A musical vision that really took hold

Special to The Times

FOR a while after “Hairspray” opened on Broadway, composer Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist and life partner, Scott Wittman, would sneak into an empty box at the Neil Simon Theatre as the show was revving up for its infectious finale. Night after night, they’d search for a crevice in the packed audience to hide in.

Then they’d turn their back to the stage.

Behind them, a few dancers would start to spin to their aptly titled song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Then a few more would join in, then more and more until the entire stage was filled with ebullient performers in colorful ‘60s regalia whipping up a cloud of movement with their feet.

“You really get hit with the energy,” Shaiman says with a broad smile, reliving the moment. “Scott and I loved to go to the front of the audience and look up because there are 2,000 people with the same expression on their face whether they’re 70 years old or 5 years old, man or woman -- they all have this fantastic expression on their face. Scott calls it ‘kindergarteners on crack.’ ”

Shaiman didn’t become an “overnight” success on Broadway until he was a lordly 42. By then he’d made a highly lucrative detour to Hollywood writing scores for some of the biggest hits of the ‘90s. All that time, what he really wanted to be when he grew up was a Broadway composer. And now that he has made one of the biggest splashes on the stage in recent memory, some observers are predicting that this will be only the first of many, the dawning of the age of Shaiman on the Great White Way.

Five years after “Hairspray’s” debut, Shaiman’s first Broadway musical is threading the eye of a very slender needle -- the ranks of successful shows that make the leap to the big screen. And when the film opens July 20, people all over the world will become intimately familiar with the gentle composer -- even if they don’t know him by name. Yet. Love Shaiman’s musical, love Shaiman.


“If you don’t like ‘Hairspray,’ you don’t like me,” he says. “I’m not going to hate you if you don’t like it, but it’s me up there -- the love of music, the love of comedy, comedy that can be not always politically correct, the color, everything about it.”

The Tonys liked “Hairspray” and Shaiman. The show swept the 2003 awards with eight wins, including one for his spirited score. The musical is a John Waters-style Cinderella story based on Waters’ 1988 film following perky teen Tracy Turnblad as she triumphantly breaks down barriers in 1960s Baltimore, first by insinuating her chunky self into a TV dance show, then by ending its policy of racial segregation.

So when Shaiman says he is “Hairspray,” one might wonder if he’s saying that deep down he’s that teenage girl with soul.

He is.

“I’m just very Tracy Turnblad, hypnotized by black culture and music and humor,” he says. “I feel more at home in a black crowd, musically and socially.”

Shaiman’s compositions for stage and film represent an encyclopedic sweep of sound, from mazurkas to presidential pomp. But the work he’s proudest of bounces off the midcentury, when culture really popped. And at 47 now, his time has finally arrived. He’s passionate about martini-era showbiz sans the martinis, the film noir chords, the bachelor-pad licks. Shaiman shakes up the past with a sense of humor that’s managed to survive the caldron of the 20th century and still have a bounce in its step. In the view of some insiders, his style may be the future of Broadway musicals.

“ ‘Hairspray’ is, I think, one of the best shows written for a Broadway musical in terms of how it makes an audience feel, the energy, the joy, the passion,” says Neil Meron, who produced the new “Hairspray” film as well as the movie version of “Chicago” with Craig Zadan. Shaiman’s next venture with Wittman is a musical based on Steven Spielberg’s wry caper “Catch Me If You Can.” The score and sensibility again reprise ‘60s cool, although borrowing from different styles of that culturally hydra-headed decade. Nathan Lane is attached to star as the detective, and Jack O’Brien, who won a Tony for staging “Hairspray,” will direct. The workshop starts in New York July 16, the same day “Hairspray” the movie premieres there.

O’Brien, who also is the artistic director at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, says each song he’s heard performers sing in auditions has been electrifying. “You think, ‘Holy Moses, one right after the other.’ They stand so far ahead and above what is normally the Broadway fare that you think, ‘Is this a Rip Van Winkle syndrome? What’s been going on here?’ ”

Early ticket to the Great White Way

SHAIMAN may be considered a late bloomer where Broadway is concerned, and yet he was no stranger when “Hairspray” opened. After growing up in suburban New Jersey, he cashed his first paycheck as a Broadway professional at 19, particularly precocious for someone who wasn’t onstage. Zadan and Meron first hired him in 1979 as the musical director for Peter Allen’s show “Up in One.” And yet, young as he was, Shaiman had already earned his professional stripes as Bette Midler’s arranger and accompanist.

“What person in their right mind would hire a 19-year-old guy to be the musical director of a Broadway show?” Zadan says. “You have to understand how impressed we were. You knew there was nothing he couldn’t do.”

Shaiman and Wittman became a couple that year as well, and in the ‘80s, they collaborated on “guerrilla dinner theater,” satires they produced in an East Village church basement called Club 57. Their loopy aesthetic fizzed in original musicals such as “Dementos” and “Livin’ Dolls,” which celebrated Barbie and Ken, but none of the shows made it uptown. In the age of “Cats” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other treacly spectaculars, Shaiman’s sweetly ironic style didn’t compute.

“We were ahead of our time,” Wittman says. “ ‘Hairspray’ is like the shows we used to do downtown, except it has money. It has the sensibility of, first of all, the need to be loved. And the sense of joy, the infectious joy with a dollop of irony.”

