Dynamic Duo

How Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman landed their dream job of composing 'Hairspray,' took the Oscars to the task of censorship, and rocked live television with a single, joy-induced kiss

Interview by Randy Shulman
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on August 4, 2005, 12:00am | Comments

It was the kiss that rocked the Tonys. And pissed off Fred Ebb.

"I thought they made spectacle of themselves, frankly," the late Broadway legend grumbled to this publication in 2003, a month after Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, a couple for 25 years, celebrated their Tony win for Hairspray by kissing on national television. "Your bedroom is not the screen."

Ebb's self-loathing reaction aside, it was a kiss the rest of us watching the Tonys that night were thrilled to see.


After all, when a man loves a man...

A little more than two years later, the 45-year-old Shaiman, a composer whose motion picture credits include When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, First Wives Club, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Wittman, 50, are enjoying breakfast at the Watergate Hotel. It's the morning after the Kennedy Center opening for the national touring company Hairspray, and the couple are a little worn out from the post-show festivities.

"I'm sorry," says Wittman, arriving a few minutes late, "I was up till four in the morning with the cast."

They are a study in contrasts, these two -- the elegant, soft-spoken, politely mannered Wittman and the loud, gregarious, perpetually mugging Shaiman. And these days, they couldn't be happier, especially after breaking through to Broadway with Hairspray, an infectiously buoyant musical, comprised of one showstopper after another, based on the John Waters film.

Next up for the newly collaborating pair: a one-man show for Martin Short, opening in Boston and Chicago this winter. A little further down the pipeline lies a musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Creating Broadway musicals is particularly thrilling for Shaiman, whose knack for crafting catchy, pop-drenched melodies has helped breathe new life into the stale Broadway form. Shaiman and Wittman fill out those melodies with lyrics that are as witty as they are stealthily wise.

Or wisecracking. The pair caused a major media stir at last year's Oscars when a song they had penned for Robin Williams -- a parody about the "sordid" lives of famous animated cartoon characters -- was axed by the producers as being too provocative. For his part, Williams arrived on stage with his mouth taped over. But Shaiman took his outrage to the press -- and the press responded with equal amounts of outrage over the Academy's act of censorship. (Lyrics and a demo of the song can be found at shaiman.filmmusic.com.)

"I'm scoring less for film because my career is dead," jokes Shaiman. "But I have found my home [in Broadway] musicals." It's an arena where the couple can work side by side, continuing to expand upon a relationship seeded in New York's Greenwich Village 25 years ago, one that has continued to blossom to this day.

There's nothing ambiguous about this gay duo. They're simply dynamic.

METRO WEEKLY: Let's kick things off with the origins of the musical Hairspray. It seems that a John Waters film would be the least likely material one would ever expect to become a Broadway hit.

MARC SHAIMAN: Producer Margo Lion was sick with the flu and kinda depressed that she just produced a flop on Broadway -- she was very down about that. When she finally said it was time for her to start thinking about something else to do, she went to the video store and rented a bunch of movies. There she was with the flu, watching videos, and 10 minutes into Hairspray she realized, "This is a musical!"

Ironically, Scott and I had been to lunch with the movie/theater producer Scott Rudin almost 10 years earlier, who had had the same idea and had optioned it but never pursued it. The second call came 10 years later from Margo with the same idea of doing Hairspray.

MW: Why did she pick you? You'd had no prior Broadway musical experience.

MARC: My work on the South Park movie attracted her to me.

SCOTT WITTMAN: Margo is very prim and proper from Baltimore so we still insist she probably never sat through the entire South Park movie.

MARC: I don't think she ever saw South Park. People were telling her to call Marc Shaiman. It was ironic. I had to work so long in movies to finally get noticed by Broadway people -- which is all I ever really wanted to do.

She asked me to write the music but not the lyrics. She didn't know that I wrote lyrics and when she asked who I'd like to work with on lyrics, I said Scott and I would be perfect. And I actually wouldn't have wanted to do it unless it was Scott and I. Because after living together 3,000 years, I realized it would be best for us -- and best for the show -- if it were the two of us. We wrote four songs on spec. We had to prove [to the producers] lyric-wise that we could do it. They're all still in the show.

MW: Which songs?

MARC: ''I Know Where I've Been," ''Good Morning, Baltimore," ''Welcome to the Sixties," and ''Big, Blonde and Beautiful.'' From that point on, we became the engines of the actual process of writing the show, perceiving how it should look and sound and who else to work on it.

MW: You hit every conceivable musical genre from the time period -- from '60s soul to wall of sound to even Steve-and-Edie-crooner style. How hard was it to devise where the musical numbers fit?

MARC: It was easy to watch the movie and say ''There's a song, there's a song, there's a song.'' It felt like a musical. John [Waters] says it was a musical. And melodically and structure-wise, the songs of the '60s were very theatrical, so they really did lend themselves to being blown up just a little bit more to serve the purpose in a pure musical comedy form. The musical vernacular is different obviously than Rogers and Hammerstein, but the intent of the songs is the same -- you spotlight each character and have them thinking and feeling.


