Composer in demand for stage, film music

It seems like Marc Shaiman never stops. While he tinkers with the mix of the bigscreen adaptation of his smash Broadway musical “Hairspray” (opening July 20), he’s also composing the score for the upcoming Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman movie “The Bucket List” and preparing for a workshop of his next musical, based on the Steven Spielberg film “Catch Me if You Can.”

To quote fellow tunesmith Jerry Herman, “the best of times is now” for the 47-year-old musician whose awards shelf showcases a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy along with five Oscar nominations.

No longer typecast as either a composer for romantic comedies (“Sleepless in Seattle”) or as Billy Crystal’s muse for funny Oscar-night medleys, he’s now an in-demand songwriter for the New York stage and continues to write film music in every genre.

A throwback to an earlier Hollywood era, when top film composers like Victor Young and Henry Mancini were also much-admired songwriters, Shaiman confesses that things were looking bleak prior to “Hairspray.”

“I was at the end of my rope,” Shaiman recounts in the living room of his Laurel Canyon home in L.A. “I did not have another car chase in me, and I was writing the same cue over and over again on different movies. It was just a rat race. And then (producer) Margo Lion called out of the blue and said, ‘I have the rights to “Hairspray,” and you’re the perfect composer for it.’ It was a dream come true.”

Since “Hairspray” — both stage and film versions — Shaiman is rejuvenated. Says Crystal: “When he decided to take time off from the movie business and do ‘Hairspray,’ that was an important thing for him. He’s the same, but better.”

As Crystal quipped at the recent ASCAP Film and TV Awards, where Shaiman received the performing-rights organization’s Henry Mancini Award for career achievement: “If Edward G. Robinson and Oscar Levant had a child, it would be Marc Shaiman.”

Showbiz, it seems, was always Shaiman’s destiny. A gifted pianist as a child, he made up songs for his cat (“arpeggiated chords, it was very Philip Glass”) and to harass his brother (“Ronnie Is a Turkey” in two-part harmony). A chance audition to play for a community-theater production of “Funny Girl” while he was still in junior high “really changed my life,” says Shaiman.

Obsessed with Bette Midler (“so fantastic and funny and so diverse in her musicality”), he eventually became music director for her backup group, the Harlettes, which led to a job as Midler’s own vocal arranger before he was 18. “We still are like brother and sister,” Shaiman says. “Nothing has ever changed.”

The jump to ‘SNL’

Touring with Midler, writing musicals that almost got produced, and a growing reputation in the New York theater community led to work arranging songs and writing special material for “Saturday Night Live,” where he met Crystal and Martin Short. Shaiman would later do HBO specials for both, and in 1989 when Crystal was making “When Harry Met Sally …,” he introduced his piano pal to director Rob Reiner, who in turn put Shaiman together with Harry Connick Jr. to sing the standards that Shaiman arranged.

Reiner was so impressed that he gave Shaiman — who had not previously written a dramatic underscore — a shot at scoring his next film, the Stephen King thriller “Misery.”

“I just knew Marc had this amazing talent,” says Reiner. “I saw him, on the spot, look at something and just improvise music that would go along with what was there. He’s maybe the most talented musical person I’ve ever met. There’s nobody with the range that this guy has.”

Shaiman had already logged some film experience: He was music supervisor on “Beaches,” where he convinced a reluctant Midler to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” But Reiner’s vote of confidence on “Misery” launched a new career for Shaiman, who had discovered, he says, that “I was blessed with the talent to match music to action or image.”

Many of the three dozen films since then have been comedies, including a rousing, tongue-in-cheek Western score for “City Slickers”; the grandly romantic, slyly macabre music of “The Addams Family”; the Connick song “A Wink and a Smile” from “Sleepless in Seattle,” which earned Shaiman his first Oscar nomination; and his retro ’60s style for the Doris Day/Rock Hudson-styled send-up “Down With Love.”

Scoring romantic comedy, notes Reiner, “is tricky, because you don’t want to make it sappy. You have to hit that delicate balance between being reverent and irreverent. Marc is able to do that, because as emotional as he is — and he can be very emotional — he also has a healthy dose of cynicism and realism.”

Then there’s his dramatic sensibility, apparent in the powerful score for the courtroom drama “A Few Good Men,” with its elegiac trumpet solos; the magical and touching score for the Robert Downey Jr. fantasy “Heart and Souls”; and the grandeur of his much imitated, Coplandesque anthem for “The American President,” another Oscar nominee and perhaps his best-known theme.

‘Uncut’ & uncensored

All of Shaiman’s talents, from songwriting to arranging to score-composing, came to the fore in “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” the raucous 1999 animated musical for which Shaiman (and co-writer Trey Parker) received his most recent Oscar nod for the song “Blame Canada.”

Shaiman is steeped in the Great American Songbook, with an encyclopedic memory of hundreds of Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building tunes. That knowledge informs his musical choices in every medium.

“I just look at the scene and the character and come up with a melody,” he explains. “I grew up with many piano lessons from Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer songs, where there were actual lyrics to the melody that you were hearing in the movie.”

‘You mean like this?’

Reiner says he was at Shaiman’s house recently working on the score for “The Bucket List” (their 10th film together) and Reiner suggested that Shaiman resurrect a theme from earlier in the film and develop it further. “He says, ‘You mean like this?’ and he started doing it right then and there at the piano. That was it. It wasn’t like, ‘Let me think about this.’ He just feels it and does it. It was astounding.”

Short, who reunited with the composer for last year’s Broadway show “Fame Becomes Me,” thinks Shaiman “is a great combination of an enormous work ethic and a great improvisational spirit — which is unusual because often people with an improvisational talent don’t really want to work hard. Marc combines both instincts: He can come up with something in a moment, and he can happily work on something for a year.”

Says Shaiman: “To me, it’s all music. I enjoy arranging as much as writing, orchestrating, playing, accompanying, performing, whatever. It’s all just one big ball of showbiz wax.”

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