The Pop Alchemist
With 'Hairspray,' Marc Shaiman becomes the Broadway composer Broadway never knew it was waiting for.
July 21, 2002
By Jesse Green

It would happen to Marc Shaiman: he has written the best song of his life, and they're thinking of cutting it.

Shaiman is too much of a team player to say who "they" are, but presumably they include, beside the tireless demons of his own imagination, some of his collaborators on "Hairspray," a new musical based on John Waters's coiffurious 1988 movie. Those collaborators include several people who helped make two other movie‑to‑musical coiffurious movie transformations ‑ "The Full Monty" and "The Producers" ‑ into big hits, so Shaiman takes them seriously. Still, he is the composer (and, with Scott Wittman, the co‑lyricist) and perhaps the most remarkable pop music savant to try his hand at a Broadway show since ‑ well, you'd have to go pretty far back. He is also filled with dread that none of that will matter if the emotional center of his work on the project ends up carpeting the orchestra pit.

Saying that Shaiman is filled with dread, though, is like saying he's filled with blood; despite the antidepressant Celexa and a panoply of anxiety‑reducing fetishes, he can only aspire to pessimism. The problem isn't self‑doubt; he's actually quite confident of his own abilities. "I can literally go to a piano; play a chord and hush a room. I know it," he says. But the room hasn't always assembled to listen: at 42, he's the best Broadway composer who almost never happened. No matter that he has become, over the last 13 years, a huge success scoring movies in Hollywood. On his own sacred turf‑ once the land of "Gypsy," now ruled by melodramas and rickety revues ‑ he has been ignored, despite a gift for tuneful‑but‑smart music that Broadway has been withering without.

Whatever else they do, Shaiman and Wittman's songs for "Hairspray" give old‑fashioned instant pleasure. This is the base line in Shaiman’s work, whether a movie score like "Sister Act" or the numbers he and Trey Parker wrote for "South Park." That animated feature was deliberately crude, but its uncanny mimicry of a dozen standard forms (rousing march, hero song) amounted to a loving parody of, or nasty tribute to, the whole movie musical genre. (The march was "Blame Canada"; the hero was the figure skater Brian Boitano.) Shaiman admits that it's hard to keep steady when walking that line between parody and tribute; "South Park" walked it brilliantly ‑ or danced it, really, because Shaiman's songs always have powerful beats to go with their catchy hooks. If some of them seem to be recombinations of existing material, well, all music is the recombination of existing material. There are only 12 tones and, if you want more than 12 people to listen, only a few viable chords. What distinguishes good songs from the rest is the way those paltry materials are transformed by the composer's intelligence, and yearnings, into something never quite sung before.

Shaiman, the human jukebox, in his Manhattan apartment. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

In its manic sampling of musical culture, "South Park" gave a taste of that, but the forms it was spoofing were already fairly debased. In "Hairspray," Shaiman started with better models (classic early‑60's pop) and has succeeded at a higher level. It's not that the source material didn't pose dangers: Waters's camp sensibility is like a hooker with a heart of gold and a bad case of syphilis. Still, beneath its froufrou, the story offered its adapters a strong spine. When an overweight, working‑class teenager named Tracy Turnblad reaches her goal of becoming a star on a Baltimore version of "American Bandstand," circa 1962, she helps her black friends, who have been relegated to a once‑a‑month "Negro Day," break into the studio and integrate the show. The personal becomes political, and the political becomes fabulous.

For Shaiman, the theme of integration was a natural fit. "This sounds awful," he says, "but since I was a kid, I was always most thrilled when the black kids were impressed. I want them to like me, just like Tracy." Like Tracy, too, he loves the interplay of "black" and "white" music. More crucially, he identifies with the ungainly girl desperate to break into show biz. Perhaps because of these connections, Shaiman has written a score that flies so far past pastiche as to be transfigured into something else entirely. It's as if he has crashed through the irony ceiling into a realm that is once again beautiful and pure. The result, to my ears, is the best pop Broadway score ‑ part Motown, part Merman ‑ since pop and Broadway parted company some 30 years ago.

