ASCAP Henry Mancini Award
On the heels of receiving the ASCAP Henry Mancini Career Achievement Award in Film & Television Music, MARC SHAIMAN gets set for the release of Hairspray, the film adaptation of his own Tony Award-winning musical
By Jim Steinblatt
At 47, Marc Shaiman is clearly not ready to rest on his laurels. He has, however, achieved a great deal, including five Academy Award nominations, a Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award. Irreverent, witty, energetic and optimistic, Shaiman is currently in the midst of a dream movie assignment – completing the film adaptation of his own Tony Award-winning musical, Hairspray, which was a smash reworking of John Waters' original film. Though he's best-known for composing scores for mainstream Hollywood comedies – among them Sleepless in Seattle, Sister Act, The Addams Family, Patch Adams, City Slickers, George of the Jungle and In & Out – Shaiman's credits also include science fiction (From the Earth to the Moon for HBO), military drama (A Few Good Men), a baseball film (61* for HBO) and outrageous animation (South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut). He has worked frequently in films and TV with Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. Shaiman is primarily a composer and lyricist, but has also enjoyed success as an arranger, record producer, music supervisor and actor. New Jersey-born Marc Shaiman had no music education beyond piano lessons and left home as a teen to make his fortune. A frequent honoree at past ASCAP Film & TV Awards, Shaiman looks forward to his "starring" role tonight. He recently sat down to reflect on his struggles and success.
The ASCAP Henry Mancini Career Achievement Award in film & television music is presented to Marc Shaiman in recognition of his outstanding achievements and contributions to the music of film and television
Shaiman with Nikki Blonsky (left), star of the new Hairspray movie and Ricki Lake, star of the original.
From what I've read, it was never your intention in life, at least early on, to work as a film composer.
When I was a kid, I did sit and fantasize about flailing my arms in front of an orchestra with the movie playing in the back. But I was thinking more about Broadway and songwriting. Not that I wasn't fascinated by movie scores, like "Tara's Theme" from Gone With The Wind. I knew it more from The Million Dollar Movie at 4:30 in the afternoon when I was a kid – I don't know where you grew up.
In the New York area — I knew my Million Dollar Movie also.
I always wanted to know why I felt so emotional seeing the shot of the pay phone dangling in a dark black and white New York night as "Tara's Theme" was playing. It was, maybe, one of my first indications of what music and image can conjure up.
Well, that's what you're doing — working on images and putting them together with music.
Yeah, it's really lovely, with the Hairspray movie, especially, to be putting it together all at once.
Working on the film of your own musical must be a very different process. Of course, the song score exists, but you have to do so much more with a film, don't you?
Yeah and it's fantastic because you can go deeper with the arrangements and orchestrations than you can on Broadway — not just in a glossy way but in an emotional way. For example, when the girl sings "Welcome to the Sixties" to her Mom — whenever there's a shot of John Travolta as Edna Ternblad, I can put something in the string line that is part of the accompaniment of this Sixties-Pop style song, something in the pad of the string line that plays the mother's melancholy even in the context of this style of show. It's just great to be able to use orchestrations, arrangements, song writing and scoring all on the same project.
It allows you to throw in just about everything you know.
The first month working on the movie was one of the best times I've ever had, certainly working in movies, sitting everyday working on orchestrations in my house, one song after another, just saying "OK, what did I always want this to really sound like?" And being able to do it now, with the budget I'm afforded from a movie, I can make every song sound just the way I want it to. It's not like I'm going insane but in a Broadway pit band you have physical and financial ceilings — you can't have as many players as you want, they have to be able to play from beginning to end in one sitting, and you have to be careful about what you put in front of musicians so you don't destroy them. By the second hour, they can't get through it. However, here I don't have to worry about that. Record it once, come back two weeks later and record another thing. It's a fantasy, truly.
It must be wonderful for John Waters to see his movie turned into a very successful Broadway show and now a big budget film musical.
I know how I feel now, the oddness of having written the show and now seeing it become a movie, with all new people playing the parts and what they bring to it. It's a very odd feeling for me, so I can only imagine what it's like for him to watch this thing constantly evolving.
Was John Travolta the first choice or did he audition for it?
No, the producers' big idea was "let's get John Travolta" and as soon as the movie studio heard that, that was it, they didn't even want to think about anyone else. Harvey Fierstein (the Broadwayl Edna Ternblad) never stood a chance of being given the lead of a seventy million dollar movie, it just wasn't going to happen, as it didn't happen for so many legends of Broadway. That, of course, is very bittersweet. But what Harvey did will live forever. He can get up and perform as Edna like Yul Brynner did the King of Siam until the day he died.
