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!”
Wittman has a big, infectious laugh. He is generally described as the debonair, gregarious one, and Shaiman the anxious, disheveled musical savant, which is simplistic but true. One thing that Shaiman shares with Abagnale: super-sized precociousness. He grew up in Scotch Plains and was a prodigy—not just at piano but, as he has put it, “a showbiz prodigy.” (Billy Crystal, who would later employ him to co-write his Oscar-hosting musical numbers, calls Shaiman “Rain Jew,” for his encyclopedic knowledge of popular music.) At 18, he was Bette Midler’s accompanist, and not too long after that, her musical director.
Wittman was his own kind of whiz. By 11, he was casting friends in plays in his backyard in Nanuet. He was 21 when he met the 16-year-old Shaiman at the Village bar Marie’s Crisis. Shaiman had wandered in one afternoon and immediately sat down at the piano. In a moment worthy of an MGM movie, the owner said, “Hey, you’re good. Don’t move!” He knew Wittman needed a pianist for a show at the Duplex, a few doors down. Wittman’s first words to Shaiman: “Can you play ‘Together, Wherever We Go’ cheesy?” And, of course, he could. Shaiman and Wittman’s shared passion for the pop and swing of sixties entertainment, show business with an exclamation point, is the sensibility that they’ve brought to everything since—a sensibility that “we celebrate even as we make fun of it,” says Shaiman.
Theater took a ten-year detour when they moved to L.A. in 1989—paradise for Shaiman, misery for Wittman: “I tried to do theater, but as they say out there, it’s what you do when there are no TV roles.” That’s where the work was for Shaiman, who had moved on to scoring films—about 50 so far, including When Harry Met Sally …, The American President, and, with Trey Parker, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. “That was the gig that showed everything I can do: write music, lyrics, arrange, and orchestrate,” he says.
It was also the gig that got the two, finally, inevitably, to Broadway. Producer Margo Lion hired them to write the music and lyrics for the John Waters film Hairspray. “That changed our lives,” says Shaiman, who professed his love for Wittman at the 2003 Tony Awards, leading to the telecast’s first gay kiss. “It was everything we’d been working for.” A Club 57 show with lots of money.
Shaiman has said that if Hairspray was 16 magazine, then Catch is Playboy. “There used to be what they’d call a show for the tired businessman, because it featured gorgeous, leggy girls,” says Shaiman. “And we have some of the most gorgeous on Broadway. They should put ‘For Men Who Hate Musicals’ on the poster.” The music is reminiscent of what you might have heard on any Sunday night on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The best thing about the mid-sixties was that it was the last time styles of music weren’t segregated,” says Shaiman. “So I might be watching Sullivan for the Beatles or the Supremes, but I was exposed to Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee, and Judy Garland.” (Wittman was watching for Garland.)
Jack O’Brien, the director of Catch and Hairspray, likens the new show to “stuffing fifteen pounds in a one-pound bag. Specifically, how to move a true story—an unbelievably true story—within the totally artificial context of a variety show.” Furthermore, the three main characters are male: Frank Jr. (Next to Normal’s Aaron Tveit); his father, Frank Sr. (Tom Wopat); and Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz), the FBI agent in pursuit of the son. “Hairspray was about mothers and daughters, and this is about fathers and sons,” says Shaiman. “And fathers aren’t emoters. They don’t sing as easily as mothers.” And yet they aim to duplicate the one-two punch of Hairspray’s songs: lush, instantly hummable melodies combined with lyrics that pack an emotional wallop. “As funny as Marc and Scott are,” says O’Brien, “they are curiously insightful, even in a very presentational musical. They don’t write psychologically, but there’s psychological insights in everything they write.”
Wittman credits his lifelong love for bravado and outsize personalities to his father, who was “very much like Frank Sr., without the flimflam. He was an umpire, and for me to embrace theater was very difficult for him, though he did make peace with it.” In one song, “Little Boy, Be a Man”—a phrase Wittman’s father used to yell at him—Shaiman wrote the lyric, “He told me, ‘Grow up, kid, you’re no Peter Pan,’” because Wittman had once tried to fly and broke his hip.
The two are simultaneously writing the songs for Smash, Steven Spielberg’s scripted series on the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical (a contender for a slot on NBC’s fall lineup). “Debra Messing plays me, Christian Borle plays Marc, and Anjelica Huston plays Margo Lion,” says Wittman. “Not really, but we like to say that.” Juggling the jobs has meant weeks of running between the Neil Simon Theatre and Smash meetings a few blocks away. “It’s like Inception,” says Wittman. “We’ll be at a meeting for a show about putting on a Broadway musical, then run back to where we’re actually putting on the thing we were pretending to do a few minutes before.”
I bring up Catch Me If You Can’s many musical competitors this spring, including The Book of Mormon, by Shaiman’s former South Park collaborators; Priscilla Queen of the Desert, co-produced by Midler; andSister Act, based on a film Shaiman scored. “I think it’s exciting,” says Wittman. “If one is a hit, everybody’s a hit. Each fills a need somehow.”
“And of course I’m petrified,” says Shaiman. “I can’t believe the competition, how expensive tickets are—who’s going to see more than one show? We should have opened last year!” But at the same time, they want success for their friends. “The meanest thing God has done to us,” says Shaiman, “is make it impossible to wish ill will.”
Catch Me If You Can
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman; Book By Terrence Mcnally.
Neil Simon Theatre.