MW: After working for so many years in film, what was working on Broadway like for you?

MARC: Scoring movies is very solitary. I'm the last person involved, so you're all working for the director's vision separately. At least people who work in other facets of movies are sort of working in a group towards the filming. But the job of scoring is just me alone in a room dealing only with the director. The theater is much nicer in having to work with a whole group of people every day. A whole family thing happens.

SCOTT: It only works if you really listen to everybody in the room. It's important that way.

MW: Did you ever consider having a woman take on the role of Edna Turnblad?

MARC: We thought about it for awhile. But you realize, there was no gay agenda behind Edna being played by a man. First of all, it's just there because that's the way it was in the movie. Simple as that. And also it just becomes about accepting people no matter how odd they may seem. And something about a man playing a woman underscores that.

SCOTT: Theater audiences all over the country, when they watch it, it always goes out of their heads that that's a guy in a dress up there.

MARC: But it wasn't a political agenda of ours. It just felt right. We're about to license the show legally for junior high schools and high schools to do it. The people who are licensing it said ''Can we tell high schools and such that they have a choice [in casting a male or female in the role of Edna] or do you want to make it very clear [that it must be a man]?'' More clear to us is the fact that black people have to play black people in it -- and that's going to actually, sadly be a challenge for schools in the Midwest that don't have a lot of blacks.

They've asked if we wanted to think of how to rework the show so that it's not about the black civil rights movement but [something else]. But no, it is what it is. John wanted to make a musical comedy about racism, so it's important. It could stop the show from being able to be done as much as our fantasy -- or as much as our accountant's fantasy -- for the rest of our lives, because there is a kind of unfortunate roadblock. But it's something we're proud about -- the fact that the cast is half black, half white. It's not a black musical. It's not a white musical. It's a show with a completely integrated cast. It is a real rarity.

MW: There are moments during the show where people audibly gasp, uncomfortable with some of the comments.

MARC: A lady went nuts over an overt political line about manipulating the tradition of winning contests as un-American.

SCOTT: ''I didn't come for this!'' It was very audible.

MW: I'm thinking less the political lines and some of the more racially-oriented jokes.

MARC: Take the line ''Oh, my God, colored people in the house. I'll never sell it now.'' It's obviously to expose that character's bigotry, yet with a laugh. What is uncomfortable is that part of the audience is going to hear that and feel ''My God...'' -- especially a black person in the audience. But you have to be reminded we're not advocating that way of thinking.

MW: The Tony win must have been a nice surprise.

SCOTT: It was icing on an already well-baked cake.

MARC: It was nice not to be the underdog. I had been nominated for five Oscars over my career and it was pretty apparent each time I wasn't going to win. It was a nicer feeling sitting there thinking ''I'm going to win this.'' And then for it to completely come true. And also, we're great friends with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, who presented our award, so it was especially sweet to have two friends handing you that. I kissed Sara and Scott kissed Matthew. And then we kissed each other.

MW: It was a gay watershed moment in the history of live television.

MARC: And now everybody's doing it. It was all very natural, it wasn't premeditated, it wasn't a plot or anything. Margo says if we were on a game show and we had won a refrigerator we would have done the same thing. We're a couple. We've been a couple for 25 years and we just wrote a musical that was winning all the Tony awards and brought us satisfaction and contentment like we never dreamed of having -- and good clothes -- so of course, we were going to be exalted.


MW: How did you meet?

SCOTT: You tell the story.

MARC: Scott always says it's very MGM cute. I was going to see a show in the Greenwich Village called Boy Meets Boy in 1976 at the Actor's Playhouse. Little did I know how ironic the title of that show was. I was only 16-years-old, sort of a child prodigy musically. I was there with a friend and we ran into some other friends on the corner in the Village. And we went into this piano bar that just happened to be there. It was completely empty and because I was so full of music, I had to sit down at this piano. And the bartender was sweeping up just like out of an old movie or a Carol Burnett sketch, and he said, ''Gee, you're good. Wait right here.'' And he ran -- I didn't know where he was going -- and he ran next door where there was a comedy group rehearsing who needed a new piano player -- a funny piano player. They weren't happy with who they had.

SCOTT: I think we called him ''Mittens.''

MARC: And four other people ran over -- including Scott -- and they said, ''Can you play cheesy?'' I said, ''You mean like at a Bar Mitzvah?'' I'd never met people who got that. So we immediately got the same joke. So I started coming to the city to play weekends with them and started staying in [Scott's] apartment because I had nowhere to stay. I ended up getting a job at that piano bar. My first paying job was at a gay piano bar.

SCOTT: And he was underage, too.

MARC: Yes, I had to lie. It was at that bar that I probably learned to dislike drunk people because they're in your face all night telling you to play Barbra Streisand songs when they can't sing in that key. It really made an impression.

MW: You moved in with Scott and his friends when you were 17? What about your folks?

