Marc Shaiman is the Tony Award-winning composer and co-lyricist of Hairspray which is currently running through January 29th at Signature Theatre. The score for Hairspray also won him and his partner Scott Whitman a Grammy Award. His work as a composer or arranger has also been heard on Broadway in Catch Me If You Can, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, Leader of The Pack and Harlem Nocturne. He has been seen on camera for ‘The Sweeney Sisters’ sketches on Saturday Night Live which began his long relationships with Billy Crystal and Martin Short.
Marc’s film credits include Mr. Saturday Night, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. He has written special material for the Emmys, Tonys, and Academy Award shows, and has worked with the likes of Bette Midler and Harry Connick, Jr. His next project will be writing songs for the new TV series Smash. I am honored that Marc did this interview for my column.
You worked on a show called Leader of the Pack which featured the songs of Ellie Greenwich. What are your memories of that show?
On the plus side: working alongside the glorious voices of Darlene Love and Annie Golden and meeting band-leader Jimmy Vivino, who I later collaborated with on Sister Act. On the negative side: watching certain people take a joyous concert of incredible music and creating a overblown musical that stopped music making dead in it’s tracks. Luckily, the songs and the records live on forever. As do my friendships with Darlene, Annie, and Jimmy.
How many readings and workshops did Hairspray go through before getting to Broadway?
Four. The first reading was just Act One. By the fourth, it was clear there was something special happening.
What do you remember about your first meeting with Bette Midler?
When I was around 14 or so, I was exposed to the gargantuan talents of Bette Midler and became quite obsessed. I cut school once to see her in concert. As she sang I imagined myself running to the stage, saying “Oh Miss Midler, I know every note of every arrangement of every song of every album of yours. Please let me play for you”.
When I was 16 (having received a high-school equivalency diploma), I got a job in NYC playing for a comedy act which was directed by Scott Wittman. I would stay with Scott and his roommates on the weekends and as fate would have it, one of Bette Midler’s back-up girls (“The Harlettes”) lived across the hall from them. The Harlettes were looking to do an act on their own and because I knew all about the harmonies they’d want (from studying Bette Midler records and the records those albums led me too), because I lived across the hall and mostly because I would work for free, I got the gig.
The act was a hit and Bette asked the girls to go back on the road and she would let them open her show. I was flown to LA to put together the girls opening act and after the girls rehearsed, I sat in the back of the theatre as Bette herself came in to start her own rehearsal. At some point, she asked her band (all strangers to her repertoire) to play a song from her 3rd album. They were stymied. One of the Harlettes whispered something in Bette’s ear while pointing out at me. Bette yelled out “Hey, can you play “No Jestering?”.
And I actually got to run to the stage and say “Oh Miss Midler, I know every note of every arrangement of every song of every album of yours. Please let me play for you.”
Your two Broadway musicals Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can take place in the 1960s. Do you have a particular fascination with this time period or is it just coincidental that both shows are set in this time frame?
It really was just a coincidence that both these stories took place in the 60’s but from Leader of the Pack, Sister Act, and Down With Love, the 60’s palette has always been inspiring to me. It was the last time every kind of music was played on the same radio station, and I was lucky to have grown up then.
Which medium do you like scoring music for the most, TV, film or theatre?
They are all very different. I really do love writing underscore for film (and now with SMASH, TV) but there is nothing like writing songs for live theatre. Actually, just songwriting overall. Composing music (for underscore) is great, but writing or co-writing lyrics is just as thrilling, so when I get to combine those two things, I am in heaven.
Watch Marc accompany Bette Midler as she sings “One for My Baby (And One For The Road)” on The Johnny Carson Show on May 21, 1992.
Watch a video preview of Smash.
Composer Marc Shaiman performs “Fifty Checks” from Catch Me if You Can. Co-lyricist Scott Wittman looks on with Bruce Vilanch, Michael Riedel, and Susan Haskins on ‘Theater Talk.’
Watch the cast of Catch Me if You Can at the 65th Tony Awards performing “Live In Living Color” performed by Aaron Tveit, and “Don’t Break The Rules” performed by Norbert Leo Butz and the company. Music by Marc Shaiman and Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
The original Broadway cast of Hairspray performs “You Can’t Stop the Beat”on the 2003 Tony Awards where it won 8 awards.
The most energetic video performance of “You Can’t Stop the Beat“ from Hairspray you probably ever see.
The Smash website.
Watch Joel Markowitz’s short but very fun interview with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on The Red Carpet at the 2011 Drama Desk Awards. Go to 7:48 to hear them schmooze.