'Hairspray' Composer, Teasing Out Success

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 17, 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. It's fair to count Waters himself, the longtime Trashmeister of American indie pics. Then there was Harvey Fierstein doing the drag turn as Edna Turnblad, a tacky hausfrau in one of Charm City's lesser neighborhoods. Plus there was young Marissa Jaret Winokur as the chunky and progressive teen who plumps (pardon the pun) for equal rights while dancing her heart out and falling in love with the local heartthrob. Both actors won Tonys for their performances.

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, and the national tour has just opened at the Kennedy Center.

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.

"Just the hits," says the composer, whose spin on his lucrative Hollywood years is less than upbeat. "There are 45 or 46 more posters somewhere else."

There are also houses somewhere else -- one in Los Angeles (Laurel Canyon, to be exact) and one in the Hamptons. These are shared with Scott Wittman, Shaiman's partner since 1979; Wittman is a lyricist and theater director who is too busy to tag along with Shaiman in Los Angeles the way he used to. The Chelsea place, Shaiman and Wittman are proud to say, has just been redesigned with a 1970s vibe, and it's, well, a gas. (It has been photographed for Elle Decor; the results are slated for the September issue.) Shaiman leads a tour that includes the immaculate master bedroom, spacious and high-ceilinged, in tasteful shades of gray with a few trophies on bookshelves.

"Matthew Broderick says it looks like the inside of a Tony Award," Shaiman reports. ("The Brodericks," as Wittman refers to Broderick and wife Sarah Jessica Parker, circulate through Wittman and Shaiman's conversations like hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party. It's casually mentioned that the two couples recently vacationed together and that when Shaiman and Wittman were nominated for a Tony for "Hairspray," Parker and Broderick optimistically arranged to present the award for best score.)

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 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."

Wittman, the calm half of the partnership, says he reminds Shaiman that "Catch Me" must wait: McNally's busy working on a play, and they have to get Short's piece ready. (Wittman describes himself as an East Coast guy, a "theater guy," but he looks pure Malibu: tanned and trim in ripped jeans and a thin white shirt unbuttoned almost to the navel, with the beach effect magnified by the apartment's bright, ultra-mod living room. The walls, the leather couch, the padded bar, the baby grand piano beside a smoked mirror, the remote-controlled shades over the wide bank of windows are all white. According to Wittman, "Matthew Broderick says it's like being inside an iPod.") "I feel it's all in measured time," Wittman concludes of their schedule.

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