Before 2002, I already knew Marc Shaiman as the piano player for the hilarious Sweeney Sisters sequences on "Saturday Night Live" and via his cartoon appearance as Big Gay Al's accompanist in "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," as well as several other onscreen appearances. And I knew Shaiman's work as arranger and general musical genius behind many albums I treasured, particularly the soundtracks for the movies "Beaches," "Sister Act" and "When Harry Met Sally." I was a huge fan of Scott Wittman's work conceiving and directing theatrical concerts for Patti LuPone and I knew he and Shaiman had created original Off-Broadway musicals together in years past.
I was aware of their talents, but nothing could have prepared me for Hairspray. I love all of John Waters' movies, but truth be told, "Hairspray" isn't my favorite and as we all know, when movies are adapted into Broadway musicals, they don't always come out as well as we might hope! I wouldn't say my expectations were low, but what I experienced when I first saw the show was staggering, and I returned to see the production five more times over the course of its six-plus-year run. I can count only a handful of new musicals I've seen in my lifetime which have filled a Broadway theatre so richly. This must have been what it was like to see the original productions of Fiddler On The Roof, Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! I felt that way right from the top of the opening number — the first time I ever heard a Shaiman and Wittman song.
Click through to read my selections for the top 10 songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
|photo by Will Hart/NBC|
10. "Don't Forget Me" from Bombshell (as seen on "Smash")
People could quibble that "Don't Forget Me" is only moving while sung climactically by Megan Hilty as Ivy Lynn as Marilyn in the musical Bombshell on the TV show "Smash." It's true that the value of "Don't Forget Me" is hinged on us connecting to the person making this grand statement, but I think the lyrics successfully balance enough reference to the familiar Marilyn Monroe legend to give the song a point with enough common ground for people to sympathize, and then the melody simply soars. Nobody can do a grand exit statement like Shaiman and Wittman. It's what the genre of contemporary Broadway would sound like — if such a genre existed.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
9. "Goodbye" from Catch Me If You Can
Another impassioned farewell, this one from an actual musical in real life, Catch Me If You Can's "Goodbye" is further evidence Shaiman and Wittman are in a class by themselves. The lyrics manage a fantastic trick of being optimistic and looking forward without offering any sugarcoating or platitudes. Musically, this is kind of what "My Way" would sound like if it were written today, or maybe works by Burt Bacharach if he'd been a few decades younger. It's the kind of pop song that might have evolved if Broadway had continued to feed the pop charts instead of being relegated to the easy listening bin.
8. "They Just Keep Moving The Line" from Bombshell (as seen on "Smash")
As gifted as Shaiman and Wittman are at those modern Broadway pop anthems, they are at least at agile at slipping on more stylized skin in a variety of pastiches and homages to musical eras. Bombshell on "Smash" gave them the opportunity to score with several mid-century showbizzy sounds, but perhaps none as memorably as Marilyn's torchy number, "They Just Keep Moving The Line." Most of us in life pride ourselves — maybe even comfort ourselves — in what troopers we are, so this is actually a Shaiman and Wittman anthem wrapped in pastiche.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
I remember having an intense emotional reaction to "Fly, Fly Away" when I saw Kerry Butler sing it in Catch Me If You Can on Broadway. And then, again, when I watched every video of the song that I could find online. And then, again, when I saw Catch Me If You Can a second time. There's something haunting about it. Maybe it's the idea of loving someone enough to set them free. Maybe it's the soulful melody that just gets in your head. I couldn't stop listening to it and singing it and feeling that longing that I experienced in the theatre. Ironically, for a song about flying away, it stays with you.
6. "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now" from Hairspray
It's clear Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have a great appreciation for the music of Motown, based on their lovingly expert emulation of those sounds and forms throughout their score of Hairspray. This love is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the toe-tapping early Act One triple "I want" song, "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now." The song ingeniously positions the monosyllabic protestations of mother-teen conflict as a girl-group style background vocal chorus, which hooks the audience in before the song has even established itself. In the time period Hairspray is set, ingénues couldn't express themselves so frankly and realistically in a Broadway musical; but now they can, and it makes the characters infinitely more relatable — even the "bad guys." This is Bye, Bye, Birdie 2.0.
5. "Let Me Be Your Star" from Bombshell (as seen on "Smash")
For the opening sequence of the series premiere of "Smash" and the show's theme song, Shaiman and Wittman created an instant standard in "Let Me Be Your Star." I don't know if a song has ever so eloquently described the relationship between a star and her fans as, "Her smile and your fantasies play a duet." "Smash" is over, but "Let Me Be Your Star" is here to say.
4. "I Can Hear The Bells" from Hairspray
If the 1960s musicals Funny Girl and Hallelujah, Baby! put Jewish women and black women, respectively, front and center as the protagonists of a major musical, then Hairspray most definitely does that for plus-size women. Part of the beauty of Hairspray is that, together with the civil rights plotline — and the casting of a man as Edna Turnblad — the message is that we're all invited along for the ride. There's something universally empowering about underdog Tracy Turnblad getting the guy. Her hymn of positive thinking, with its infectious melody and fabulous, insightfully colloquial lyrics, completes Hairspray's trifecta of three out-and-out showstoppers in the first 20 minutes of the play.
3. "Butter Outta Cream"/"Fifty Checks" from Catch Me If You Can
Years before Catch Me If You Can opened on Broadway, a song from its still developmental score was making the rounds. Marc Shaiman sang "Fifity Checks" on CUNY TV's "Theatre Talk," he sang it at press events, he sang it on the Internet — I'm pretty sure he sang it at a few dinner parties. It was a wise move. It's a classic light swing like the Rat Pack would have done, and sure enough, the 50 checks of the title open up into a swell list of colorful and fun rhymes. Of course, being a great song does not guarantee something will work in a musical and, like many before it in the history of Broadway, "Fifty Checks" was cut. What replaced it was another fantastic old-school number like Sammy, Frank and Dean would have sung. Even better, "Butter Outta Cream" is a parable "story song" in the great tradition of "High Hopes" and "Artificial Flowers," so it works just as well "outta" the show as it does in context.
2. "You Can't Stop The Beat" from Hairspray
In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad's passion for dancing leads her to fight for racial integration. This social message avoids becoming heavy handed through the use of comedic storytelling as well as its being grounded in all the teenagers' shared love of music, including the popular, white kids; the black kids on the other side of town; and the outcasts. The final feat of the evening is the groovy and triumphant anthem, "You Can't Stop The Beat," which makes a powerful analogy of societal change to pop cultural evolution.
1. "Good Morning, Baltimore" from Hairspray
An opening number can make or break a show. The audience wants to be told they're in good hands — hands that will entertain them and leave them feeling like they didn't waste their time, that they experienced something special — so they can suspend their disbelief and take the journey of the show. After a strong opening, an audience will follow a show anywhere and go out on a limb. If the opening is weak, the audience may sit with their arms crossed, unable to invest in even the most unassuming of scenarios onstage. Hairspray has a sublime opening number in "Good Morning, Baltimore." From the very beginning, a retro "oh, oh, oh," it's clear exactly when this is. As the music crashes and soars literally all around in the 1960s "wall of sound" style, the lyrics instantly endear us to Tracy and her situation. We're charmed by the John Waters funky-meets-Broadway sunny sort of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" in hell as Tracy describes her everyday commute by rats, a flasher and a bum, with unflinching joy. She sings "some day when I take to the floor, the world's gonna wake up and see, Baltimore and me," and we believe her. We want her to have that.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)