Even in a world of strange births, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s musical adaptation of “Catch Me if You Can,” the Steven Spielberg-helmed, Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, had a serendipitous beginning.
“Someone asked us to write a musical of ‘Stage Door,'” recalls Shaiman, referring to the work best known as a movie starring Katharine Hepburn. “But we wanted to go back and read the play. So we went to the Drama Book Shop, and they had just put out the script to ‘Catch Me if You Can.’ Scott walked past it and said, ‘Well, this is a much more exciting idea for a musical than “Stage Door” ‘ and I immediately got it.”
It didn’t hurt that they knew Spielberg from Martin Short’s Christmas parties. Nor that the director had used bits of Shaiman’s “The American President” score for trailers to “Saving Private Ryan.”
Later, the pair learned that Spielberg had seen “Hairspray” on Broadway several times, which made securing his consent to adapt “Catch Me if You Can” much easier. “It’s like ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” says Shaiman. “We were able to go right to the man behind the curtain.”
Spielberg is currently backing a workshop of the show, with Nathan Lane in the Tom Hanks role and Christian Borle (“Spamalot”) in the DiCaprio part. The creative team includes “Hairspray” alums like director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, as well as Terrence McNally, who’s writing the book.
“What attracted us to the project was not putting a caper onstage,” says Wittman. “This is more about fathers and sons and the family you create when yours doesn’t work for you.”
The musical, like the film, presents the story from two competing points of view: that of con man Frank Abagnale and that of his FBI pursuer. But there’s a deconstructionist aspect to the musical not present in the film. “We poke fun at the concept of a movie turning into a musical,” says Wittman. “It’s all very irreverently treated. We actually say, ‘Well, you know, they did this much better in the movie.’ ”
As for the story’s sober moral lessons, Shaiman and Wittman focus elsewhere. “If you’re going to write a song, make it catchy and fun,” says Shaiman. “Right now, we’re writing one about terrible fathers screwing up their sons. But we’re writing it to be a showstopper.”