MARC: They were happy to get rid of me. Because I was so full of shit, so full of myself, so full of music. They could see I was already creating a life for myself and getting jobs. I was pulling a lot of cash at that piano bar. So my parents, while still to this day being your most typical, joyless suburban Jewish parents, could see that there was no fighting me. So they actually helped me move into the city. Scott and I collaborated as writers for almost two years before we became lovers.

MW: When did the magic moment happen?

SCOTT: When he took his glasses off. [Laughs.]

MARC: We had another irony in that I ended up scoring When Harry Met Sally. When I saw the rough cut, I said ''That's my story.'' We had a New Year's Eve just like the scene in that movie where everyone is kissing around Harry and Sally and their friends but they look at each other and go, ''Maybe we're more than friends. Should we be kissing at this New Year's Eve party?'' We had the exact same thing. One thing led to another and we gave into our animal instincts.

MW: Marc, you've worked with so many gay icons, you're like a gay wet dream.

MARC: Not long ago, I finally completed my '70s gay icon triumvirate: I've now played for Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli.

SCOTT: Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand the same night.

MARC: That was gay beyond a wet dream. I never got to Diana Ross, the real height of gay icons.

MW: What's it like to be in the company of a Streisand or Midler?

MARC: Well, obviously there's lots of stories to tell. They're not always perfect. When you get to work with people, you see the warts and all. They're just human. But on a purely gay level and musical level, mostly on a musical level, to realize that you are working with people who are at the top, it's completely fuckin' thrilling. I played for Barbra Streisand at a benefit -- to let you know how long ago it was, it was a benefit for Michael Dukakis. I couldn't believe that my hands were on the keyboard and she's standing there and singing and I'm listening to her. I'll always remember it.

MW: What about Midler?

MARC: We have a very brother and sister-like relationship. From the moment I met her, which was beyond belief, the poster on my wall came to life. I mean I had Bette Midler posters on my wall and then a year later I was in a rehearsal hall with her. I was a musical director on a separate act. I was the only one in the room at one point who knew a song she wanted to sing from her third album. So she just literally put me in her purse that night. She was too cheap to put me up in a hotel, so I lived in her guest room. So I went literally from being in the rehearsal hall with her for the first time to living in her guest room for like five weeks, sitting at breakfast with her in a very loose fitting shmata nightgown, so that's where our brother-sister relationship obviously was born. And I've just been with her in some capacity ever since.

SCOTT: She's an investor in Hairspray.

MARC: Her career has helped create mine. The work I got to do with her [as musical supervisor on] Beaches really helped put me on the map in the movies. I could go on forever.

MW: This past Oscar ceremony had some well-known controversy.

MARC: We all know about it because I'm such a fuckin' big mouth. Robin Williams contacted us and said ''Can you write a song about the fact that [James Dobson] thinks that Spongebob Squarepants is gay?'' So we wrote this satirical song about what other animated characters are up to, but [the Oscar producers] were so overly cautious that they literally almost asked us to rewrite every single line of it. Scott and I were like, ''We're not even going to try. This is insane.'' And I said to them, ''You're not really going to [cut this song from the show]." I called Frank Rich at the New York Times. We were outraged with the censorship.

SCOTT: The song was harmless, totally harmless.

MARC: It was just a silly, minute long entertaining song. I realized, if they're censoring this....

On the other hand, people eat worms on television. You know, VH1 is nothing but Strip Search, or something. Well, I actually like that. I watch MTV and VH1 completely as opposed to porn.

SCOTT: It's on all day isn't it?

MARC: It is in my room. Look, people can change the channel. That's the great thing about America. Change the channel or say something about how you feel about what we wrote. But to not even let it be out there.... If you want to teach your children [something is] shocking and wrong, it has to be out there in the world. [Glances down, concerned, at little bits of hair on the tablecloth.] Did all this hair come out of my head?

SCOTT: Oh, I hope not.

MARC: I literally went bald right in front of you.

SCOTT: You pulled out your hair! He's secretly a cutter.

MW: Maybe it came from the bagel. To wrap up, Scott, what do you like most about this man?

SCOTT: [Laughs.] His hair.

MARC: Scott, answer the question.

SCOTT: There are many facets. Let's see, obviously a sense

of humor. He always makes me laugh.

MW: What has he brought to your life?

SCOTT: Oh, much. Good clothes, nice house.... [Laughs.] Great joy. A sense of style and friendship.

MW: Is he a good collaborator?

SCOTT: When I can get him in the room.

MARC: It takes me a while -- I have to be dragged in. But when I get in there, I'm good. So it's worth the wait. It's fun to write lyrics with someone you know so well. And the cliché is true that we literally finish each other's sentences. We're both thinking the same thing or we see one of our wheels turning and say, ''What do you think? Tell me.'' Sometimes you want to surprise your partner with the whole thing worked out but we can just do it together. It's completely natural.

Hairspray runs in the Kennedy Center Opera House through August 21. Tickets are $35 to $93. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.


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