Sunday, November 30, 2003

The musical glue in Hairspray

John Waters' classic cult movie practically wrote itself for the stage, say the pair who made it happen

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] "Hairspray" is bigger and brassier than the John Waters film.
(Paul Kolnik photo)
Good morning Baltimore! "Where every street's like an open sore?" laughs Marc Shaiman, veteran of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Tony Award winner for Hairspray. This year's biggest Broadway hit opens for a two-week run at the Aronoff Center on Tuesday.

Composer Shaiman, with co-lyricist Scott Wittman, is explaining rhymes for Hairspray's opening paean to its stage home.

Based on John Waters' cult classic movieof the same title, this Hairspray doesn't veer far from the traditional Broadway musical in spirit. As for style, well the heroine is fat, her mother is a drag role, and an interracial love story is a big part of the plot.

Shaiman and Wittman, who are life partners, agree it's nice to get a big Broadway break after a career that, for Shaiman, includes work on 50 films (including The Cat in the Hat), five Academy Award nominations, work with a long line of headliners including Rosemary Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Nathan Lane and Martin Short and a career-long collaboration with Bette Midler.

In the 1980s they co-wrote off-Broadway shows Livin' Dolls (think Barbie and Ken), Trilogy of Terror, The G-String Murders while Broadway was enjoying the British invasion of Phantom and Les Miz.

They knew, Wittman says, their sense of the ridiculous was out of sync with what the public wanted.

But now the public has caught up, big time. It was Shaiman's work on animated film South Park that got them the audition for Hairspray.

That audition consisted of writing four songs. "It was shockingly easy to write," Wittman laughs. "We very much share John's (Waters) sensibility."

"The outrageousness," inserts Shaiman.

"The irony," Wittman continues. "We had a lifetime of understanding it. Hairspray already felt like a musical."

"John Waters' mother said to him, 'Who ever thought you'd write the Sound of Music?' " Shaiman says gleefully.

Mild for Waters

In fact, Hairspray is mild stuff in the screen canon of the filmmaker who came to fame in 1972 with Pink Flamingoes and whose most recent movie (in 2000) was Cecil B. Demented.

Waters' only role with the musical is as a "creative consultant."

"There was a joy to it," Wittman soldiers on.

There's a joy to Shaiman and Wittman, too. In conversation, in which they happily interrupt and finish thoughts for each other, they sound like the perfect team to write an affectionate spoof about love and big hair in the '60s. In this Every American City in the '60s, the chubby chick can become a star on a teen dance show, win the cute guy away from the mean prom queen and do her part for racial tolerance.

What makes Hairspray work, they think, is its sense of acceptance. "We enjoy being honest about ourselves, and about other people, but always with affection," says Shaiman. "Hairspray really is us."

For everybody rooting for South Park live on stage to be their next project, Shaiman and Wittman guffaw at the possibilities.

"South Park on Ice!" laughs Wittman.

"We probably could find a parent who'd let their 7-year-old sing it ..." Shaiman considers, then rejects the idea.

No, they have another project in mind entirely, which will return them to the '60s, although to an entirely different musical neighborhood.

"Catch Me If You Can!" says Shaiman, who says he'll be back composing at the laptop the minute this interview is over.

They have inked a rights deal with Steven Spielberg to turn last year's holiday hit, based on the true story of a young man who kept reinventing himself, including untrained stints as a doctor and airline pilot, forging checks along the way and with an FBI man on his trail.

The subject has caught their interest for a lot of reasons.

"He was a sort of contemporary Music Man," notes Wittman.

"It's about fathers and sons," Shaiman says.

"It says a lot about what we're willing to go along with, when someone is in uniform," Wittman continues. "He was much younger than in the film, around 17."

They're at the beginning of the development process and working with a book writer.

The music, says Shaiman, will be more in the style of "Bobby Darin, Henry Mancini."

" ... a different '60s," Wittman chimes in.

"Rat Pack," adds Shaiman.

Future collaboration

That may not be all they're writing.

"John Waters called yesterday," Shaiman reports. "I think he wants us to write a song for his next movie. Because of Hairspray, he's very purposefully going back to his roots. It's about after a car crashes, the characters' libidos go crazy."

He swears he isn't making this up.

They may be looking ahead, but Shaiman and Wittman are still loving every minute of Hairspray. There's nothing like watching an audience have a great time at a hit musical.

"I wish everyone could write one," says Shaiman, "and (feel) this every night."

And, he adds dryly, he's grateful "to all the high school productions that will support us in our old age."

FYI for our readers
The musical glue in Hairspray
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