A match made in musical heaven
By MICHAEL POSNER
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Mar. 17, 2004
Blame Marc Shaiman. He’s the villain responsible for Blame Canada, that snarky little ditty from the film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The song threatened to set back the course of Canadian-U.S. relations by a couple of decades. You may remember the lyrics: “Blame Canada, blame Canada/ With all their beady little eyes, And flapping heads so full of lies/ We need to form a full assault, it’s Canada’s fault/ It seems that everything’s gone wrong since Canada came along/ They’re not even a real country anyway.”
The song came to Shaiman easily, the way everything musically seems to come to him, and always has. And while South Park remains one of his favourite film scores (he’s composed or arranged part, or all, of 60 Hollywood features, including When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men, and The American President), these days he and his partner of 24 years, Scott Wittman, are far better known for Hairspray (music and lyrics), the smash, Tony award-winning Broadway musical that begins previews at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre April 8, for an indefinite run.
Shaiman and Wittman, in town for a few days last week to schmooze with the Toronto cast, might have seemed a daring choice to write the show, which is based on John Water’s 1988 film of the same name. Neither had written a Broadway musical before and had only just started to work on projects together, after a long hiatus. And the batting average of those film composers who have tried to make it on Broadway has not been inspiring: Does anyone care to recall John Williams’s Thomas and the King or Elmer Bernstein’s How Now, Dow Jones?.
But when producer Margo Lion heard Shaiman’s music for the South Park film, she immediately offered him the composer credit. He agreed, on condition he could work with Wittman. They quickly knocked off four tunes to show her what they could do — all of them still in the show –and they were launched.
“I was so happy,” Shaiman recalls. “I was in a complete rut writing movie scores. It was lucrative and sometimes creatively wonderful, but it’s also a rat race with constant deadlines. I found myself getting almost the same kind of movies and writing almost the same kind of music.”
Hairspray’s trajectory from conception to opening night was almost blessed. Lion, home sick with the flu in 1998, was casting about for a new show, after the Broadwayfailure of The Triumph of Love, which she had produced. Ten minutes into a rented video of the Waters film, she found it in the story of a young Baltimore black girl’s dream of appearing on an American Bandstand-type dance show in the early 1960s, against the social backdrop of racial polarization and the campaign for integration.
Less than four years later, meteoric by Broadway standards, it was the hottest ticket on the Great White Way and, along with Mel Brooks’s The Producers, was being credited with rejuvenating a dying genre. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan contributed creatively to writing both The Producers book and co-writing the Hairspray libretto with Mark O’Donnell.)
“Scott and I really just want to entertain,” Shaiman says. “And we’re blessed to have written something that appeals cross-generationally.” Indeed, Hairspray is probably the only musical on Broadway that rents both booster seats and hearing aids to patrons.
Shaiman, 44, and Wittman, 49, met in New York’s East Village 25 years ago. Although they stopped working together by the mid-1980s, their personal relationship continued, culminating with a dramatic kiss on the lips after wining the 2003 Tony for best musical. “The short Jew from New Jersey,” as Shaiman refers to himself, was a musical alchemist or shaman at 16, not only encyclopedic in terms of pop music’s history, but able to write or mimic any form or genre. The New York Times magazine once called him “the human jukebox.”
“It’s a gift,” he said one morning last week, nursing a Diet Coke. “I don’t even feel immodest saying it because it’s not really me. It just was just planted in me.”
It was a chance introduction to Bette Midler that effectively launched Shaiman’s career. At 17, he became her touring musical director. Midler has been a musical totem for Shaiman, “because of her ability to love something and poke fun at it at the same time.
“We call her the Margaret Mead of pop music,” Wittman says. “We all love Jerome Kern, but we can also love something by the Shangri-Las.” Later, Shaiman worked as the musical director for Saturday Night Live, befriended Billy Crystal and broke into film scoring with Rob Reiner’s Misery, Crystal’s City Slicker’s and Midler’s Beaches ).
Wittman, from suburban Nyack, N.Y. (“everyone says it’s only 45 minutes from Broadway, but for me it was 45 years”), had moved to Manhattan to write and produce musical theatre. Together, they collaborated on a string of little musicals — spoofs and pastiches performed under the umbrella of guerrilla dinner theatre.
Wittman’s experience as a theatre director — he’s worked with Nathan Lane, Martin Short and Patti LuPone, among many others — usually dictated their approach to the Hairspray songs. “Scott would identify the moment that needed a song and then he’d kick me and I’d become the monkey to his organ grinder,” Shaiman says. “So, I’ll write a dummy version of the song and then start at the top and work out the lyric, which is harder.” It helps, he says, that, “we think exactly alike, and can finish each other’s sentences.”
The challenge facing the creative team was how to stretch out Waters’s original story line. “The film uses up most of the plot in the first half hour,” Wittman explains. Tracy Turnblad (the lead, to be played in Toronto by Vanessa Olivarez) “gets on the TV show and she gets the boy. After that, the film gets by on pure spirit. So we had to really stretch it out.”
The partners now have two new projects on the go — a movie version of Broadway’s Hairspray, for New Line and another Broadway musical based on Stephen Spielberg’s film Catch Me If You Can, about con man Frank Abignail Jr.
Shaiman says he doesn’t listen to much music at home. “I watch MTV and listen to the radio in the car.” About contemporary pop music, he says, “I don’t put up any barriers. I just feel bad for kids who don’t know what it’s like to have melody and drive along in the car singing to it. They’re missing out on something, but there are pleasures to be had in what they are listening to, and I understand them.”