In terms of films, you've been associated with many romantic comedies and Billy Crystal films, mostly of which can be called "light" films.
Misery was the first movie I ever scored and I don't think I redefined the craft, but I think I did all right on that psychological thriller. There's nothing funny or showbizzy with that movie or its score. Rob Reiner, who directed Misery, has always given me chances. Even The American President, which was a romantic comedy, had so much more heft. The score I wrote for The American President summons up patriotism and something more important than just "girl meets boy" within the music. Those are great, great experiences. After a while, I did get typecast as a composer for romantic comedies. Rob Reiner, once again, gave me a chance on A Few Good Men to break out of that. Films like Sister Act and The Addams Family were great because they're so theatrical – that was how for a decade or more I got to exercise the musical comedy queen in me that hadn't had a chance to do it for real on Broadway.
And there was South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, an animated theatrical film.
South Park was sort of my peak experience. Luckily, that literally led to the woman, Margo Lyon, who had the rights to Hairspray, calling me to see if I'd like to write the score to the Hairspray musical, so the South Park movie was not only a joy in itself but was also a catalyst to my ultimate dream coming true.
It really is quite a story: a musical kid from New Jersey who knew what he wanted but didn't know he would get it.
I still don't think about things that way. I'm blessed with a gift of music and lyrics but I was also blessed with a – I hope not too obnoxious – self confidence. It's not even so much self confidence, I just couldn't imagine not doing what I do. I guess what I don't have is self-doubt – that's a blessing. Some people are so talented but are scared to come out of the house – and I'm not, I never was. I moved to New York when I was sixteen. When I knew Bette Midler would hire me to work again on one of her tours but didn't want to fly me to LA or put me up, I just flew myself to LAX and called her from the payphone and said, "oh, I'm in LA, so how 'bout it?" I just have that chutzpah, I guess.
Did you have much in the way of music education?
Just piano lessons as a kid. I left high school when I was 16 and I didn't have any formal musical training. I just listened to records. Doing community theatre was my formal training, in that you get the scores from the actual Broadway show and you can listen to the cast album finally with the music in front of you — that's not just the folio you buy in a music store, so you get to really see what the strings are doing – oh that's what trombones do, that's the range of the flute. Those years of having those piano conductor scores and doing shows, that was the biggest lesson I ever got. And everything else has been by the skin of my teeth.
When you were sitting at home before you actually made the move to New York, were you writing theoretical songs for Bette Midler and people like that? What was going on in the very, very early years?
I think, like any songwriter, I was writing a song for my cat and stuff like that, or a song about my brother. To torment him the way he tormented me, I would get him back by writing a song like "Ronnie Is a Turkey". And I remember in junior high school I got a reel-to-reel tape recorder that allowed me to overdub my voice. That really spurred a lot of songwriting at the age of 13 and 14. I would sit in my room and overdub myself into a tizzy because I loved harmony. That first Bette Midler album, which had just come out, so turned me on to Andrews Sisters – style, harmony and the girl groups of the Sixties. I was actually a little young in the early Sixties to have heard those songs. Many of them I learned as a teenager and as an adult. So, Bette Midler's albums were completely and totally my doorway into so many genres of music or the concept of genres of music and how many different areas there are, and that they're all to be embraced and loved. I don't understand why people say "I don't like country & western." What are you talking about? It's music. How can you hate anything? Anyway, I got that from Bette Midler, very much so – and the fact that you can have a sense of humor about all music and even poke fun at things you love, because on her first albums, the arrangements of girl group songs were also poking fun at the overly dramatic records of the early Sixties like "Leader of the Pack". And, of course, that was a great foundation for me all these years later when it came time to write Hairspray, that I did become so schooled in that from Bette Midler, and then I did a revue of Ellie Greenwich songs off-Broadway called Leader of the Pack.
I really became schooled in that Girl Group sound, so when Hairspray came along, I had spent almost a third of my life dedicated in some way or another to Pop music of the Sixties. It seems to keep following me – I did a movie called Down With Love which was like a Doris Day and Rock Hudson early Sixties movie – the whole other kind of early Sixties style. And now I'm writing a musical of Catch Me If You Can, the Steven Spielberg movie and that takes place in the 1960's – almost the same years as Hairspray, but in a very different place.
When you're working on a film score, do you first work out your themes and ideas on the piano?
