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A musical vision that really took hold

Scoring a stage version of `Hairspray' was a risk for Marc Shaiman, but it set off waves of success.

July 08, 2007|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

FOR a while after "Hairspray" opened on Broadway, composer Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist and life partner, Scott Wittman, would sneak into an empty box at the Neil Simon Theatre as the show was revving up for its infectious finale. Night after night, they'd search for a crevice in the packed audience to hide in.

Then they'd turn their back to the stage.

Behind them, a few dancers would start to spin to their aptly titled song, "You Can't Stop the Beat." Then a few more would join in, then more and more until the entire stage was filled with ebullient performers in colorful '60s regalia whipping up a cloud of movement with their feet.

"You really get hit with the energy," Shaiman says with a broad smile, reliving the moment. "Scott and I loved to go to the front of the audience and look up because there are 2,000 people with the same expression on their face whether they're 70 years old or 5 years old, man or woman -- they all have this fantastic expression on their face. Scott calls it 'kindergarteners on crack.' "

Shaiman didn't become an "overnight" success on Broadway until he was a lordly 42. By then he'd made a highly lucrative detour to Hollywood writing scores for some of the biggest hits of the '90s. All that time, what he really wanted to be when he grew up was a Broadway composer. And now that he has made one of the biggest splashes on the stage in recent memory, some observers are predicting that this will be only the first of many, the dawning of the age of Shaiman on the Great White Way.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Adam Shankman: An article in Sunday Calendar about "Hairspray" director Adam Shankman said that the film's producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, were Oscar-winning producers of "Chicago." Although Meron and Zadan were executive producers on that 2002 film, only producer Martin Richards received the Oscar for best picture. Also, the article said that the 2005 film "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" was a Columbia Pictures release. It was from 20th Century Fox.

Five years after "Hairspray's" debut, Shaiman's first Broadway musical is threading the eye of a very slender needle -- the ranks of successful shows that make the leap to the big screen. And when the film opens July 20, people all over the world will become intimately familiar with the gentle composer -- even if they don't know him by name. Yet. Love Shaiman's musical, love Shaiman.

"If you don't like 'Hairspray,' you don't like me," he says. "I'm not going to hate you if you don't like it, but it's me up there -- the love of music, the love of comedy, comedy that can be not always politically correct, the color, everything about it."

The Tonys liked "Hairspray" and Shaiman. The show swept the 2003 awards with eight wins, including one for his spirited score. The musical is a John Waters-style Cinderella story based on Waters' 1988 film following perky teen Tracy Turnblad as she triumphantly breaks down barriers in 1960s Baltimore, first by insinuating her chunky self into a TV dance show, then by ending its policy of racial segregation.

So when Shaiman says he is "Hairspray," one might wonder if he's saying that deep down he's that teenage girl with soul.

He is.

"I'm just very Tracy Turnblad, hypnotized by black culture and music and humor," he says. "I feel more at home in a black crowd, musically and socially."

Shaiman's compositions for stage and film represent an encyclopedic sweep of sound, from mazurkas to presidential pomp. But the work he's proudest of bounces off the midcentury, when culture really popped. And at 47 now, his time has finally arrived. He's passionate about martini-era showbiz sans the martinis, the film noir chords, the bachelor-pad licks. Shaiman shakes up the past with a sense of humor that's managed to survive the caldron of the 20th century and still have a bounce in its step. In the view of some insiders, his style may be the future of Broadway musicals.

" 'Hairspray' is, I think, one of the best shows written for a Broadway musical in terms of how it makes an audience feel, the energy, the joy, the passion," says Neil Meron, who produced the new "Hairspray" film as well as the movie version of "Chicago" with Craig Zadan. Shaiman's next venture with Wittman is a musical based on Steven Spielberg's wry caper "Catch Me If You Can." The score and sensibility again reprise '60s cool, although borrowing from different styles of that culturally hydra-headed decade. Nathan Lane is attached to star as the detective, and Jack O'Brien, who won a Tony for staging "Hairspray," will direct. The workshop starts in New York July 16, the same day "Hairspray" the movie premieres there.

O'Brien, who also is the artistic director at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, says each song he's heard performers sing in auditions has been electrifying. "You think, 'Holy Moses, one right after the other.' They stand so far ahead and above what is normally the Broadway fare that you think, 'Is this a Rip Van Winkle syndrome? What's been going on here?' "

Early ticket to the Great White Way

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