelbacher sighed and looked out on Spring Street. “Stress,” he said, with that German “r.” “Stress. No stress is practical. It’s not a good vibration. You see all the people running around? There’s so much fear.”