I work it out on the piano. I am, for better or worse, a piano player, a guy who writes on the piano. I do know that once I write the themes, how to stop writing "theme-istically," and that when I have to write a cue – that has a texture that is not just about how I would play on a piano. When it comes to the themes, I hope it comes from my heart and then goes right to my fingers. If I have a really beautiful piano, I write better. If I have a bad piano somewhere, I lose my talent. I can't play the good chords I want to play if I'm accompanying a singer. I really have to have a great, beautiful piano. That's all I need.
One of the movies I didn't realize you had scored was Al Franken's strange comedy, Stuart Saves His Family, an almost underground film from 1995.
I love that movie so much. And the song I got to write in the end title is a beautiful song that I get to sing here and there at various functions, because of what the lyric says about family and how friends become your family and "What Makes A Family" – that's the name of the song. I hate the fact that no one in the world saw it. One of the all time great lines was when Stuart says "I guess I shouldn't be so hard on my Dad, he lived through the Great Depression, his mother's." (laughter)
You also scored Billy Crystal's sentimental Jewish comedian movie, Mr. Saturday Night, in 1992.
That's another one I so loved working on. Yeah, there were many years of big hits, and then there were many years of movies that I adored that didn't catch on with the public or just weren't sold right. Hearts and Souls from 1993 was another one. Then it kind of evened out to a nice hit every year or so. It wasn't like I had such a charmed first few years in the film business. It's just one $100 million movie after another. It was so long ago now that $100 million doesn't sound like much to people, I mean I guess that's $200 million now. But I had a string of luck that was unfathomable.
Early on, you showed yourself to be a great music supervisor and A&R man by finding the song, "Wind Beneath My Wings" for Bette Midler to sing in Beaches and later bringing her "From a Distance." Two huge, Grammy winning hits.
That's how I earned my stripes – by bringing "Wind Beaneath My Wings" into the mix and having it become such a standard and this incredible performance by Bette Midler. Those were heady years – hit movies. Then I was also finding these hit songs. I had fairy dust on me (if you'll pardon the pun). For about six years there it was just amazing how everything I worked on seem to explode. But things evened out and I certainly learned that they're not all going to be that way.
You keep on going, always doing your best, whether the movie succeeds or not.
Oh yeah – especially movie writing. You just have your day's work and you don't think about anything but what music is best for this or that. How do I best get what the director wants.
I imagine it must have been a challenge to do George of the Jungle, basically a live action cartoon.
Not at all, most people who would disparage my film score writing would say that's the perfect gig for me because I write too cartoony. George of the Jungle was actually a lot of fun. And I also love adapting other people's music – with The Addams Family and George of the Jungle I had to find clever ways to make use of themes that already exist. I love that because I'm an arranger, also. To me it's all music – whether you've written it or are arranging it, singing it, playing it, it's just all the glory of music.
"To me it's all music – whether you've written it or are arranging it, singing it, playing it, it's just all the glory of music." Marc Shaiman
But there is a difference in the way you approach writing for the stage than for films.
Of course there's a difference. Yet, there's a similarity too. With many, many themes I've written for movies, I've had lyrics in my head. Some people might think that my themes go on too much, like a song. I love the old days where movies did have themes like that, where real melodies that lasted more than just a motif, a four-note motif, but actual melody. And who, more than Henry Mancini, was the peak of that style of movie scoring where an actual melody of a full song became the basis of the score. He was the king.
There must be a little Henry Mancini in your score for Down with Love.
It's a pale imitation.
Still another early 1960s film you did was the TV film, 61*, about the 1961 home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
Yeah, it was a beautiful movie. Billy Crystal did a fantastic job directing that movie. It was a story I never knew. To me, '61 meant Carol Channing and Chita Rivera and their season on Broadway, not Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and their baseball season. So, it was a real learning experience for me to work on that movie.
What have you got lined up once Hairspray is done?
I'll be working mostly in New York with musicals. I am, luckily, scoring Rob Reiner's next film which sounds really fantastic. It has Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in an adult male comedy/tearjerker. I can't wait —it sounds like just the kind of movie everyone always wants to score – something with great actors, great humor and yet there's heartbreak in there also. It will be such a great one-two punch of doing this frilly, over-the-top musical and then getting to score a Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman/ Rob Reiner movie right after it — that's a good year, a very good year. I used to do six or seven movies a year and I know some guys do even more. I couldn't live that way. It was destroying me after a while. But if I could do two like that every year, I would be more than blessed.