Despite that, Shaiman doesn't look happy at the first orchestra run-through. Sitting amid the plush chinoiserie of the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle, where "Hairspray" has just begun its tryout run (it opens in New York on Aug. 15), he alternately calls out corrections, stabs imaginary chords in the air and twists his hair like a toddler. He never looks at the score piled beside him but seems to be deep inside the arrangements anyway, investigating, like a surgeon, its "licks" and "noodles" and "grooves." Meanwhile, the rest of us merely enjoy the parade of authentic and yet entirely new sounds as the 15‑piece band rips through Harold Wheeler's orchestrations: isn't that the Ronettes? The Temptations? Plus Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops, Ashford and Simpson, Ellie Greenwich, rockabilly, R&B ‑ and for the older characters a nice beguine and a glassy blast of Nelson Riddle. The variety and intensity are astounding; Shaiman calls himself "a musical Rain Man," so easily do songs of any genre emerge from the vast, random‑access jukebox that is his brain. Number after number, the score not only tells the story of "Hairspray" but also suggests, in the way all great things do, how even the most moribund forms (they don't call Broadway the Fabulous Invalid for nothing) can be resuscitated by joy.

Maybe he shouldn't have been born in 1959, with all but a decade of Broadway's heyday done. In any case, as the product of a decidedly unmusical family from Scotch Plains, NJ., Shaiman didn't seem likely to be the next prince of Tin Pan Alley. All three of his older siblings ditched piano lessons almost as soon as they started, and though Manhattan was just a 45‑minute drive away, the family didn't attend many Broadway shows. One they did catch was "Fiddler on the Roof," which Shaiman remembers less for its playing the role of Tzeitel.

Bette Midler weaves in and out of Shaiman's life like a particularly sinuous background vocal. Her early albums, which he deconstructed as if they were Talmud, helped to consecrate his love of music. In that, he shared with other prodigies the strange combination of a seemingly uninvited obsession and an iron will to feed it. He had been playing piano perfectly since 7, and by 9 was set on a career. "I remember coming home one night to find him not in his room," says his mother, Claire Shaiman. "Off the den downstairs, we had a little extra room, and he had moved his piano in there, and his bed, and all his posters of Bette, and said: 'I'm staying in this room forever. I'm playing the piano for the rest of my life.' What could we do? He was a prodigy!"

"A show‑biz prodigy," Shaiman explains. "Not a musical prodigy. I understood show music and arrangements, how to play some­thing when someone walked into a room. That stuff was in my heart and brain, and most of all in my fingers. And when I found I could reduce people to silence" ‑ as he first did at 12, accompanying auditions for a community‑theater production of "The Sound of Music" ‑ "I was hooked." The path to complete debauchery was short: "The Sound of Music" led to cutting classes, which led to leaving school at 16, which led to New York. "It was 1976," Shaiman says. "The year the tall ships arrived, and the short Jew."

Shaiman and Wittman, who have been a couple since 1979, are dining at a retro‑Rat Pack steakhouse during a break in rehearsals. Tall and silvery, Wittman fits right in; he's as suave and eupeptic as Shaiman is a cartoon of neurosis. (In the movie of their lives, they feel they should be played by Peter Lawford and Shrek.) Wittman, who is 47, barely blinks as Shaiman smothers a $40 steak with Heinz. After 23 years, the two men seem so intertwined, so pleased to be working together, that they look like an ad for life in the theater, with its come‑as‑you‑are camaraderie and overly neat plotting.

It was, after all, the luck of Wittman's living across the hall from one of Midler's original backup singers that helped Shaiman go from being Midler's biggest fan to her arranger in less than four years. Of course, it wasn't just luck. "My initial sense of him," Midler says, "was that he was a pest. He used to hang around and nag me, but he could really, really play. And he could arrange, which for a 16‑year‑old was a very big leap: how to take the music from something flat on a page to something that had not just life but genuine excitement. That was a gift."

