Marc Shaiman firmly resists the suggestion that he leads a double life as a film composer and lyricist. At first blush, though, the two strains of his flourishing career are hard to reconcile. On the one hand, he is the gifted subversive who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated anthem Blame Canada for Matt Stone and Trey Parkers South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. On the other, hes a dauntingly prolific composer of fulsome scores for middlebrow commercial movies -- more than 30 of them in just over a decade. What does South Parks Uncle Fucka have in common with When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Patch Adams or The Story of Us?
Those are exactly the kind of films, the 41-year-old Shaiman happily admits, that Matt and Trey would make fun of ruthlessly -- and make fun of me for working on. His Hollywood chums may see South Park as a bizarre departure from Shaimans real work. For the composer himself, its the other way around. South Park is totally my sensibility. When I was in New York in my 20s, in the early 80s, I was in clubs in the East Village creating shows, wearing Mylar space suits on the subway to publicize bizarre gigs. The diminutive Shaiman noted the disparity between then and now when, clad in standard conservative garb, he appeared with a towering and garishly clad Parker last year at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award banquet to accept the nod for Best MusicScore. Contrary to appearances, he quipped, Im the gay one. For the Oscars, though, Shaiman donned a fluffy powder-blue pimp suit. It just seemed too strange to me that I would be the one old fart in a tuxedo.
Shaimans apprenticeship on Gothams gay club circuit led to his professional breakthrough, a gig with another veteran of that scene, Bette Midler. From the mid-80s on, he worked as Midlers resident vocal arranger on several tours and albums -- a more obvious South Park precursor, perhaps, than The American President. For Shaiman this is a false distinction. The thing I will always love about Bette Midler is her ability to love something and still poke fun at it. Every genre that Trey and I played around with in South Park I knew like the back of my hand. You cant do that good a job of making fun of something unless you love it. I havent sold out, because I work on traditional entertainment also. Thats my heart and soul.
Shaiman sees no real conflict between being a skilled parodist and a straight composer. Not in this day and age. So much of the culture of our generation is about regurgitating the past. Were so caught up in nostalgia for the things we saw and heard when we were kids. Thus, for example, Shaimans score for City Slickers consciously echoes Elmer Bernsteins Magnificent Seven theme -- which makes perfect sense in a film about baby boomers living out their Western fantasies.
The two sides of Shaimans musical life continue to chug along on parallel tracks. He is deep into co-writing a Broadway musical based upon John Waters 1988 film, Hairspray -- with, he hopes, Harvey Fierstein in the big-momma role originated by Divine. Meanwhile, Shaimans day job on the new Bruce Willis vehicle The Kid has ushered him into the ranks of top-gun film composers. It was my first time in one of those classic situations of Oh my God, we need a whole new score. I literally had two and a half weeks to do it. I said yes just on the professional level of knowing that I could deliver what was needed, which is a nice feeling.
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Still, Shaiman allows that working under this kind of pressure forced him to violate his creative instincts by falling back upon devices that had worked for him in the past: There is a fine line between having a recognizable style and using the exact same notes. On this one Im afraid I crossed that line in a couple of places. It was unavoidable, and Im not ashamed of it, but I certainly would not want to work this way all the time. Shaiman will appear as a star attraction during Outfest. I still have no idea what Ill be doing.