On the Scene: Beehive, Be Cool

"Hairspray" adds a schpritz of Marc Shaiman sheen to a shandah-shellacked time in history – all with a little rock and roiling of the John Waters.

The Tony Award-winning musical, now on stage at the Merriam Theater in Center City, uses Waters' divine rod of a raunchy rabble-rouser film made in 1988 (but set in the uncivil rites of the Sixties) to make a point or two about the new millennium.

And nowhere does it score better than in the score scripted by Marc Shaiman and his on-stage, off-stage partner, lyricist Scott Wittman,who have made the stage a be-in, beehive of hip activity.

Way-out Waters' "Hairspray" was never of the "a little dab will do ya" philosophy; more in the "nothing succeeds like excess" extreme. And the filmmaker's topsy-turvy template of looking at the Baltimore civil-rights movement through an "American Bandstand"-style TV show danced on the edges of satire while twisting the night away.

With a man portraying the zaftig mother in over-the-top casting that started out as Divine comedy on screen and continued with Harvey Fierstein on Broadway – and J.P. Dougherty at the Merriam – "Hairspray" jelled as a gem about the need for mutual understanding and family support, even if the mother's voice is a going-for-baroque baritone.

But the music sings with a mist of memory of those long-ago musicals that ingratiated themselves into the heart and heartland while distinguishing itself with a boom-box beat that explodes as current theatrical soul music.

Who to blame for dragging musical theater into the here and now? Why not the composer who decided to "Blame Canada" in the compass-quirky "South Park," one of five Oscar-nominated scores Shaiman's delivered on?

Is Shaiman the shaman of today's show tunes? The medicine man of musicals whose metronome beats a bit smarter and quicker than others? The "Hairspray" Tonys on his mantle seem to lend support to the notion. And standing-room-only audiences keep him seated as the one to dethrone as king of the cool and hot.

But for now, the gay and carefree composer is nothing but the family man, and the family he sets his sites and sighs for is the Turnblads of "Hairspray."

Miracle of miracles! Does it turn out that Edna and Wilbur Turnblad are really Jewish? Okay, Edna sounds more like an Eli – but their family values, the emphasis on education, the father's talmudic wisdom …

"Well, it seems I was able to get the words 'Shabbat Shalom' in the father's mouth," says Shaiman of the phrase he wrote in which comes out of left field during a scene. "And there seems to be a certain Jewish quality to the whole show. So if it does seem they're Jewish, well, I'm the culprit."

Jewish guilty as charged, he avers. But there's more to the ethnic profile that suits the Turnblads so well.

"After all, Jews were so involved in the civil-rights movement," adds the composer relating it to the show that showcases a social-conscience thrust.

But before everything gets too heavy – having nothing at all to do with the chubby cherub Tracy Turnblad, the musical's hero who turns Baltimore's social stratum upside-down – Shaiman thinks audiences should try the show on for sighs. More than anything, "this is a romantic musical."

With Edna and Wilbur (John McDuff) pitching woo? "They're the Tevye and Golde of Baltimore," quips Shaiman.

He should talk. No … really, he should talk. Because it was seeing "Fiddler on the Roof" – his first Broadway show, at age 9 – that showed Shaiman the way.

And if the actress who played Tzeitel that performance excited him enough to make Motel miffed, well, maybe it was bashert.

Is this the little girl he carried? No, this was the little girl who would one day hire Shaiman as her music man: Bette Midler, who created the role of Tevye's Tzeitel, years later asked Shaiman to become her music director, which he did, bringing "Wind Beneath My Wings" and Julie Gold's "From a Distance" to her attention and her repertoire.

Singing the singer's praises is an easy job for Shaiman, who has also made beautiful music professionally with such stars as Barbra Streisand, Harry Connick Jr. and Lauryn Hill. But it's Midler who is an easy bet as his favorite. "She was a muse to me at an early stage of my career," he says lovingly of the woman whose Emmy Award-winning "farewell-to-Johnny" performance on Carson's "The Tonight Show" Shaiman helped shape. And if "Fiddler" scratched out more than a decent tune in his life, well, as the good book says … and it is a good book that "Hairspray" has, courtesy of Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who adapted the screenplay.

But could this gender-bender of a show bend even more and accommodate a woman in the lead female role?

"I could see where some women could play it, like Lainie Kazan," says Shaiman. "That is, if we should cast a woman."

A gravelly-voiced Edna doesn't have to grovel for respect from critics and audiences alike. Indeed, a number of high-profile leading men have already taken their turns with Turnblad on stage, and it's all turned out rockingly.

There is precedent, after all: "We all have Jewish aunts with that kind of voice," and Shaiman does his imitation of a tanta with a ton of rocks sitting on her vocal chords.

What's weighing on Shaiman's mind now? The movie production of "Hairspray," in which, reportedly, John Travolta has the Saturday night fever to do Edna.

Beyond Hollywood, Broadway has had a breech of protocol and cool at center stage: Contemporary composer Michael John La Chiusa ("The Light in the Piazza") recently mouthed off with a fever-blistering attack on fellow composers – shamelessly naming names, such as Shaiman – for creating "faux musicals."

Faux pas? "Everyone's entitled to his opinion, but if you voice an opinion, you should call it that and not act as if it's the voice of God," Shaiman says of La Chiusa's choice of self-righteous indignation expressed in an article in Opera News.

And how would Shaiman like to respond to the self-anointed La Chiusa?

"I would like to throw his article in a burning bush!"

But Shaiman shuns such internecine invective, preferring humorous parries to part the waters, and come out on the other side clean and the clear winner in the argument.

"I'm too old and egotistical to take it seriously," he says.

And for the composer whose Oscar-ceremony opening musical number for Billy Crystal won a Grammy Award, and whose scores of film credits include "When Harry Met Sally" ("I didn't compose her orgasm scream for the deli scene"), "Beaches," "The American President," "Patch Adams" and "The Addams Family," it is the Turnblad family that has him harboring thoughts of productions way beyond the Baltimore-set musical.

If the show at the Merriam, which the composer, "acting in my Jewish salesman role," loves and lauds, has you beaming and borrowing its tunes, and wondering why more musicals aren't sprayed with this tonsorial talent, well, forget Canada …

Blame Shaiman!



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