THE KID FROM EXIT 135
By LINDA FOWLER
Scribble. Schmooze. Smile. Repeat.
During an intermission of “Hairspray” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, a line of autograph seekers serpentines toward the Row G aisle seats they’ve been told are occupied by “theater royalty.”
There they find a couple of jesters holding court.
Marc Shaiman, the Hollywood and Broadway composer who’s used to making cineastes clutch their guts over his snarky lyrics and music -- cue “Team America: World Police” and songs like “Blame Canada” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” -- is happy to talk about “my favorite subject -- me!” Joking with fans, he refers to his Scotch Plains hometown as Exit 135.
The “Hairspray” composer is accompanied by Scott Wittman, his partner-squared: Companions since 1979, they are also longtime musical collaborators; Shaiman and Wittman co-wrote the lyrics to “Hairspray” and are currently eyeball-deep in the Broadway-bound “Catch Me If You Can” and an original musicalization of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
For such compatible creators, they appear strikingly different. Wittman, a silver fox dressed in pinstripes and “Mad Men” glasses, laughs promptly and infectiously after his own zingers. Shaiman, the man Daily Variety tagged “the billion-dollar composer” -- and whom Billy Crystal identified as the lovechild of Edward G. Robinson and Oscar Levant -- is laid-back, slumming neatly in a black jacket, jeans and canvas sneakers. With paternal pride, the duo regularly drop into productions worldwide of their bouncy 1960s-era musical -- a property worth protecting considering its weight in Tonys from 2003 and ka-ching from the movie version four years later.
During a round of congratulations backstage, Shaiman tells the actors he first visited the Paper Mill as a 6-year-old, to see Ann Miller in “Anything Goes.” He’s returned several times since and, with Wittman, has coached kids in the theater’s summer conservatory -- one of whom was Christine Danelson of Somerville, who plays “Hairspray’s” heroine, Tracy Turnblad.
“We could hear you laughing,” one of the cast members tells him.
Although many of Shaiman’s compositions are drenched in humor (he co-wrote Crystal’s Oscar parodies and churned out ditties as accompanist for “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-’80s), his talents for emotion-filled underscoring and arranging make him a musical heavy in the film industry; Rob Reiner alone signed him to 10 of his pictures, beginning with “When Harry Met Sally ...” in 1989. Five Academy Award nominations have put the statuette within finger-reach -- and Shaiman has written and arranged for 11 of those broadcasts -- but he’s never won. An Emmy and Grammy flank the Tony on his piano, “only when producers come over to offer ‘suggestions’ or ‘notes’ on my work,” he wisecracks.
Film-music historian Jon Burlingame thinks the Oscar-nominated score to “The American President” (1995) represents Shaiman at his best. “Go back and watch that main-title sequence, with the camera moving across many images of chief executives throughout the years, and listen to that music, so rich in American optimism and patriotic feeling,” he says. “I’ve seen it dozens of times and I well up every time. It’s a masterpiece of musical Americana.”
The 51-year-old music-maker is the youngest of four children raised by Claire and William Robert Shaiman on Winding Brook Way; strangely, all but one of the siblings share the same birthday, Oct. 22. His sister Karen Shirvanian, a teacher from Sussex County, says Marc, barely in kindergarten, noodled on the keys and eavesdropped on his sisters’ lessons until he was old enough to study. “He just loved to sit there at the piano but never did it for any kind of attention,” she remembers.
Described by friends as a goof with braces, partial to wearing flannel shirts over his T’s and hair over his shoulders, Shaiman binged on TV variety shows like “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and plastered his bedroom with posters of his favorite diva, Bette Midler. He sometimes spent holidays with friend Jamie Rose-Helfand, whose mother was one of the 5 DeMarco Sisters during the ‘40s and ‘50s; Shaiman still marvels over his luck at being able to fill his head with the complex and dense five-part harmonies heard at those family gatherings.
“Marc is an old soul,” says Rose-Helfand. “He always went for that kind of music.”
Shaiman learned of a children’s summer musical workshop in Scotch Plains-Fanwood, where a friend encouraged him to audition for “The Sound of Music.”
“And when I finished playing ... you could hear a pin drop and people were staring at me,” Shaiman recalls. “‘Cause I was a little freak of nature. I just had this idiot-savant-ness having to do with show business. ... And that’s what I was born to do. From that moment on, schoolwork, classical piano studies, just fell by the wayside.”
Actress Vicki Tripodo met the adolescent Shaiman when she was starring in “Funny Girl” for the Clark Players and a replacement pianist was needed on short notice. “They point to Marc,” she explains, “who is 13 ... and I thought, ‘This really has got to be a sick joke, that they brought in a 9-year-old.’ Then, of course, he sat down and, on sight, played the score of ‘Funny Girl’ better than I had ever heard it.”
Called “Knuckles” for his piano chops, Shaiman had to be driven to gigs. Reluctant but supportive, his parents let him drop out of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School at 16 -- he later earned a GED -- to work in Manhattan’s fringe theaters. A serendipitous encounter with The Harlettes -- Midler’s backup singers -- led to a job arranging vocals and later co-producing his idol’s recordings (“The Wind Beneath My Wings,” for one). Shaiman’s career path came into focus before he reached 18.
“When I talk to a group of students, the only thing I regret and have such jealousy for is schooling and learning about music and the history of music,” he says. “I’ve learned everything by the seat of my pants ... And I would never tell anyone to try to follow in my footsteps as far as leaving school. Never, ever.”
Shaiman’s projects demand that he shuttle constantly between his homes in New York and California. Killing time pre-flight at EWR, he’s reminded of the airport setting in “Catch Me If You Can,” this spring’s Broadway rendering of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film. Two rogue pigeons trapped inside Terminal C peck near Shaiman’s feet as he describes the glamorous sequence of a young pilot (Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie) striding arm-in-arm with Jackie-esque stewardesses.
“Who wouldn’t prefer nostalgia? You’re dealing with eras that musically and lyrically still have some kind of class and romance to them. Which is funny for me to say because I’m one of the most coarse, vulgar persons on earth,” Shaiman says, laughing.
In one of life’s quirky twists, he was asked by Midler this past fall to participate in a benefit, but had to turn her down when he realized the date conflicted with a class reunion. He was looking forward to “what Facebook hath wrought ... seeing their faces and going, ‘Oh God! Of course I remember that!’
“I hung up and went, ‘Wait, that’s ironic,’ when I think of the epiphany I had (at school) discovering Bette Midler. And if you would have told me 30-something years later that I would say, ‘Oh Bette, I can’t come and work with you ‘cause I want to go to the class reunion,’ it still sort of boggles my mind.”