“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 19, 2003, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Marc Shaiman: composer, producer, and five-time Academy award nominee. Welcome.
Marc Shaiman: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Paulson: I know it’s an honor to be nominated five times, but does it bug you that you have not yet won the Academy award?
Shaiman: You get — I got, I’ve gotten used to it. I mean, the bad part is that now, like, as I’m nominated for these things for “Hairspray,” everyone’s always like “Oh, just so excited.” And I’m like, “Hmm.” Because you learn to — well, I’m Jewish. Need I say more? That’s all really — ‘nough said. You just sit on your excitement level, because it’s so weird when you’re in this horse race that you never asked to be in. And then they say someone else’s name, and you have to sit there. The guys from “South Park,” when I was nominated with them the last time, they’re so brilliant. I mean, first they came dressed as women, and I was dressed as a pimp. I just saw Trey Parker the other night. And I said, “I’ll always remember, at one point during the Oscar ceremony, I kind of forgot how you guys were dressed. And I just happened to catch sight of Trey’s big, hairy leg sticking out of his Jennifer Lopez knockoff. That just put it all in perspective.” And then when we lost, they did the thing that I never knew we were allowed to do. They said, “Well, let’s get out of here,” and we left. I didn’t have to sit through the whole rest of the show. God bless them.
Paulson: Well, it’s easy for you to say “You win some, you lose some,” because you’ve been winning so much lately. You, you’ve been the creative force behind the music in Hairspray, the hottest musical on Broadway. And, you know, the biggest reason we want you on this show is that it really is a Broadway show about free speech and freedom of expression.
Shaiman: Yeah, yeah.
Paulson: And you’ve won a couple of Drama Desk awards and now nominated for Tonys. And all kinds of positive things are happening, great recognition of your work.
Shaiman: Yes, I don’t know what to do with it. Yeah, it’s been, it’s phenomenal. And yet, it’s such a corny cliché, but the show itself and getting the show on, this beautiful production, and the audience response to it nightly is so, so the reward that all the, all the — these actual awards, they pale — I don’t mean to be ungrateful — but they pale in comparison to just what it’s like to, to stand and look up at the audience at the end of the show and see 2,000 people with the same expression on their face, you know, if they’re 7 years old or 70. And that is wild to see such a wide group of people all feeling the same thing at once. That’s great.
Paulson: This is a show set in 1962. And I guess it’s loosely patterned after kind of a Dick Clark “American Bandstand.”
Shaiman: Yeah, there was an actual show in Baltimore that John Waters used to — was a fanatic about. That was, yeah, like a — I think it was actually on before “Bandstand,” but it will forever always be compared to it.
Paulson: Sure, and there was a young woman, an overweight woman who wants very much to dance on the show and eventually gets her opportunity. And then the undercurrent of this is that the show also has a “Negro Day” once a month. And she’s campaigning to make “Negro Day” every day, basically, is what she says.
Shaiman: Right, I mean, in the movie and in the musical, her getting on the show is kind of the crux of the first act in the musical. But then much important to her, more important to her is being able to bring her friends on, the black kids who have taught her how to dance. And she just can’t understand what the problem is. And her wonderful naïveté — is that the word — she just can’t — her common sense is saying, “Why can’t they come on the show?” And so that’s what the show really ends up being about but all in the lovely guise of an entertaining Broadway musical.
Paulson: Well, we will want to hear some music from this extraordinary show, but I want to talk a little bit about where you came from. You’ve got one of these stories that could also be a Broadway show. You, as a — I’ll help you negotiate rights, in fact. But as a 9-year-old, you, you become committed to the music of Bette Midler, and that sets you on this path that eventually allows you to work with Bette and then have an extraordinary career in, in films and now on Broadway. What was going on in that 9-year-old’s mind?
