The 2019 Broadway Back to School gala honors the composing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. In recognition of them, Dramatics is looking back at our 2014 interview with the pair.

MARC SHAIMAN AND SCOTT WITTMAN are perhaps best known for their Tony-winning score to Hairspray, which also received the Tony and Olivier awards as best musical. Their other stage musicals include Catch Me If You Can and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Television credits include the NBC series Smash, for which they received Emmy and Grammy nominations, and songs for the ceremonies of the Tony Awards hosted by Neil Patrick Harris and the Academy Awards. Dramatics sat down with the writing team during the 2014 International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman lead a workshop at the 2014 International Thespian Festival.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman lead a workshop at the 2014 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

I understand both of your careers began during high school.
SCOTT WITTMAN: I started to put on plays in my backyard during junior high. I did This Property Is Condemned when I was in seventh grade, and a very nice journalist from the local paper wrote, “Williams Well Done on Beech Street.” I played one of the two roles, my mother did the costumes, and the father of the girl who played the other role did the lights. We also tried to do Long Day’s Journey into Night, but that didn’t quite work out.

Quite precocious.
SW: Well, I had the bug. My sister lived in Manhattan, and she took me to the theatre. I thought it was magic. I also went to Radio City Music Hall every two weeks with my mother. So as soon as I got into high school, I headed straight for the drama club. I was president of the first Thespian troupe there.

MARC SHAIMAN: My school didn’t have a Thespian troupe, and they didn’t do musicals, but I was lucky to meet Judy Cole and Manya Unger, two great ladies. They had a summer musical theatre workshop in Scotch Plains (N.J.) When they were having auditions for The Sound of Music, I asked if I could audition to play piano. When I turned around, everyone was staring at me like I was some showbiz Mozart. From that point on, Judy took me under her arm and asked me to play for every community theatre she worked at, one after another. Then I fell into a group in Plainfield (N.J.), and that became my inner sanctum. The kids — and adults — there became my best friends.

SW: In addition to the local community theatres, I also did stock almost every summer during high school. I apprenticed at Tappan Zee Playhouse and lots of others. Those were the years when summer stock had stars. I did Born Yesterday with Betty Grable. Sally Rand, an old burlesque performer, asked me to come with her to Falmouth (Mass.) as her dresser.

Both of you quickly gravitated to Manhattan, though.
SW: My college teachers all said I should go to New York. My parents knew that I would do whatever it took to be in show business, so they eventually relented. And it took a lot. For years, I worked as a bartender and a waiter.

MS: My mother tells me that when people asked her, “How can you let him move to New York City? He’s only 16,” she would say, “What am I going to do? Chain him to the piano?” It’s shocking to me that my parents were so confident in me.

You two met at the Greenwich Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis, where you were working, Marc. 
MS: Yes, and where I shouldn’t even have been, since I was only 16. Scott and his friends were putting on a show next door at the Duplex, and they became my new best friends.

SW: I had put together a comedy group that became the High-Heeled Women.

You soon began working together across town in the East Village at Club 57.
SW: That was on St. Mark’s Place, in the basement of a Polish church. It was an artistic halfway house of sorts where you could do whatever you wanted. Keith Haring worked there on his art shows. Each night, there was a different event.

MS: We were doing bootleg versions of shows like The Sound of Music: “When the dog bites, when my pee stings.”

SW: Since the room was not that big, we painted the Alps on one wall and abbey on the other. We would yell, “Rotate,” when we wanted the audience to turn their chairs around. Eventually we thought we should do our own musical, so we wrote Livin’ Dolls, which was a sort of Midsummer Night’s Dream set in the world of surfers and Barbie.

MS: I was the rehearsal pianist at that time for an Ed Kleban revue at the Public Theater that was being directed by Richard Maltby Jr. It had the most tremendous cast — Priscilla Lopez, Tom Hulce, Wallace Shawn, Karen Morrow — but it was the most abysmal failure. Anyway, I gave out fliers for our show.

SW: And Joe Papp came. And Richard Maltby Jr. came. They liked it and asked if we wanted to do it at Manhattan Theatre Club.

MS: But then they called Mattel who said, “Barbie and Ken don’t sing.” What seemed to be our big break became a big disappointment. Years later, after Hairspray, we got a letter from Mattel asking if we still had that Barbie and Ken musical.