Shaiman calls Midler "the Margaret Mead of popular music." Together, they stayed up all hours "song catching": singing through old sheet music and fake book. Whatever he didn't yet know of the American canon, he picked up at her piano. His mother was impressed. "So maybe through her you'll meet someone important," she said.

Meeting Midler and getting into show business were just two of the three dreams of his childhood. The third, writing a Broadway musical, remained elusive, but not for lack of effort. During the 80's, Shaiman worked, sometimes with Wittman, on dozens of shows, many for an East Village "venue" (actually a church basement) called Club 57. At first they produced musical spoofs they called "guerrilla dinner theater." But soon Shaiman made the leap from arranging other people's music to writing his own. Though the songs came effortlessly, often beautifully, Shaiman's luck was on hiatus; something went wrong with each of his original scores. One, called "Livin' Dolls," about Barbie and Ken, was a cult success downtown but ran afoul of Mattel on the eve of its uptown transfer. Four others never got that far. Shaiman was like a steelworker in a town whose mills were closing. Television took up some of the slack; for several seasons he wrote material for the Sweeney Sisters and for Billy Crystal on "Saturday Night Live." But medleys and parodies did not offer long‑term sustenance.

Stymied, he put together a revue of the best songs from those early shows. He called it "Marc Shaiman: the First 50 Years," which may have been a joke about his youth (he was not yet 30) but was a deeper joke about his age. Though ecstatically reviewed, it was his New York swan song: at the end of the final performance, he stood on top of the piano and announced that he was leaving the next day for his big break in Hollywood.

That break ‑ a job scoring the film "Big Business" ‑ evaporated and his cat was eaten by a coyote, but thus began his long dip into "the glorious quicksand" of a Hollywood career. Midler got him started; they picked her songs for "Beaches" together, and he brought her its hit, "The Wind Beneath My Wings." In quick succession ‑ more than a movie a year ‑ he worked as a music producer, arranger and eventually composer for an astonishing series of hits: "When Harry Met Sally," "Misery," "City Slickers," "The Addams Family," "Sister Act," "A Few Good Men," "Sleepless in Seattle," "The First Wives Club," "The American President," "George of the Jungle”, “In and Out” and at last in 1999, a real musical, “South Park.”

But Hollywood is famously a place of hidden soul dangers, perhaps symbolized for Shaiman by the discovery that "a live, huge nuclear rat" (actually an opossum) was living in the depths of his upright piano. His self‑described hobby ("losing Academy Awards" five times) grew tiresome, and with hip‑hop in ascendance in films, he began to worry that he'd outlasted another medium's heyday. As for Broadway, it seemed even more impossible. The ideas he tried to float ‑ a musical based on "My Man Godfrey," for instance ‑ were met with blank stares.

That Preston Sturges film is actually an apt property for musicalization, but in "Hairspray" he got an even better one. In part it's better because of the obvious musical richness of the setting: a 60's dance show ‑ more congenially, the early 60's. "We're emulating the moment when the pull of the beat, and of the attitude, was just beginning to be felt," Shaiman says. "But there was still an emphasis on great melody and chords, so the music straddled the fence of Broadway and the Brill Building."

That fence is now almost too high to climb. On the pop side, melody and harmony have long since succumbed to rhythm and attitude. On the Broadway side, the emergence of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the sung-through musical took most of the life out of show music. "Now, 'Jesus Christ Superstar' completely changed my life," Shaiman says. "But the stuff that came later, that's when I started losing interest. Everything about 'Cats' turned me off, especially the word 'Jellicle.'"

At the same time, there emerged in the musical theater the problem of seriousness with a capital S ‑ for Sondheim. "It's not that I don't adore Sondheim," Shaiman says. "I could sing you the whole score to 'Pacific Overtures' right now. I just don't know why everyone else felt they had to emulate him so. That's a once‑in‑a‑generation god. Me, I'm just a simpleton, a pinhead. I enjoy old‑style show business and making people laugh."