Shaiman: Well, when you say 9 years old, maybe it’s — I may — I did see “Fiddler on the” — this was just bizarre that I went to see “Fiddler on the Roof” with my parents, ’cause it was the law at the time. And I really, really was — I always held onto that big souvenir program. And I was fascinated by this girl who played Tzeitel, the daughter. The two pictures of her in the souvenir booklet, she had this great, beaming smile. And I always remember kind of staring at her picture, saying, “I like that girl.” There’s just something great about the way she’s looking up at Motel, the tailor. And then just cut to years later, her first records came out. And then I was in junior high school. I was, like, 14 or 15. And “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was on the radio. And I used to just sit there at the radio, waiting for it to come on. And my music teacher in school bought me her first two albums. And I was just, you know, bowled over by her, her, the — She just loved all styles of music, which I do, too. And she had a sense of humor about all styles of music. You could tell that she was sending up and loving the music that she was performing. And that also was very me. And I just became a fanatic. I literally was almost a stalker. I would walk — I knew she lived on Barrow Street in the Village. And I would cut school and take the bus to New York and walk up and down her street just hoping I’d see her in the window.
Paulson: This is — you’re stalking who?
Shaiman: I’m stalking Bette Midler.
Paulson: I lost the tie to “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Shaiman: Oh, well, she was in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Paulson: Oh, OK, there you go.
Shaiman: Oh, I’m sorry. She was in “Fiddler on the Roof.” And — at the beginning of her career — and then she became Bette Midler, you know, singing star. And then as I became a fanatic of her as a singing star, I pulled out that “Fiddler on the Roof” program and I went, “Oh, my God, that was her.” Anyway, so I, then I just moved to New York when I was 16. I got the state diploma, GED — it’s more glamorous to say I’m a high school dropout, but I did get a diploma.
Paulson: Did your parents understand this drive you had?
Shaiman: My parents, believe it or not, as, as your most typical suburban Jewish parents, they could just see that I was, you know — music was in every pore of my body. I was already doing community theater every night of the week. I was actually already going to New York because they sent me to a music summer thing at Carnegie Mellon. So I was already going to New York. And they just could see that there was no stopping me. And so my mother always says, “What was I going to do, you know, chain him to the bed?” So they helped me, you know. They gave me a little money. And they moved me to New York. And I was just lucky enough to immediately meet people, Bette Midler’s backup singers. I was just lucky. It was like a fairy tale.
Paulson: Across the hallway —
Shaiman: Across the hall from the first friends I met in New York. And I would stay with them on the weekends. And Ula Hedwig was a backup singer with Bette Midler. Her backup singers are called the Harlettes. And they wanted to do their own act when they weren’t touring with Bette. And I knew all the kind of harmonies they wanted. And I was 16, would work for nothing. And I was across the hall. So it all fell into place. And I became their musical director. And then Bette told them, “Come back on the road with me, and I’ll let you open my act.” So less than a year of moving to New York, my dream came true. I was sitting in a rehearsal hall with Bette Midler. And I was just the Harlettes guy. And then, sure enough, at, like, the second rehearsal, she asked her band, “Oh, I’d love to do this song from my third album.” And at that, on that gig, she had a lot of, like, pickup musicians, just people who didn’t really know her. I’m just talking and talking and talking, but the show’s about free speech.
Paulson: Speaking freely, that’s right.
Shaiman: Tell me to shut up at any point. Give me, like, a little TV sign. So she said, “Oh, I want to sing, you know, ‘No Jestering.’” And they’re like, “We don’t know that song.” And I was like, “Oh, Miss Midler. I know every note of the entire arrangement.” And so at that point, she just kind of put me in her pocketbook and took me home every night. And we’d go through fake books, these books that have all the songs, and just learn songs. She’s like the Margaret Mead of popular music. She will not rest until she knows every song. And I’m the same way. And even though I was a little pest. I mean, I was 17, and I was, at that point, living now with her because she was too cheap to put me in a hotel. And my job was done with the Harlettes. So I stayed in her guest room. Suddenly, like, I’m, like, literally, sitting across from her at breakfast with, like — in a nightgown with her breasts just, like — and we’re just, we immediately became, like, brother and sister, arguing immediately from the beginning of our, our relationship. And it’s been 24, 25 years later.
