Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Marc Shaiman Talks About Bette, That Kiss, Those Oscar Parodies, and oh yeah, a certain little benefit
showcasing a certain songwriter...
Expanded Edition from the 2/4/04 issue of Windy City Times
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Shaiman with life partner Scott Whitman post-kiss accepting their Tony Awards for the little musical that could and with the
author at the Chicago benefit honoring his music
Marc Shaiman literally began his career at the top – working with Bette Midler’s backing group The Harlettes and the Divine One
herself. He has scored over 40 motion pictures (everything from Sleepless In Seattle to The First Wives Club), won an Emmy for
helping Billy Crystal create those beloved Oscar parodies, found himself nominated for the Oscar himself five times (including a
nod for “Blame Canada,” the hilarious song from the South Park movie), and won the Tony award for the music he composed and
lyrics he co-wrote (with partner Scott Whitman) for the instant mega hit, Hairspray. All this before turning 45.
Many gay men and women may recognize Shaiman from the conclusion to his memorable acceptance speech during last June’s
Tony Awards. While accepting for Best Score along with his partner and fellow Tony winner, co-lyricist Scott Wittman, Shaiman
publicly declared his love for his partner of 24 years and topped it off with a heartfelt smooch to thunderous applause (and lots of
drubbing in the conservative media for weeks afterwards).
Shaiman will be in Chicago to play the piano and preside over two nearly sold-out shows of his music that will be emceed by
Hairspray star Bruce Vilanch and company. The shows will be performed at Gentry on State (440 N. State 312-836-0933 for
information) this Monday, February 9th (some tickets remain for the 10:30 show and there will be a simulcast into the bar area).
The benefit – for Harbor House and Bonaventure House – was put together by Hairspray’s touring musical director, Jim Vukovich
and Eric McCool of Gentry.
I spoke to Shaiman as he was preparing to work on yet another Academy Awards parody number for show host Billy Crystal.
rkj: I HAVE TO CONFESS THAT I ONCE STALKED YOU – SORT OF. I WAS IN WEST HOLLYWOOD IN 1991 AND I SPOTTED YOU IN A
CHINESE RESTAURANT. I WANTED TO TELL YOU HOW GREAT I THOUGHT—
MS: Genghis Kahn was?
rkj: NO – “FOR THE BOYS.” YOU DID AMAZING WORK ON THAT FILM. I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED THAT IT DIDN’T DO BETTER.
MS: Thank you. Of course, I was, too. The material was perfect for Bette – “Stuff Like That There” and “P.S. I Love You” and
the rest really let her be herself in a way that no other movie has done.
rkj: MY MUSICAL PARTNER AND I HAVE BEEN OPENING OUR CABARET SHOW WITH YOUR ARRANGEMENT OF “STUFF LIKE THAT
THERE” EVER SINCE – WITH OUR OWN PARODY LYRICS. IT TAKES A BIT OF CHUTZPAH TO ADMIT THAT AS I’M TALKING TO THE
KING OF PARODY LYRICS. HOW DID YOU GET INTO PARODY TO BEGIN WITH?
MS: From reading Mad magazine as a kid. My favorite words in the English language are, “As sung to the tune of…” I remember
“Bubby Strident,” the parody of Barbra Streisand’s musicals.
rkj: IT’S REALLY FUN STUFF, ISN’T IT?
MS: Yeah. The biggest laugh that I’ve ever heard through anything I’ve generated has been through those parodies. I’ve been
lucky enough to have people like Bette Midler and Billy Crystal performing them.
rkj: HAVE YOU STARTED WORKING ON THIS YEAR’S OSCAR PARODY YET?
MS: We have our first meeting tomorrow night. I actually have to watch tonight and tomorrow “Lord of the Rings” part three and
the Russell Crowe one, “Master & Commander.” I actually have another movie on my shelf of the same title. (WE’RE
LAUGHING). I wonder if there’s been a “Lord of the Cock Rings?”
rkj: NO DOUBT! WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR CAREER, IT SEEMS LIKE ALL ROADS LEAD BACK TO BETTE MIDLER. HOW DID YOU
MEET THE DIVINE MISS?
MS: The first in a million examples of my life in which I’ve been so lucky is that I went to see, ironically, a show called “Boy Meets
Boy” at the Actor’s Playhouse in Sheridan Square in New York with a friend from New Jersey when I was 16. When the show was
over we ran into some other friends and we just walked right into this little piano bar. It was just the four of us in this place at
four in the afternoon and I was playing and this bartender said, “Hey, you’re good, wait right here” and he went next door where
there were a group of people putting on a comedy revue and they needed a new piano player. They said can you play “Together,
Wherever We Go” cheesy? I said, “Cheesy, like at a Bar Mitzvah?” I had never met people who had that sense of humor. We hit
it off immediately and I started coming in on the weekends to play for them and I would stay in their apartment. Ulla Hedwig,
who was one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes lived across the hall so I was just lucky enough to meet all these people who are still my
best friends including my lover, who were all part of this troop, Cocktails For Five.
rkj: AND MISS M?