Perhaps it's predictable that the confirmed depressive is preoccupied not with sadness but with the attempt to overcome it. He wants to raise people to a happier plane. To the extent he has been able to do so in "Hairspray," it's because he did not compose a theater score with a few pop flourishes, but a pop score with great theatrical savvy. "The songs fit the characters," Shaiman explains, "but they're not lyric‑to‑lyric striving for that kind of dramatic specificity in which every word has to tell a story.' Instead he and Wittman wrote numbers that are structurally akin, to those in shows of the 30's and 40's: not interchangeable but not immovable either. You wouldn't have to alter more than a few words to render them singable by anyone. And every song has a sturdy hook: a verbal and musical motif that snags your interest and keeps you oriented from start to finish.

"It sounds hackish, but it's hard for me to imagine writing anything without that hook," Shaiman says. "And I always nail it." In "Hairspray," the hooks indicate the genre of the song and also its function in the score. The show opens with "Good Morning, Baltimore," a midtempo teenage yearning song, whose first drum riffs instantly peg the era and the propulsive dreams of a dancer. Later comes "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," a let‑me‑live‑my‑own‑life shuffle with a classic pop obbligato ("Stop! Don't! No!") for the mothers. You won't find any songs in a Marc Shaiman score with titles like "Chromolume No. 7" or "Soliloquy" songs in which the composer's story, or even the character's, is foremost. For Shaiman, it's always the music's story that's foremost: the story is the music.

Beyond their skillful use of period tricks, the songs from "Hairspray" are thrilling because they improve on the originals. The lyrics are witty and rhyme properly: "Without love, life is like a beat that you can't follow/ Without love, life is Doris Day at the Apollo." And musically, Shaiman is more than a miner of old styles; he's a jeweler who knows how to facet and set what he digs. His songs develop and vary craftily, sustaining as many as six choruses without becoming tedious. While many hits of the era just faded out, Wheeler, the orchestrator, has followed Shaiman's meticulous synthesizer demos by building each number to a socko finish. The score doesn't slip daintily between the Scylla of Sondheim and the Charybdis of Lloyd Webber; it rams right through them on a glorious wall of sound.

And that's the sound of "I Know Where I've Been." The song -whose fate, as the first Seattle performance begins, is still up in the air ‑ is a 12/8 Sam Cooke‑style civil rights anthem whose lyric suggests that a person's history must be the foundation of his future. Complete with humming chorus and organ flourishes, it would have been entirely legitimate as an R&B ballad of the era. As bellowed to the rafters by Mary Bond Davis and the black ensemble, it ingeniously serves a theatrical function as well: it's a perfect example of the traditional “11 o'clock" Broadway number, meant to crystallize an audience's good feelings about a show just before the final scene. Which may be the problem. However thrilling, "I Know Where I've Been" is a song about oppression. Some might find it too serious for a lightweight confection like "Hairspray."

To me, though, the song is the heart of the evening. Hearing a lyric like "There's a light in the darkness/though the night is black as my skin," declaimed by a black woman, while knowing it was written by a gay Jew (and his partner) is one of those subversive moments that lifts the score, and the show, past big fun to some kind of art. Not just the "South Park" subversiveness of mocking what you love, but the real subversiveness of loving what you're not supposed to: a person, a race, a tired old tradition. For all his tics and defenses, Shaiman is spectacularly unguarded emotionally. That's why his songs, which are in some ways conventional, possess unconventional power. He knows where he's been, and says so in every note.

And where he's going? ABC, Shaiman says, is producing a Barbie‑and‑Ken‑less version of "Livin' Dolls," and he's scheduled to write the score for a comedy starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. But no musicals are on the horizon, despite the likely success of "Hairspray." Even Midler hedges after saying she'd return to Broadway for a Shaiman score: "Wait, my husband says I can't ‑ I have too much garbage to pick up."

Meanwhile, as the first‑night audience in Seattle roars its approval of "I Know Where I'm Going," Shaiman smiles broadly. It may be because he was right about the song; no one will cut it now. Or it may be because he and Wittman dashed off a secret replacement on the plane ‑ just in case.

Jesse Green, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is the author of "The Velveteen Father."