Paulson: So you still have a working relationship?
Shaiman: Yes, we’ve had crazy fights, as any brother and sister would, but it’s been 25 years, and we’re just as good friends. And she, of all the rich friends I have, she’s the only one who actually put money in “Hairspray.” She came to see the — our, our final reading. And she was like, “Well, I have some notes for you if you really want them. But I’m going to put money in it. I smell a hit.” And she’s got the first dime she ever made, believe me.
Paulson: Well, you spent some time —
Shaiman: I’ve now eaten up the entire half an hour.
Paulson: That’s right. Well, come back for part two. You spent some time actually working in New York, cabaret kind of things before heading out to Hollywood and seeking your fame and fortune. And that worked out pretty well, right? I mean, you got into movies pretty early.
Shaiman: Yeah, another example of just everything falling into place with Bette’s movie career and Billy Crystal, who I worked with on “Saturday Night Live.” Both their movie careers kind of took off at the same time. And Bette needed someone to help choose the songs for “Beaches,” which was just on last night. As I fell asleep, I was watching and remembering the recording sessions, remembering where — I wish I had the tape of a recording session where Bette was singing “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which I had found for her. I had heard some guy sing it once in a cabaret downtown, and it was such a great song. I literally remembered the whole song from having heard it, like, three times. And I sang it to them, saying, “We need a song like this for this spot.” And they said, “Like this? That’s the song.” But, you know, at first, she always loved something, and then the next day, she’s changed her mind. Somewhere in a vault, there’s a tape of her going, you know, “’Did you ever know that you’re’ — Marc Shaiman, you’re making me sing this song. And I’ll never let you forget it. You’re leading me down the garden path.” If I only had that tape. So —
Paulson: You also introduced her to Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” didn’t you?
Shaiman: Yeah, Steven Holden from The New York Times, I called him and said, “What have you heard lately?” And he suggested “From a Distance.” So I brought her two best song winners of the Grammy awards, two years in a row. Oh, those were heady times.
Paulson: What is the difference between, you know, the kind of songs you write for “Hairspray” — topical, lots of lyrics — and then just providing a musical foundation for a film, just to score a film?
Shaiman: To me, it’s all the same. That’s why I enjoy arranging as much as composing or, or finding songs like that kind of job I did on “Beaches” and “When Harry Met Sally, Sister Act.” I love finding the right song and matching it to a person. It’s all just show business. It’s all just music, entertainment, and, you know, making people laugh or, or moving them. It’s just all — I don’t put up any boundaries about it. And I was lucky enough to be, you know, given the gift of the talent to be able to do those things, and —
Paulson: One of your most impressive accomplishments people basically don’t know about. But, even though the Academy award passed you by a few times, you gave them some highlights in, in helping write Billy Crystal’s classic openings.
Shaiman: Yeah. All those, all those, all those medleys.
Paulson: Can you talk about how you go about that? Do you lock yourself in a room with Billy Crystal?
Shaiman: Basically, I mean, it’s me and Billy, and he always has, you know, a team of writers on the show, like, five writers. And we do. We lock ourselves up into my studio. First we write all the really filthy lyric versions, just to get ourselves laughing. And then we figure out, “How can we make it more acceptable?” We just try to make ourselves laugh. And that was, for ten years almost, the only outlet I had to have that lyrical showbiz kind of stuff. Billy Crystal and the Oscars was, like, the last piece of show business on earth, so I, I was so lucky to be involved with that. And that’s another thing, to, to write something and have Billy Crystal be delivering it in front of billions of people. It’s a great, great thrill. I’ve been really lucky.
Paulson: And it was always a highlight. Critics always responded very positively to it. You know, the material that you cut out of your Academy award presentations, I guess you put back in the “South Park” movie, right?
