Great Article On Marc Shaiman

Scoring big after paying dues
Friday, July 29, 2005

You could say Marc Shaiman bloomed late: Despite a lifelong ambition to make it as a Broadway composer, he was 42 when his musical version of “Hairspray” finally made him a big Tony-winning deal on the Great White Way. And unless you’re a theater die-hard, you could be forgiven for thinking that Shaiman came from out of nowhere, or at least from Somewhere Else, when “Hairspray” became the smash hit of the 2002-03 season. After all, Shaiman’s bio in the playbill lists no prior theatrical credits.

“Hairspray,” based on the 1988 John Waters movie about integration coming at last to a 1962 “American Bandstand”-style TV program in Baltimore, has had its share of stars: Waters, Harvey Fierstein, Marissa Jaret Winokur.

Yet it’s easy to argue that the show’s biggest star is Shaiman, whose ebullient score is far too accomplished to be rookie stuff. His pastiche of 1960s sounds is slick in the best sense: melodically direct, harmonically fascinating, effortlessly infectious. The show continues to do top-notch business almost three years into its New York run.

It’s no real surprise, then, that Marc Shaiman truly made it in showbiz a long time ago, even if not always as a composer. You may not recognize his name, but if you’ve hummed “Blame Canada” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” cringed at the Sweeney Sisters bits on “Saturday Night Live,” tapped your foot to the rousing numbers in “Sister Act,” got misty when Bette Midler sang “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” as Johnny Carson’s last guest on “The Tonight Show” or laughed with the world at Billy Crystal’s song parodies kicking off an Academy Awards telecast, then you know arranger-producer-composer-musical supervisor Marc Shaiman.

“It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” Shaiman, 45, says with a shrug. He’s reclining on a couch in the heavily equipped music studio in his Chelsea apartment, and behind him are posters of “When Harry Met Sally,” “City Slickers,” “The Addams Family” and “A Few Good Men” – movies he has scored, written songs for, music-directed or arranged.

The studio is a semi-organized mess, with a bulletin board propped up on the floor outlining the new Martin Short project that Shaiman and his partner since 1979, lyricist and theater director Scott Wittman, are working on. It’s a spoof of one-man shows called “If I’d Saved, I Wouldn’t Be Here,” and it’s scheduled for Broadway this coming season.

They are also collaborating on a musical version of the Steven Spielberg film “Catch Me If You Can,” for which Terrence McNally is writing the book. Shaiman is antsy to get started: “I’m dyin’,” he says. After all, if he had his way, “I’d want to be just like Rodgers and Hammerstein were. You know, just writing shows one after another. I feel like I have ’em in me.”

One of the questions raised by the high polish of the “Hairspray” score (which, even though it’s a collection of fizzy pop songs, rewards repeated listenings) is how Shaiman, originally from Newark, learned his craft. The answer begins with community theater musicals. In conjunction with cast recordings, Shaiman studied the orchestral scores he was given the way other teenage boys scrutinized baseball stats or comics collections. He was absorbed by the role of the flute, the connotations of the trombone, the character and quality of particular chords and instrumental groupings. The minutiae fascinated him.

“That,” he says, “was high school, college, everything for me, having that music in front of me, listening to cast albums.”

By 16 he was regularly trekking from his New Jersey home into New York, meeting friends, playing weekend gigs.

He landed work as a music director and arranger for a group of female backup singers working on their act. The group was the Harlettes; the star they backed was Bette Midler. She was gearing up for a tour, and when she asked her pickup band to play “No Jestering,” a song she’d recorded, it couldn’t. Shaiman, who adored Midler perhaps more than he adored Broadway, could. Not even 20, he became her music director and arranger.

Later, “Saturday Night Live” got interested, and in the mid-’80s Shaiman landed a gig writing and appearing as Skip St. Thomas, arranger and pianist for the abominably saccharine Sweeney Sisters (played by Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn). He also got work underscoring Billy Crystal specials for HBO.

“And it was at that point that we were all very frustrated” with theater, he says. “And then suddenly Bette Midler and Billy Crystal were both working on movies where they needed musical help.”

The movies were “Beaches” and “When Harry Met Sally.”

Says Shaiman, “Both those records and movies became huge hits for them, and my film career just really fell in my lap.”

He earned five Academy Award nominations in seven years for his film songs.

But Shaiman says his reward for years of the Hollywood grind was at last getting to do it all – compose, write lyrics, even sing – for “South Park.”

Is “Hairspray” what Shaiman really sounds like? “I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, and I’ve known that since the beginning of my career,” he says. “I don’t have a specific sound. What I am is a sponge. I can really join in very well, I think, with all that has come before, and then I can put it back out there with … maybe my own something, a sense of … I don’t know.”

Share A little Divinity
Verified by MonsterInsights