MS: Because I was across the hall and such a Bette Midler fanatic, I knew the kind of harmony that the Harlettes would sing and I
would work for nothing because I was 16 and in awe, they decided to do their own cabaret act and I became their musical director
for all those reasons. And lo and behold, the act was a big success and Bette decided to do another tour and said, “I’ll let you
open my show if you come back and be the Harlettes again.” So the girls got to do an opening act for Bette’s show and I had to
run to California to put together a half hour version of their cabaret act and teach it to the band. There I was still only 17 and my
fantasy was coming true. I was sitting on a couch in a rehearsal studio with Bette Midler in front of me. It was literally a dream
until she slapped me silly and woke me from my dreams and the dream became reality (laughing). That was 26 years ago.
rkj: ARE YOU SELF-TAUGHT? DID YOU TRAIN?
MS: I only took piano lessons. Everything else was self-taught. There’s no real music in my family that I know about. It really
is almost kind of bizarre.
rkj: DIDN’T YOU SORT OF BLUFF YOUR WAY INTO YOUR FIRST MOVIE SCORING JOB?
MS: Yes, that’s not something I knew how to do – the nuts and bolts of it. It’s not something I grew up thinking about as I did
writing musicals, though I always loved it. So when Rob Reiner asked me to do that it was a huge leap of faith on both of our
rkj: NOW YOU’VE DONE A LOT OF FILMS WITH SOME INCREDIBLE SCORES. WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR MUSICAL MENTORS IN THAT
MS: Oh, the usual list of suspects – Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, Henry Mancini – the typical but the
reason that it’s a cliché to bring them up is because they’re so brilliant.
rkj: IS THERE A MOVIE PROJECT YOU’RE WORKING ON NOW?
MS: The next movie is the one that Matt and Trey are making, the creators of “South Park.” It’s not a “South Park” movie but it’
s certainly in the spirit of “South Park.” It’s called “Team America” but that won’t be until next year.
rkj: THAT ALSO SEEMS LIKE A SERENDIPITIOUS RELATIONSHIP.
MS: Oh yeah.
rkj: HOW’D YOU HOOK UP WITH THEM?
MS: The producer who had been bright enough to snatch up the rights to “South Park” before the TV show came on was Scott
Rudin who I’d worked with a lot. When Trey came to him and said, “I know I want the movie to be a musical” Scott Rudin said, “I’
ve got the guy for you who can help you realize your vision and help you on all sorts of things.” The joy of “South Park” more
than any other project, was that I really got to exercise all my gifts. Please write that I laughed when I said the word “gifts!!!”
I wrote music, I wrote lyrics, I arranged music, I orchestrated, I even sang, and I’m even in it playing for Big Gay Al. So I got to
do everything I ever wanted to do.
rkj: AND WITH “HAIRSPRAY” YOU GOT TO WRITE A HIT BROADWAY MUSICAL.
MS: That was good.
rkj: WHAT’S IT LIKE TO WORK WITH YOUR PARTNER?
MS: It’s great. The biggest problem in our marriage was probably the time we weren’t working together cause it was so odd to be
working on something that he wasn’t and vice versa. We met as co-workers on that revue I spoke of and that’s how we first
bonded over a similar way of thinking about things. Our writing together has never been a cause for fighting or tension. Only
when one of us feels like doing something and the other is procrastinating – that ‘s the only time it causes any marital strife.
rkj: IT SOUNDS LIKE THE SECRET TO 24 YEARS OF BLISS IS TOGETHERNESS.
MS: It’s all so cliché but yes and to have a strong friendship as well as everything is obviously what I think the key is.
rkj: TALK ABOUT THE RESPONSE TO THE KISS AND THE DECLARATION AT THE TONY AWARDS.
MS: It was all unplanned – none of that was pre-meditated. For two weeks or so we had our fifteen minutes of fame and the
wonderful fallout is the fabulous letters and responses we get. I can never quite sum up how it was but I was walking down the
street just a few days after that and I saw a guy and I could see that he recognized me and he said as he walked past me, “Have
a great life, honey” and it was so sweet that I just wanted to cry. The look in his eye, the smile and the way that he said it and
also his class. It was a lovely, lovely moment.
rkj: I REMEMBER TURNING TO MY PARTNER AND SAYING, “OKAY, NOW I WANT A KISS. THEY JUST DID THAT FOR ALL OF US.