Shaiman: [Laughs] Yes.
Paulson: “Bigger, Longer, Uncut.” And you received an Academy award nomination for “Blame It on Canada.” Let me put you on the spot, and could you just give us a little bit of that?
Shaiman: Uh, how does it go? [Plays and sings] “Times have changed. / Our kids are getting worse. / They don’t obey their parents. / They just want to fart and curse. / Should we blame the government / or blame society? / Or we should we blame the images on TV? / Hell, no. / Blame Canada. / Blame Canada. / With all their hockey hullabaloo / and that bitch Anne Murray, too. / Blame Canada. / Blame Canada! / for —” Well, it just goes on. It’s too operatic at the end.
Paulson: People at home are singing along right now. The Anne Murray line, you had a little bit of censorship on that.
Shaiman: Yes, and which one did I just say now? I said the, I said the OK line.
Paulson: Yes, you did.
Shaiman: The Paramount legal department called us, because we first wrote, [Plays and sings] “And that slut Anne Murray, too.” Which is — it’s all just ridiculous non-sequiturs. But they called and said, “You can’t call her a slut. What else can you think of calling her?” We’re like, “Well, how about ‘bitch Anne Murray’?” They said, “That’s good. Because you really — she can’t prove she’s not a bitch, but she can, you know — you’d have to prove she has actually accepted money for sexual favors, which is the definition of a slut.” We were like, “OK.” And, you know, Matt and Trey, they don’t like to be censored at all, but that, this was just so funny, we went ahead. And bitch works, although slut’s funnier. And then we wanted her to be on the Oscars. See, she couldn’t do it, which was a shame; she wanted to do it. Because we just wanted to cut to a shot of her in the audience going — enjoying it like, “Hey, what happened? Why am I getting hit?” Oh, well.
Paulson: You know, lawyers are not always good for the creative process.
Shaiman: Oh, you have no idea.
Paulson: And, and you just can’t picture that litigation being filed. You know, Anne Murray wants to clear her reputation.
Shaiman: Yes. We would have welcomed that.
Paulson: “Denies Promiscuity.” It’s a headline I never dreamed I’d see. Actually, like Bette Midler, you draw on the full range of American musical tradition. And, and that’s not exactly contemporary rock and roll you just played for us now.
Shaiman: No, it’s like Gilbert and Sullivan, you know, operetta.
Paulson: You were involved with “That’s Entertainment III!”
Paulson: So you, you clearly know classic Hollywood movie musicals.
Shaiman: Yeah, the channel changer has changed everything. When I was a kid — I mean, I wanted to watch it, you know, which is the whole, the whole gay issue. But, you know, when I was a kid, you had to get up off the couch and change the channel. So if you’re lazy like me, you finally just watched, you know, “Casablanca” and realized, “Oh, my God.” Or you watched a Fred Astaire — I mean, nowadays, if a kid sees something in black and white, I mean, [he] just will go to the next thing. I mean, the things that I loved were all before my time, people who were dead or, you know, genres that were long dead. But I still got exposed to them, and it’s just terrible.
Paulson: “Hairspray” draws on early rock ‘n’ roll. It has a sound that brings to mind, actually, Phil Spector’s work and a lot of the doo-wop. And was that part of your growing up experience as well? I mean, you’re a little bit too young to have been part of the ’50s and ’60s music. I would think you were —
Shaiman: Yeah, I was too young to have ’50s music on the radio, I mean, but I grew up in the ’60s. I was born in October 1959, so the ’60s, you know — I remember, like, you know, [Sings] “My boy lollipop.” And, no, no, no, I mean, “Lollipop, lollipop.” Who would have known there would have been two lollipop songs? But, yeah, so that was all in my head. And then when I moved to New York, the group of people — well, Bette Midler, once again — she keeps popping up — her records were full of ’60s songs, ultra-theatrical arrangements of songs that already were incredibly theatrical — “Leader of the Pack,” you know, a pop song. That’s when I also feel bad for the kids of today. They don’t get those story songs, you know, about “I fell in love with a motorcycle guy, and then we had to break up because my family wouldn’t let me. And then, as he drove away, he was in a horrible crash. And now I’m, you know, wearing black to school.” I mean, how brilliant. So to be able to write theatrical ’60s songs was not hard. In “Hairspray,” we did try to make sure that Tracy and her friends are more Phil Spector or even the whiter side of things so that when she meets the black kids, we could start bringing in the early beginnings of the Motown sound. And that becomes part of our, you know, storytelling through music is, is traveling through the different genres.