Before Livin’ Dolls, though, you had worked on Dementos. 
MS: Yes, Dementos was the first show I ever wrote, even before the shows with Scott. This writer named Robert I. had a brilliant idea, so ahead of its time — it was like Rent and The Life, 10 years before either of them. After we saw our first ad in the Sunday Times, the producer called everyone to say, “Don’t come to rehearsal tomorrow. There’s been a little problem with the money. We’ll work it out. Just give me a beat.” Well, they never worked it out. … Heartbreaking.

I had also worked on Going Down with Patrick Meyers, who wrote the play K2, and Scott and I had written Trilogy of Terror for our friend Laura Kenyon. So, we put together all the best songs from those four shows for Marc Shaiman: The First 50 Years at the Bottom Line. Stephen Holden gave it a rave in the New York Times, but ironically, through my work with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, I had already gotten a call to go to California, and Scott followed me.

Did you think that was it for theatre?
SW: We did think that for a while. I tried to do theatre in California, but it was impossible, an awful experience. Marc was successful out there, but I was at a loss. Then Patti LuPone asked me to work with her on a concert at the Westwood Playhouse, which is now the Geffen, and it moved to Broadway. It was a lifeline back to New York.

MS: Even though it was lucrative and glamorous, I was growing tired of scoring movies. I’m proud of my Academy Award nominations, but only a few projects — like Sister Act, Billy Crystal’s songs at the Oscars, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut — allowed me to exercise my musical theatre genes. For every theme I wrote for a movie score, I had lyrics in my head. I always thought, “What would that character sing?”

People often ask songwriters, “Which comes first, music or lyrics?”
MS: The title is the hook to hang the coat of the song on. Once we have a title, we can start writing lyrics. After we have a couple of lyrics, I go to the piano.

SW: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was Roald Dahl’s vocabulary, so a lot of those songs were primarily lyric-driven.

MS: Yes, we wanted to respect Dahl’s words and what they should be without always having them conform to a melody. Scott and I would sit across from each other and not go to the piano until we had a full-fledged first draft of a lyric. In the old days, we’d be writing lyrics while I was at the piano, but it’s good to get away from the piano. It’s not a lesson I’ve learned well enough, but if you don’t go to the piano, you free your musicality. As Sondheim has said, your fingers want to go to the same place.

Debra Messing and Christian Borle in Smash.
Debra Messing and Christian Borle as the songwriting team in Smash. Photo courtesy of NBC/Photofest.

I want to talk a bit about Smash. I had been waiting since Cop Rock for a regular original musical series. Smash seemed like it was going to be it.
SW: Yes, we thought so, too.

MS: It was never ever supposed to be a musical with people breaking out in songs, though. It was supposed to be a show about people putting on a musical. What I’m most proud of is how every lyric spoke to what was going on in the show that week and served Bombshell, the show within the show.

SW: We always tried to do two things at once: to tell the story of Smash and to tell the story of Bombshell. Marilyn seemed to be the perfect conduit, but the big discussion when the show began was if the musical should be something like The Three Musketeers with everyone in period costumes.

That would have been like The Dancing Cavalier.
SW: Exactly. The television executives thought it would be funny to have contemporary conversations in period dress. Personally, I wouldn’t know how to write the Three Musketeers musical. But the Marilyn musical I could. Luckily, they all said yes. And Marilyn it was.

Did either of you have any trepidations about doing television?
MS: No, not with Steven Spielberg on board and with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who we had worked with on the movie of Hairspray.

SW: Initially. it was supposed to be on Showtime, and on cable you can spend an hour showing two people writing a song or spend a week having auditions. Network television has a certain format. It has to have so many acts, so many cliffhangers. That gave the show a soap opera quality. The executives didn’t mind calling it soap, but we always thought that was a dirty word. We didn’t want campy. We wanted funny.

MS: We also wanted to celebrate musical theatre. They wanted to make fun of musicals or to have everything go wrong. We wondered, “Can’t something go wrong with something other than the material?” There’s nothing more dramatic or comedic than putting on a Broadway musical. Nothing needed to be manufactured.

SW: Yes, we wondered why they wanted to be so serious all the time.

MS: The one thing you can depend on when you walk into a musical rehearsal is laughter. The show also had too many chefs. The great shows on network TV are usually allowed to be the strong vision of one person. This had a lot of strong people with a lot of different opinions. We aged a decade in those two years, because the highs were so high, and the lows were so low.

