Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a kingdom of fantastical creatures—queens and faeries and proto-hipsters, with names like John Sex, Futura 2000, and Wendy Wild. Unlike most kingdoms, there was no castle, only the basement of a Polish church on the Lower East Side of a slightly grubby metropolis. The three rulers—Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson, and Kenny Scharf—called it Club 57 and welcomed seekers of the strange, the erotic, and the sometimes frankly bad.
“Our friend Marge Gross told us about a club on St. Marks Place,” says Marc Shaiman. “She said, ‘I’ve found Oz. It’s kind of theatrical, with funny people who laugh at the same things we do.’” This was in 1980, long before he and his partner, Scott Wittman, would write the music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Hairspray and their latest, Catch Me If You Can. “It really was the Emerald City—like magic,” says Wittman. “So much creativity with so little money. The whole Lower East Side was like that then, the way Paris must have been in the twenties.”
Club 57 would take on the personality of whoever was hosting: There might be a live version of The Bad Seed one night and Putt-Putt Reggae (miniature golf played in a shantytown made of refrigerator boxes) the next. Shaiman and Wittman introduced a new shtick—part Andy Warhol, part Andy Hardy. “It was a little too rock and roll for theater and a little too theater-y for rock and roll,” says Shaiman. In the beginning, the two hammed up old material, like a dinner-theater production of Boeing-Boeing. “Scott found the play and said, ‘This is horrible. Let’s revive it!’” (Years later, it would become a Broadway hit, unconnected to them: “It’s so hard to be 30 years ahead of the times,” says Wittman.) Lines stretched around the block for their Trojan Women, which producer Allan Carr wanted to take to Vegas. That was followed by “Keep Your Von Trapp Shut,”a bootleg version of The Sound of Music, with Holly Woodlawn playing Maria. (Sample lyric tweak, to “My Favorite Things”: “Cocaine that stays on my nose and false lashes.”) The first thing they co-wrote, Livin’ Dolls, was inspired by a book about Barbie’s 25th anniversary. “We thought it would make a great musical,” says Shaiman. “Which is how we came up with Catch Me If You Can.”
The show is based on the memoir of Frank Abagnale Jr., who, in the sixties, beginning at the age of 16, became notorious for passing millions in forged checks across 26 countries over five years. To do so, he created false identities, successfully impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. In 2002, Steven Spielberg turned the story into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio. Around that time, Wittman was looking at a copy of the book: “I saw the stewardesses on the cover and thought, That’s an ensemble!”
Wittman, after Club 57 (its short run lasted from roughly 1978 to 1983), went on to direct shows through the eighties, a decade with a booming downtown club scene. His productions always had big casts, prompting the nickname Mr. DeMille; the 1986 Palladium extravaganza Pagan Place—the Bible in twenty minutes—had 200 extras. (I was one of them.) “My first thought whenever we do a show is, Who would the group be? Cowboys? Trojan women? Baltimore teenagers?” Abagnale’s book has a bounty of ensembles: stewardesses, nurses, and FBI guys.
Catch was a complicated story to turn into a movie, let alone a musical. Shaiman and Wittman settled on a familiar conceit: Abagnale would tell his story as if it were a sixties TV variety show. “Which is exactly what we were doing in our shows at Club 57,” says Shaiman. “It just would have been John Sex as Frank Junior.”
Shaitan, 51, and Wittman, 56, are sitting in Sardi’s between rehearsals, during the last lap of Catch Me If You Can previews (it opens April 10). The two bicker amiably, like an old married couple, which is essentially what they are—minus a year off for what they call “bad behavior,” when Wittman went to rehab to quit drinking.
“He’s [Hairspray’s] Tracy Turnblad, and I’m Frank Abagnale Jr.,” says Wittman.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you—which he just stole from me,” Shaiman interjects. “Except for my confirmed pessimism, I’m Tracy. I’m a little chubby, love music, wanted the black kids in high school to know that I played piano in a black style. And Scott’s Frank Jr. He’s the optimist who has to embellish every story with …”
“… Feathers, showgirls, and kick lines, else it’s not a tale worth telling,” says Wittman, who claims to find something to appreciate in every piece of theater he sees. “I love or like everything,” he adds. “That’s total bullshit,” Shaiman replies. “I’m the love or like one—he’s stealing my lines!”