Paulson: Well, you signal to the audience that this is an era in flux when you do a song about the ’60s in the show. It’s — I guess it’s an admonition to the mother in the show.
Shaiman: Yeah, who’s, like, a shut-in. So her daughter is just so full of life. And she finally gets her mother to come, come, you know, join what’s happening right now in the world.
Paulson: Could we hear some of that?
Shaiman: [Giggles] Um, yeah. [Plays upbeat melody] The girl sings: [Sings] “Hey, mama, hey, mama, look around. / Everybody’s grooving to a brand-new sound. / Hey, mama, hey, mama, follow me. / I know something in you that you wanna set free. / So let go, go, go of the past, now. / Say hello to the love in your heart. / Yes, I know that the world’s spinning fast, now. / You’ve got to get yourself a brand-new start. / Hey, mama, welcome to the ’60s. / Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, whoa. / Oh, mama, welcome to the ’60s.” And then Harvey has his verse. [In a gruff voice] “Hey, Tracy, hey, baby, look at me. / I’m the cutest chicky that you ever did see. / Hey, Tracy, hey, Tracy, look at us. / Where is there a team that’s half as fabulous?” I do plan on replacing him for two weeks on a vacation at some point if it kills me.
Paulson: That was great. Has he heard that impression?
Shaiman: I think he’s heard it, yes.
Paulson: And he’s, he’s moved?
Shaiman: He is moved to tears.
Paulson: You just did multiple voices. To what extent does the voice of the performer influence how you write the music?
Shaiman: Well, a lot, you know. And especially this part, because in the movie “Hairspray,” Divine is just so funny on some line readings. And the lines themselves are not so funny. They’re, they’re sweet, humorous. But Divine’s voice, when Divine says, “Keep it down. I’m trying to iron in here,” there’s just something about the way he said it as the mother. It’s just so funny. And so at auditions, I said to the guys one night, because we were watching it a lot at that point. I said, “That iron line, it’s not so funny, but the way he says it. And I wish — who can we think of that’s got a really distinctive voice who just, even through their voice, will just say lines funny?” Oh, we have Harvey Fierstein coming in next. It was like, like a fairy tale. And from the second he walked in, it was, like, “Well, duh.” I mean, it was just so perfect. And Harvey’s such a brilliant writer. And he just sees the whole picture. So having him aboard was more than just getting an actor. You’re getting, like, you’re gettin’ the whole package there.
Paulson: It’s a much bigger challenge, I would think, to write songs that move the plot along. That’s got to be different from anything else you do.
Shaiman: Yeah, and, and trying to always do it within a pop vernacular, which suited the show. But this show, just — Scott and I — my partner, Scott Whitman, we — it sounds obnoxious, but it was almost easy for us. The John Waters story was so great. The characters were so good. And, and we’re so much like John Waters with the way we think that it was pretty easy for us. It won’t be that way on, on future things, but on this one project, it was a dream.
Paulson: I can remember when “Hairspray” was in previews and people were talking about it and saying, “It’s going to be the next ‘Producers.’” And everybody said, “Well, I’m not sure.” I mean, “The Producers” was a phenomenal success. And yet it certainly looks that way. I mean, tremendous number of Tony nominations, critical acclaim. And probably a show that will be out there, touring America for 20, 30 years.