MS: For Scott and I it was such a joyous moment. It’s funny how when everyone speaks of that moment they talk about how
they started crying and Scott and I were just laughing. It’s funny to realize that you’ve done something that perhaps has moved
people. It was quite a moment and it was our spontaneous joy and the naturalness of it that I think was the best. It was not so
much that people see two men kiss but they see them kiss in such a natural way. Who would think twice about this with a straight
couple? It would be such a non-issue it wouldn’t even register in your brain.
rkj: LET’S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE BENEFIT WHICH IS BRINGING YOU TO OUR FRIGID CITY. WHERE DID YOU FIND JIM
MS: In a gay bar on the upper west side (laughs).
rkj: THE PERFECT SPOT TO FIND A MUSICAL DIRECTOR FOR “HAIRSPRAY” WHICH SEEMS TO BE THE FIRST OPENLY GAY MUSICAL.
MS: Actually I didn’t know Jim at all. He was brought in by our present musical director on Broadway, Lon Hoyt and/or other
people involved with the show. I was told, “We’ve lined up a great musical director” and I met him the first day of rehearsals.
rkj: WHEN DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT THIS BENEFIT?
MS: Well Jim wrote to me – we’re both AOL junkies – and he threw this idea at me and I have done shows like this in the past.
One frustration over the past few years is I’ve been just too busy to do one of these revues. Ironically, I used to do them when I
was quite young to the point that when I was 24 I titled the show, “Mark Shaiman: The First 50 Years” because I was wildly prolific
– I’m not saying it was all good – but I wrote a lot of stuff from the time I hit New York at 17.
rkj: WHAT ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS THAT PEOPLE ARE GOING TO HEAR?
MS: It’s going to be fun to hear a lot of the material that we cut along the way for “Hairspray.” We’re going to present almost
everything that got cut. There’s like six or seven songs there. Perhaps we’ll learn why they were cut in the first place!
rkj: I SUSPECT THERE’S AN AUDIENCE FOR “UNSUNG SHAIMAN.”
MS: Oh, people always love “Unsung Whomever” – they’d rather hear what was cut then what was there. It always gives you that
rkj: SO YOU’RE GOING TO PLAY THE PIANO?
MS: Yes, I’m going to play and perform as much as they will let me.
rkj: AND BRUCE VILLANCH IS GOING TO BE THE EMCEE?
MS: Yeah although we haven’t worked that out so I guess maybe we’ll figure that out on the fly (laughs).
rkj: WHAT MADE YOU SAY YES TO THIS?
MS: You know – ego, ego, ego. All kidding aside, it was a lovely gesture on Jim’s part and then for the cast to sign on to
participate. It was a really, really sweet gesture and it’s for a good cause and it was great for me because it’ll shake me up into
thinking about how can I do more evenings like this. I’ve been itching to do this again whether it’s a one-night thing or a week or
on Broadway or off-Broadway or in a club. I don’t know but this is certainly whetting my appetite once again.
rkj: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT “CATCH ME IF YOU CAN,” YOUR NEXT MUSICAL PROJECT?
MS: Yeah, Scott and I have written seven songs so far and Terrence McNally is writing the script and it’s very exciting. It was Scott’
s idea. I like the fact that when I first mention it to people they don’t immediately go, “Oh yeah, that’ll be great” like when they
heard “Hairspray” – that was such a no-brainer. This one you have to think about for 20 seconds before you realize how it could
be and I kinda like that. Hopefully that’s what will be wonderful about it.
It’s got more emotion and subtext – the father and son theme, how society judges people on the way they look and how they’re
dressed and what you can get away with if you put on the right costume. The truth is besides hopefully being a very, very sexy
musical; it’ll be a tearjerker.
rkj: ALL THOSE ELEMENTS ARE CERTAINLY THERE IN THE MATERIAL.
MS: Meanwhile, we have a lot of writing to do. And of course working with Steven Spielberg and having his blessing and hearing
his joy after hearing the first few songs we wrote has been very, very exciting.
rkj: IS THERE A DATE YOU’RE SHOOTING FOR?
MS: I’m like an instant gratification type so I’m hoping it will go as fast as possible. We were lucky with “Hairspray” that it was a
process that went quite fast although this one I hope goes even faster.
rkj: ARE YOU GOING TO WRITE A MUSICAL FOR BETTE MIDLER?
MS: I would love to. I’ve always thought about it but the idea of her doing eight shows a week is so hard for me to comprehend
and if you say black she says white and if you say yes she says no and the idea of writing a musical for her might fall into the
“Life’s Too Short” category. But the idea of seeing her on Broadway in a musical would be amazing and to be a part of that would
be very soul satisfying.
rkj: LAST QUESTION. WHAT HAVE YOU NOT DONE THAT YOU WANT TO DO?
MS: Play Edna in “Hairspray.” (laughs) No, it’s a very lovely thing to be able to say at 44 that I have actually pretty much done
everything I ever fantasized ever doing and I feel very, very lucky, very blessed.
rkj: I THINK THEY SHOULD RETITLE THE BENEFIT, “MARK SHAIMAN: THE FIRST 100 YEARS.”
MS: Yes – they should!