‘Hairspray Live!’ – Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman Interview

Hairspray Live You Cant Stop the Beat
The cast of ‘Hairspray Live’ (Photo by Brian Bowen Smith / NBC)

NBC’s next big live musical event will be Hairspray Live! set to air on December 7, 2016 at 8pm ET/PT. The much-anticipated musical production is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit and stars Harvey Fierstein, Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, Derek Hough, and newcomer Maddie Baillio in the lead role of Tracy Turnblad. Alex Rudzinski and Kenny Leon are directing, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are executive producing, and Fierstein wrote the teleplay. Hairspray Live! features catchy musical numbers with music and lyrics by Tony Award-winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

The Plot: Hairspray Live! takes place in 1962 Baltimore. Plump teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream is to dance on “The Corny Collins Show,” a local TV program. When against all odds Tracy wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight and meets a colorful array of characters, including the resident dreamboat, Link; the ambitious mean girl, Amber; an African-American boy she meets in detention, Seaweed; and his mother, Motormouth Maybelle, the owner of a local record store. Tracy’s mother is the indomitable Edna, and she eventually encourages Tracy on her campaign to integrate the all-white “Corny Collins Show.”

Rehearsals are currently underway and with the musical event a month out from its air date, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman took time out of their busy schedules to discuss Hairspray Live!. Shaiman and Wittman participated in a conference call to talk about the songs included in this version, the cast, and what it feels like to be able to delve once again into the fun world of Hairspray.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman Interview:

What were the challenges in working on Hairspray Live! in terms of which songs could be included in the final NBC production?

Marc Shaiman: “We basically used the Broadway production and then took the film songs that we most enjoyed, songs that we got to write for the film, and have incorporated them into it. So now it’s become a real nice hybrid of the Broadway version and the movie version. There’s one or two things from Broadway that are not included and there’s maybe one or two things written for the movie that are not included. I don’t know that I’m at liberty to say, specifically. But it will be very nice to see it all put together as one.

What was such a blessing is all these stars came in and we would have understood if someone had said, ‘Hey, I want to have something new.’ Or, ‘Write something just for me,’ or, ‘Change this part a little bit more because I’m who I am.’ But no one said that. Everyone wanted to play the parts as written. Scott and I have actually had a pretty nice time of not having to work strenuously.”

Scott Wittman: “We’re so lucky that this is even happening in our lifetimes. That it’s fun here, too, to read it [and] to go back and explore the material again.”

Marc Shaiman: “We may be the first songwriters of a live musical in the modern age to be alive when the shows are put on.”

Do you look back on Hairspray with pure fondness or do you wish you could have changed something? How does it feel when you revisit the old material and will there be any brand new songs that we’ve never heard before in this production?

Scott Wittman: “Looking back on Hairspray, I wouldn’t change a thing. But for television because the act breaks are different, Harvey (Fierstein’s) done a wonderful job of reshuffling the cards in that area.”

Hairspray Live! will be performing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade which is exciting. Could you possibly tell us what they might be performing? Will it be a medley?

Scott Wittman: “We don’t know because we’re in London making a movie. We read about it on Instagram and things like that. We don’t know about that yet.”

Marc Shaiman: “The kind of big headline for us is that we are – as Scott said in England – working on the movie sequel to Mary Poppins called Mary Poppins Returns. Not a remake, a sequel. And the very bittersweet fact is that we, although alive, are just a little bit more involved with the show than some of the dead composers and the lyricists of the previous productions. So we’re sort of heartbroken that we can’t be there every single day because there’s simply nothing as fun as rehearsing Hairspray. We’ve learned that over the years.”

When you first composed the music, how did you decide which scenes from the original film called for a musical number?

Marc Shaiman: “I mean, in the original movie when Tracy steps out of the beauty parlor with Edna in her entirely new ’60s look and says, ‘Momma, welcome to the ’60s, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to say that’s a song cue. There were moments like that in the original film that just, well, sang out. Also, when Tracy says at one point, ‘Now all Baltimore knows I’m big, blonde, and beautiful,’ Scott and I both go, ‘Well, that’s a song title.'”

Scott Wittman: “The original movie, which is so brilliant, is almost a musical in its form as is. So it was great fun to pay homage to (John Waters) for that.”

Hairspray Live stars Maddie Baillio and Harvey Fierstein
Harvey Fierstein and Maddie Baillio (Photo by Brian Bowen Smith/NBC)

You’ve been in London but have you had an opportunity to work with the new cast during the rehearsals? Have you had a chance to really experience them experiencing and exploring these songs?

Scott Wittman: “Well, Kristin Chenowith, yes.”