Even in ’87, Shaiman was being tagged as “a formidable talent” who was a victim of bad timing. In a rave of Shaiman’s one-man show cheekily titled “Marc Shaiman: The First 50 Years,” New York Times critic Steven Holden wrote that “had he arrived a decade ago, [he] would almost certainly have been Broadway bound.”

Despite great notices, the composer packed his bags and came to Hollywood. With Midler as his point of entry -- he scored “Big Business” and brought her “Wind Beneath My Wings” for “Beaches” -- he embarked on a career as one of the film industry’s most successful composers.

His eclectic barrage of hits, which have included collaborations with pals Rob Reiner (“Misery,” “The American President” and the upcoming “The Bucket List”) and Billy Crystal (“City Slickers” and “Mr. Saturday Night”) as well as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” “Sister Act” and “The First Wives Club,” have grossed more than $1 billion. The tally helped lead to his receiving the ASCAP Henry Mancini award for career achievement in April.

“Movie scoring, especially right before ‘Hairspray,’ had reached this crazy peak where they were paying this crazy amount of money,” Shaiman says. “I was making a very nice living, and ‘Hairspray’ was a risk, because if you don’t keep scoring one movie after another, you’re history.

“On the other hand, that’s all I ever wanted to do -- write a Broadway musical like ‘Hairspray.’ So it was very gratifying.”

Indeed, Shaiman may be able to whip up frothy peaks of joy on the stage, but that gift coexists with a pervasive sense of dread that has been somewhat tamed by his success. “My shrink and everyone else says, ‘Try to enjoy yourself more,’ ” he says. “ ‘Find the joy in life.’ ”

But there is one sure-fire road to happiness for Shaiman: performing onstage, as he did as Martin Short’s accompanist in the comedian’s Broadway show, “Fame Becomes Me.”

“I could do it constantly,” he says. “Getting a laugh from an audience, playing something and hearing the audience’s rapt attention, sensing the emotion you’re generating, it just feels at home to me. More at home than sitting here at home.”

Shaiman, casually dressed in jeans and a brick-colored button-down shirt, is lounging on the leather couch of the recording studio that’s part of his cozy domestic compound in leafy Laurel Canyon. From its modest exterior high in the hills, observers would never guess that this was home to an entertainment industry zillionaire. But the studio, a sanctuary of blond wood tucked amid the trees, packs a technological punch. Shaiman can record vocals and mix soundtracks, everything short of bringing in an orchestra.

He’s seemingly relaxed, sometimes pensive and always candid, thanks to an openness to the emotional elements that has helped him write music -- and chat board posts -- that connect viscerally with audiences. A regular on’s “All That Chat,” Shaiman set theater world tongues wagging with witty ripostes he wrote to fellow composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa’s 2005 attack on “Hairspray” in Opera News. When LaChiusa (“The Wild Party”) publicly savaged the show as “a faux musical” whose “sense of invention and craft is abandoned in favor of delivering what the audience thinks a musical should deliver,” Shaiman gleefully responded, “Michael John, what happened to you as a child? I mean, to write ‘All sense of craft is abandoned’?! For that line alone I feel entitled to bitch slap you silly!”

LaChiusa’s gripes notwithstanding, when “Hairspray” opened in 2002, people were ready for a change.

“I think people wanted to be entertained at the core of things,” Wittman says. “The ‘70s and early ‘80s were great fun, but the ‘80s were the hangover of that. AIDS decimated our community, so we left New York at the height of that, and when we came back, it seemed like a new place. It wanted to laugh again.”

After “Hairspray” took off, Shaiman was besieged with invitations for all sorts of projects. But the invites finally stopped coming because he kept saying no. “Never say ‘no’ to lunch, as you can see,” he says and laughs in typical self-deprecating fashion. “We just didn’t want to do everything that was being thrown at us.”

Captivated by ‘Catch Me’

APART from writing the score for the ‘60s-flavored movie musical “Down With Love,” the one project that most captured him has been “Catch Me If You Can.” Wittman suggested it when he spotted a coffee-table book about the Spielberg film in a store.

“Scott loves the ‘60s and the stewardesses, the whole coffee-tea-or-me era,” Shaiman says. “It’s the ‘60s, but it’s not the ‘60s of ‘Hairspray.’ It’s the more swingin’, post-Kennedy assassination ‘60s, yet pre-Summer of Love.”

Shaiman’s score embraces that time, assigning Rat Pack-y songs to the older member of the father-son con men who drive the plot, while the younger man sings numbers inspired by the early British invasion.

The creative team behind the project is sufficiently high-powered -- in addition to Lane and O’Brien, it includes book writer Terrence McNally (“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Ragtime”) and “Hairspray” choreographer Jerry Mitchell (“Legally Blonde,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) -- that getting everyone in a room at the same time has been difficult. “But now we’re focusing,” Shaiman says.

And if “Catch Me” presages the string of Broadway hits that many observers expect, Shaiman could find his place in the pop culture pantheon of household names such as Richard Rodgers.

“I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that he belongs there and that -- how do I put that discreetly? -- he’s the next big thing,” O’Brien says. “His gift is so specific and so what we need onstage, so eminently theatrical, so effortlessly involving. We didn’t even realize the energy that was being uncorked with ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’

“Now everyone who does a musical wants a finale like ‘Hairspray.’ Honey, they only come along every 20 years. It’s a miracle, that finale.”


His well-versed catalog

Marc Shaiman’s music for stage and screen represents an encyclopedic sweep of sound. In addition to a Tony Award in 2003 for “Hairspray,” Shaiman has collected many ASCAP awards and received five Oscar nominations.