Shaiman: Yeah. I mean, and that’s besides the financial rewards. It’s so — it’s just — words cannot express how thrilling it is to know that how it speaks to just your average theatergoer, average person. I mean, in Seattle — this also sounds like such a, a Lifetime movie moment — but, I mean, at one point, we were watching the show. And you know when you get that funny feeling that you should turn around and someone’s looking at you or something? And I nudged Scott because behind me, there was a mother with her kind of chubby 14-year-old daughter. And that song, “Welcome to the ’60s,” was playing. And they had their arms around each other. I don’t even know if they even knew it. And they were just moving and smiling. And it was like — there’s no greater reward than that moment, to see how they were — it’s just bizarre to write something that is affecting people in that way. And every time me and Scott go to the show, we go to the front of the audience at the end and look up at the audience, because they all have the same look. And they’re all moving. Because the end of the show is just, like, joy in a way that you can’t even believe it. It’s just, it’s just so joyous. And it is such a great reward.
Paulson: In the show, there’s a song that reflects the civil rights movement sung by the mother of one of the young men who has taught the star to dance.
Paulson: And, and it, unlike a lot of songs about the civil rights movement, written by a white songwriter.
Shaiman: Well, that was our point. We had this story that, even though it’s a cheery musical, and it is Tracy’s story, but it’s, it’s about, basically, the civil rights movement. And there’s been, you know, well-meaning, you know, well-done movies. I’ve actually scored one of them, “Ghosts of Mississippi,” and of course, “Mississippi Burning,” and so on and so forth, so many mainstream movies or plays or books that talk about the civil rights movement all through the eyes and perspective of white people. And so our show was sort of another one. And, and yet, here was this moment that the song came to Scott and I from a moment in the movie, a beautiful moment where they’re on the black side of town, and there’s like a Sam Cooke kind of singer performing. And then we cut to outside. And there’s a derelict kind of, like, walking down the street. And the kids are making out in this John Waters moment where they’re, you know, French kissing and a rat’s going over their feet. But the song and the mood that he also put there was really effective. And, and that was one of the first songs we wrote. And, and so some people were like, “We can’t have that song. It’s too much of a downer.” It’s not a downer, really, at all, but it just speaks to this woman, saying, “There’s a history here, and you kids have to keep fighting because I’m not going back to the way it was.” And we just kept fighting. We said, “We’re not going to be another one of these projects where …” They kept saying, “Tracy’s the lead. She has to have the 11:00 number.” I’m like, “Yeah, but isn’t it perfect to have Tracy the character and “Hairspray” to say, I’m gonna give the 11:00 number” — that means the big number right before the end of the show — “give that number to the black family to sing?” I mean, I find that to be immensely moving and correct, and not just politically correct, but just the right, you know, do the right thing.
Paulson: And audience reaction is what?
Shaiman: Audience reaction is phenomenal. But, you know, there’s some people who feel like we’re preaching. I’m not preaching. I mean, we’re just speaking their point of view. And it’s not a preachy song. Just because it’s slow, they — I don’t know. I really — it was a battle. It was a real battle, but luckily, once we got the song up in front of an audience, thank God. Because that first night, if the audience had started coughing and rustling, we would have — and Scott and I would have been showbiz savvy enough to know, “OK, we’re not going to screw this show up. We’ll find another way to get this point of view across some way.” But luckily, all’s well that ends well.
Paulson: Speaking of ending well, the show’s about over. I wonder if we could conclude with the song you just talked about.
Shaiman: Just a bit of it, because you wouldn’t want to hear me caterwauling through this. Scott likes to point out, the first time we played it for the, the Broadway cast and the whole room was in tears, he said, “Do remember that this song was written by two white guys sipping martinis in their rented beach house in Laguna.” [Plays and sings] “There’s a —” How’s it go? “There’s a light in the darkness, / though the night is black as my skin. / There’s a light burning bright, / showing me the way. / But I know where I’ve been.”
Tags: Speaking Freely