Marc Shaiman: “Yes. Luckily for us Kristin is in New York and so she had to do her work with us at our studio in New York. And I also got to meet with her by chance when I was in LA. That was our first meeting with her was to see what we could do with ‘Baltimore Crabs’ to show off everything that Kristin has to show off. And, that’s a lot. We did have that absolute joy of getting to watch (her). You know, when I record someone in my home studio I usually actually have my back to them because of the way that the room is set up, which also seems okay because in my home studio there isn’t a glass partition between the booth and where someone’s singing. It’s almost like you’re invading your space and it’s almost nicer to keep your back to them. But with Kristin I kind of realized that at one point I wanted to watch her singing and so I just turned around and practically forgot to hit all the right buttons to stop and start and record because it was just so much fun to watch her sing the song over and over again for the cast album that they’re making.”

Scott Wittman: “We also worked with Maddie (Baillio) which was great, great, great fun because she’s really a fantastic singer.”

Will “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” be included in Hairspray Live!?

Scott Wittman: “Yes, it’s back. How can we not do it with Kristin and Andrea (Martin). It would be a sacrilege.”

Marc Shaiman: “(We are) working on Hairspray Live! with a different group of collaborators. All the folks that worked on the movie and although there were a lot of people who worked on the movie who are working on Hairspray Live! – Craig (Zadan) and Neil (Meron), obviously – but, you know, there are different points of view and a different structure to the show. They like to present the musicals pretty closely to what the actual…”

Scott Wittman: “…experience is.”

Marc Shaiman: “…the Broadway production. I mean, we couldn’t be luckier than the fact that we got to make a movie of our show. So, we get to have these two versions and we’re so also ecstatic to have this version where Harvey’s work and Jerry Mitchell’s work will equally be able to be enjoyed by the audience.”

How did you come up with “You Can’t Stop the Beat?”

Marc Shaiman: “Scott and I were talking and we just kind of…Scott came up with the idea of how the beat sort of symbolized both the show and the idea that it just goes on and on and sort of relates to life and America and just about everything you can think of. […] We had been working all day and Scott was about to leave to go hang out with his friends up at Angus’s Bar, a hang out that is no longer. He was on his way up there but we had sort of settled on something about the beat and can you stop the beat. We weren’t quite sure what those words were. Scott left and it must have been 10:30 but I was at the piano and I started playing a rhythm and then that song just started pouring out of me like hot lava. I called Scott like 20 minutes later. I said, ‘Scott, come home because you’ll be mad at me if I write anymore and it’s just like flowing out of me.’

He turned right around and came home and we wrote that song like they say how songs are floating there in the air and songwriters just have to capture them. That one came out that way. I mean, there were like three inner rhymes within lines that just came out with rhymes. But, like, we weren’t even trying. It was just coming out of our mouths that way. And then the idea of just keep writing more verses for all the characters and figuring out later can we really sing all these verses? Luckily, our collaborators Jack and Jerry were brilliant at figuring out how to make it all work.”

Were there any actors who had a difficult time with that song because it’s so challenging?

Marc Shaiman: “Well, the truth is that it’s somewhere online if you write ‘original demo of You Can’t Stop the Beat’, believe it or not it was faster. I do remember one of my main thoughts was to try to write one of those songs – what’s that other one called? – ‘Life is a Run, But the Radio Rolls?’ It’s like a long list of names. I was like, ‘Oh this should be one of those songs that can you get all the lyrics out? Can you spit them all out? And if you do, it’s just like this huge accomplishment.’ So musically speaking I did kind of almost make a test for the singers. They do call it ‘You Can’t Stop to Breathe.'”

Scott Wittman: “Jerry’s staging of it is just incredible. It just builds to everyone doing the exact same step which is what the show is about.”

What has it been like for the two of you to work together in so many projects over the years? How have you seen yourselves evolve?

Marc Shaiman: “I’ve seen my stomach evolve to larger form.”

Scott Wittman: “It’s been great fun because when you work together as long as we have together, you finish each other’s sentences. That’s good in a collaboration.”

Marc Shaiman: “We think alike and we can be honest with each other and we love each other.”

Scott Wittman: “And we have a shared sense of humor, yes.”

Marc Shaiman: “So, it’s glorious. As they would say, it’s the greatest. As Gershwin said, ‘Nice work if you can get it.'”

What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

Scott Wittman: “We spent a fabulous day with Lin-Manuel (Miranda) and Emily Blunt singing. So that’s always a joy to be hearing.”

Marc Shaiman: “Yes. Literally all day we sat in a room with them singing our songs right into our faces. Mary Poppins Returns is really taking over our lives completely the last few months and for the next few months. And then we go directly from the final recording session for the prerecords for Mary Poppins Returns and we fly back to New York for first day rehearsals for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Scott Wittman: “We’re in London at Shepperton Studios where they made Oliver so that’s just a great joy to walk around there.”