Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Marc Shaiman literally began his career at the top—working with Bette Midler’s backing group The Harlettes and the Divine One herself. He has scored more than 40 motion pictures (everything from Sleepless In Seattle to The First Wives Club), won an Emmy for helping Billy Crystal create those beloved Oscar parodies, found himself nominated for the Oscar himself five times (including a nod for “Blame Canada,” the hilarious song from the South Park movie), and won the Tony Award for the mega hit Hairspray. All this before turning 45.
Many gay men and women may recognize Shaiman from the conclusion to his memorable acceptance speech during last June’s Tony Awards. While accepting for Best Score along with his partner Scott Wittman (who co-wrote the lyrics for Hairspray), Shaiman publicly declared his love for his partner of 24 years and topped it off with a heartfelt smooch to thunderous applause (and lots of drubbing in the conservative media).
Shaiman will be in town to play the piano and preside over two shows of his music that will be emceed by Hairspray star Bruce Vilanch and company. The shows will be performed at Gentry, 440 N. State, (312) 836-0933 Monday, Feb. 9. The benefit for Harbor House and Bonaventure House was put together by Hairspray’s touring musical director, Jim Vukovich, and Gentry’s Eric McCool.
I spoke to Shaiman as he was preparing to work on yet another Academy Awards parody number for show host Billy Crystal.
RK: How’s this year’s parody going?
MS: I actually have to watch tonight and tomorrow Lord of the Rings part three and the Russell Crowe one, Master & Commander. I actually have another movie on my shelf of the same title. (laughing). I wonder if there’s been a Lord of the Cock Rings?
RK: No doubt! When it comes to your career, it seems all roads lead back to Bette Midler. How did you meet the Divine Miss?
MS: The first in a million examples of my life in which I’ve been so lucky is that I went to see a show called Boy Meets Boy in New York when I was 16. After the show we walked into this little piano bar and I started playing and this bartender said, “Hey, you’re good, wait right here” and he went next door where a group of people were putting on a comedy revue and they needed a new piano player. We hit it off immediately and I started coming in on the weekends to play for them and I would stay in their apartment. Ulla Hedwig, who was one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes, lived across the hall so I was just lucky enough to meet all these people who are still my best friends, including my lover.
RK: And Miss M?
MS: Because I was across the hall and such a Bette Midler fanatic, I knew the kind of harmony the Harlettes would sing and I would work for nothing because I was 16 and in awe, they decided to do their own cabaret act and I became their musical director … . The girls got to do an opening act for Bette’s show and there I was still only 17 and my fantasy was coming true. I was sitting on a couch in a rehearsal studio with Bette Midler in front of me. That was 26 years ago.
RK: Are you self-taught?
MS: I only took piano lessons. Everything else was self-taught. There’s no real music in my family that I know about. It really is almost kind of bizarre.
RK: Didn’t you sort of bluff your way into your first movie scoring job?
MS: Yes, that’s not something I knew how to do—the nuts and bolts of it. I didn’t grow up thinking about it as I did writing musicals, though I always loved it. So when Rob Reiner asked me to do that it was a huge leap of faith on both of our parts.
RK: Is there a movie project you’re working on?
MS: The next movie is the one that Matt (Stone) and Trey (Parker) are making, the creators of South Park. It’s not a South Park movie but it’s certainly in the spirit of South Park. It’s called Team America but that won’t be until next year.
RK: That also seems like a serendipitous relationship.
MS: Oh yeah. The joy of the South Park movie more than any other project, was that I really got to exercise all my gifts. Please write that I laughed when I said the word “gifts!!!” I wrote music, I wrote lyrics, I arranged music, I orchestrated, I even sang, and I’m even in it playing for Big Gay Al. So I got to do everything I ever wanted to do.
RK: And with Hairspray you got to write a hit Broadway musical.
MS: That was good.
RK: What’s it like to work with your partner?
MS: It’s great. The biggest problem in our marriage was probably the time we weren’t working together cause it was so odd to be working on something that he wasn’t and vice versa. Our writing together has never been a cause for fighting or tension.
RK: Can you talk about the response to the kiss and the declaration at the Tony Awards?
MS: It was all unplanned—none of that was pre-meditated. For two weeks or so we had our 15 minutes of fame and the wonderful fallout was the fabulous letters and responses we got. I can never quite sum up how it was but I was walking down the street just a few days after that and I saw a guy and I could see that he recognized me and he said as he walked past me, “Have a great life, honey” and it was so sweet that I just wanted to cry. It was a lovely, lovely moment.
RK: I remember turning to my partner and saying, “OK, now I want a kiss. They just did that for all of us.”
MS: It’s funny how when everyone speaks of that moment they talk about how they started crying and Scott and I were just laughing. It’s funny to realize that you’ve done something that perhaps has moved people. It was quite a moment and it was our spontaneous joy and the naturalness of it that I think was the best. It was not so much that people saw two men kiss but they saw them kiss in such a natural way. Who would think twice about this with a straight couple? It would be such a non-issue it wouldn’t even register in your brain.
RK: Let’s talk about the benefit.
MS: Well Jim (Vukovich) wrote to me—we’re both AOL junkies—and he threw this idea at me and I have done shows like this in the past. One frustration over the past few years is I’ve been just too busy to do one of these revues. I used to do them when I was quite young to the point that when I was 24 I titled the show, Mark Shaiman: The First 50 Years.
RK: Can you talk about Catch Me If You Can, your next musical?
MS: Yeah, Scott and I have written seven songs so far and Terrence McNally is writing the script and it’s very exciting. I like the fact that when I first mention it to people they don’t immediately go, “Oh yeah, that’ll be great.” This one you have to think about for 20 seconds before you realize how it could be. It’s got more emotion and subtext. The truth is besides hopefully being a very, very sexy musical, it’ll be a tearjerker. Meanwhile, we have a lot of writing to do. And of course working with Steven Spielberg and having his blessing and hearing his joy after hearing the first few songs we wrote has been very, very exciting.
RK: Is there a date you’re shooting for?
MS: I’m like an instant gratification type so I’m hoping it will go as fast as possible. We were lucky with Hairspray that it was a process that went quite fast although this one I hope goes even faster.
RK: Are you going to write a musical for Bette Midler?
MS: I would love to. I’ve always thought about it but the idea of her doing eight shows a week is so hard for me to comprehend but seeing her on Broadway in a musical would be amazing and to be a part of that would be very soul satisfying.
RK: What have you not done that you want to do?
MS: Play Edna in Hairspray. (laughs) No, it’s a very lovely thing to be able to say at 44 that I have actually pretty much done everything I ever fantasized ever doing and I feel very, very lucky, very blessed.
RK: Maybe they should retitle the benefit “Mark Shaiman: The First 100 years.”
MS: Yes—they should!