A five-time Oscar nominee, Emmy winner and multi-ASCAP Award recipient, composer Marc Shaiman had done everything in Hollywood. In 2000, his Academy Award-nominated song "Blame Canada" — co-written with "South Park"'s Trey Parker — had Robin Williams warbling it on national TV. (Not that having comedians sing his material is new for Shaiman - he won his Emmy for Billy Crystal's Oscar song montages.) But while his name was becoming a little more household thanks to "South Park," Shaiman started work on a new endeavor, a musical of John Water's cult film Hairspray. Co-writing with his professional and personal partner of 25 years, Scott Wittman, the composer-lyricist-arranger is now having the luck of Mel Brooks: his first Broadway score is a bonafide hit.
Playbill On-Line: Do you have a favorite moment in Hairspray?
Mark Shaiman: That's like asking a mother about her children! The parent's duet — "Timeless to Me" — Scott and I love that. It's us. It's what they call a charm song and we have two charming performers. Also "I Know Where I've Been" [the 11 o'clock number sung by Motormouth Mabel (Mary Bond Davis) before "The Corny Collins Show" is integrated]. It focuses on what the fight is all about, reminds them that integrating the dance show is not some small thing. It elevates the show to be more than frivolous entertainment, but isn't a boring lesson in morality either. "I Know Where I've Been" pinpoints the heart of the show.
PBOL: Did John Waters give you any memorable advice?
MS: His notes are usually about how they didn't say this or they wouldn't wear that. But the other night, he had only one note. "I want Corny's green shoes."
PBOL: Do you remember the first show you and Scott wrote together?
MS: Sure. Cocktails for Five at the old Duplex on Grove Street. Scott directed his four best friends in it and they're still our best friends.
PBOL: Do you ever have problems writing with the person you love?
MS: Hairspray is a dream come true for us individually, but also as a couple. Working on this show has really shown us how well-suited we are for [musical theatre] and for each other. It was never "We can't work today — we had a fight." We finish each other's sentences. PBOL: How do you write - music first, then lyrics or vice versa?
MS: First we talk about what the song needs to be, the title or hook. Then I go to the piano — "Play, monkey, play!" — and make a dummy lyric. Scott has been responsible for all of the titles on Hairspray. For example, he said, "The first song has to be 'Good Morning, Baltimore.'" Then we carve away. I'm the nuts and bolts, the professor, the "we need two syllables here." Scott's good at sprinkling it all with hipper words.
PBOL: One of the songs you lost in Seattle was "Velma's Cha Cha." Can you walk me through the process of cutting one number and adding another, "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs"?
MS: What we needed on this song was laughs. It's about exposing the bigotry and what's status quo in Baltimore, but it's also rejection of the main character [Tracy Turnblad, played by Marissa Jaret Winokur]. We had to have a character make fun of her, but the audience just loves her. To the audience, "Velma's Cha Cha" was medicine and they didn't like taking their medicine. We kept the same music, but rewrote the lyric from "no one on my team should ever look like that" to "I prefer the status quo." But it was just a smart version of the same song. We thought, "How can we show the racism and bigotry, but make Velma comical so we're laughing at her?" Even on Broadway, we tweaked. "Baltimore Crabs" was a fantasy, but after the first preview, we slapped our foreheads. Tracy just had a fantasy ["I Can Hear the Bells], now the villain is trying to top it? Now the song is conversational. Velma is saying it to the kids and that gets the point across.
PBOL: How different is film scoring from Broadway scoring?
MS: If a movie is not doing well, well...A composer once said, "We're sort of like undertakers. We can make up a body, but we can't make it breathe." With Hairspray, Scott and I are all over it. It reeks of what we love and who we are. We take the audience response personally. After the show, we'd like to stand up in the theatre and hug every person. It's so us up there on stage.
PBOL: I found it interesting that you also arrange your music. Because of your work on film and as a musical director, is it just natural to do your own arrangements?
MS: Composing, arranging is all related, especially in film music. What textures, what instruments are playing is as much the composition as the melody and the chords. When we'd write for Hairspray, I'd demo with full-out arrangements so the listener could hear how it would sound. It all happens together for me.
PBOL: With all the excitement about Hairspray, are you planning another musical for Broadway?
MS: We'd love to write another one. We'd love to write a show for Nathan Lane.
— By Christine Ehren