SW: Working with those actors was fabulous, though. My favorite moment on the show wasn’t even a song that we wrote. On the first day, I asked Anjelica Huston, “You’re going to sing, right?” She said, “I don’t sing.” So the next day, I saddled up to her and said, “Come on.” Then she asked, “What are you going to make me sing?” I said, “September Song.” And she burst into tears.

Yes, it was great to see Anjelica singing her grandfather’s signature song.
MS: You’re one of five people in America who got that.

Did you have much interaction with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote songs for Hit List, the show in competition with Bombshell?
MS: When they had the idea of Hit List, we thought we would get to write those songs, because that was the idea when we began the show. But then suddenly we weren’t, and with Bombshell still being part of the plot, we realized we couldn’t write all that anyway. But the executives couldn’t decide who should write it. Every week, they tried out different composers.

SW: It was a Frankenstein monster. Joe Iconis began writing songs for Hit List, and if he had continued, it would have had a single tone, instead of a smorgasbord of styles. So, we didn’t have anything to do with Hit List, except one ballad for Jeremy Jordan.

And in the end, Bombshell won the Tony over Hit List.
SW: We even had to fight for that. I said, “If we write five thousand songs and don’t get the Tony, then I want the Pulitzer Prize.

Well, Bombshell was on an American theme, so you might have.
MS: By the end of the series, though, we weren’t watching.

SW: No, we were already in London for rehearsal of Charlie. While we were there, they did ask us to write the finale for Smash and send it in.

The original idea was that Steven Spielberg would, perhaps, option the show for a stage production. 
MS: Yes, that was the original phone call. They said, “Do you want to write a show in front of America?” I’ve never seen that synergy on television, watching characters create a fictional show that became an actual show. So, we said, “Sign us up.”

SW: We loved the idea that you would start the season with casting and the last show would be the opening night, and then next year, it would start all over again.

MS: And it could have succeeded.

SW: But again, it was network television. There were too many cooks.

The Bradford High School production of Catch Me If You Can at the 2014 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

I wonder how, while writing Smash, you also found time to write Catch Me If You Can. 
MS: Yes, we did Catch Me If You Can in the window between the pilot of Smash and the beginning of the series.

SW: We were in previews on Broadway, when we had the first table read for the pilot of Smash. On one crazy day, we ran from one directly to the next.

MS: That was a crazy day, going from a pretend version of it to the real version of it. Scott said it was like a gay version of Inception. When we began Smash, it was after the disappointment of Catch Me flopping. We had a Tony nomination for best musical, but it closed at a total loss.

SW: We got steamrolled by The Book of Mormon, but that’s happened to a lot of people, and we did it to people with Hairspray. I feel for David Yazbek, who got steamrolled twice, first by The Producers and then by Spamalot. It happens, but I see kids singing the songs from Catch Me, and they’re doing it here [at ITF] tomorrow night. If kids can connect to the show, then it may have a life.

Hairspray has certainly had a good life.
SW: Our sensibilities were so in tune with John Waters that it poured out. It only took two years from page to stage. It took seven for Catch Me, five years for Charlie.

MS: But we were both in our 40s when we got Hairspray. We had paid our dues.

SW: A sign in the town where I grew up said, “Forty-five minutes to Broadway.” It should have said, “Forty-five years.”

MS: The New York Pops recently gave us a tribute at Carnegie Hall, which was one of the greatest nights of our lives. It was another revue of songs, similar to what we did at the Bottom Line, but there wasn’t a single song that evening from the Bottom Line show. So, we’ve done a lot. We’ve been busy.

What advice would you give to young musical writers? 
MS: If I knew, I would follow it myself. For better or for worse, I’m not a fan of endless workshops. Many people would take a bullet for the experiences they’ve had in BMI and other workshops, but if I wanted a room full of Jews to tell me I was no good, I would visit my family.

What about copying the style of a composer you like?
MS: I’ve made a career out of that! After a generation who emulated Stephen Sondheim, a lot of composers seem intent on redefining musical theatre. But I still subscribe to what Oscar Hammerstein said: “Just make it good. That’ll be different enough.”

SW: Yes, dare to be simple.

This story appeared in the May 2015 print issue of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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