As the creative forces behind Broadway shows like Hairspray! and Catch Me If You Can, as well as the cult hit TV show Smash, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have written some of the most beloved musicals of the past couple decades (Shaiman composes; the two write lyrics together).
This spring is particularly eventful for the pair. Their new musical Some Like It Hot — a timely adaptation of the classic 1959 film which happens to also offer a poignant, thoughtful take on drag culture and gender identity — is a hit with both critics and audiences. And at long last, as Shaiman and Wittman recently revealed, a much-awaited stage adaptation of Smash is slated to hit Broadway next year.
Below, the duo speak to Billboard about the Smash news, the prescient timing of Some Like It Hot (including its surprise, reimagined twist) and how they’ve maintained career longevity amid the choppy waters the Great White Way.
It’s safe to say the news that Smash is coming to Broadway shook the internet. Can you talk about the path to the big announcement?
Scott Wittman: Well, it’s been in the works for awhile. About a year and a half ago, we did a reading with a script from Rick Elice and Bob Martin, who have written many shows, including The Drowsy Chaperone and Jersey Boys.
Marc Shaiman: They’re great writers who came to the producers of Smash and said they’d love to take a crack at writing a script. For a few years before that, everyone was trying to create a musical of Bombshell, the actual Marilyn Monroe musical we were writing [within] the show, and the original plan was at the end of the season to have a musical we’d produce on Broadway. So it actually was always the idea to bring a show to Broadway.
But what’s different here is that it no longer became feasible to do a version of Bombshell, because the songs we wrote were always trying to speak to what the characters on Smash, the TV show, were going through. We’d find moments from Marilyn Monroe’s life that mirrored what was happening on Smash, so all of these songs had double meanings, and the lyrics were always skewed. Also, if any one woman tried to sing all of the songs we wrote for Marilyn in Bombshell — which were always these big, 11 o’clock showstoppers — they’d die by the end of the performance. Finally our producers said, “Let’s listen to what Rick and Bob would want to pitch us.”
Wittman: We had a great reading about a year ago. Steven Spielberg came and said, “This is fantastic, let’s do it.” So that’s how it happened.
So this is a show about putting on a musical. A musical version of the TV show.
Wittman: It’s like Noises Off. You’re doing a musical but everything goes totally wrong.
Shaiman: What it says on the title page is A Comedy About a Musical. We don’t know if they’ll actually call it a play or a musical. So it’s like the TV show Smash — only, we hope, funnier.
Wittman: It’s very funny. There were very funny people in the reading; who knows if they’ll be in the show.
I guess the next logical step then is to make a movie version of the stage musical inspired by the TV show?
Shaiman: [Laughs.] It’s all so confusing. Then you throw in Some Like It Hot, and it’s really bizarre. It’s a multiverse.
It must be creatively energizing for you guys to look at something from so many different angles.
Wittman: It’s great fun. Even during the read through, we all laughed a lot and even Steven Spielberg went nuts. He actually also came to Some Like It Hot a couple weeks ago.
Shaiman: [Laughs.] He’s our biggest fan.
Does he give creative notes?
Wittman: Yes, very much! What makes him so great is that he’s like an audience member. He watches things like an audience, with a keen eye.
Can we expect Smash cast members from the TV show in the stage version?
Wittman: Some of them helped out at the reading, but it’s still a ways off. It wouldn’t actually go until maybe around this time next year.
Shaiman: The fact that it’s not exactly the TV show means it’s not exactly the characters from the TV show. So it doesn’t necessarily make sense for people on the TV show to play them. But one never knows.
Will there be songs from the show or will there be original songs?
Wittman: It’ll be songs from Bombshell, along with some more we’ll write.
The announcement had fortuitous timing, coming when you have Some Like It Hot — the musical version of the classic movie — on Broadway. When were the seeds planted for that particular project?
Wittman: It’s a funny, meta world. We had done Smash and within that is the musical about Marilyn Monroe. And we even wrote a Some Like It Hot number for Marilyn in that musical. But the producers of the TV show, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, had gotten the rights to the movie and they were thinking of doing the version of it. We were in London doing Mary Poppins Returns when they called. So we’ve been working on it for six years, off and on.
J. Harrison Ghee and Christian Borle in SOME LIKE IT HOT.
That’s pretty par for the course, right?
Shaiman: Unfortunately these days, yes. If you look back at the golden age of Broadway — and I’m not saying we’re Rodgers and Hammerstein — but they did a show every year! Nowadays it takes an endless amount of workshops and readings, and months in between them all, so it’s not like a steamroller or a train that’s constantly moving.
Wittman: And then of course with Covid, we were a train stuck in a tunnel for a while.
It’s a musical that couldn’t have come at a better time, especially with the current bans on drag and discourse around it. It seems like a show that could open people’s eyes to drag in general.
Shaiman: That is the hope. I mean, Hairspray! was a similar situation. People just might leave a little bit more open-minded about some things they may have not been three hours earlier.
Wittman: It’s always good when a show can incite discussion.
Shaiman: But as Mary Poppins said, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. We just want to entertain, that’s our main focus. That’s what we love to do, that’s what we love to go and see and experience ourselves. We write shows we’d want to go see. Like you said, in this case it so happened that the story was full of things that were so prescient.
Wittman: That’s what made it more intriguing to do. There already had been [the original Some Like It Hot-inspired musical] Sugar, so there was no reason to do another movie-to-stage version of that. So it really had to be something new.
Spoiler: there’s a huge twist when the character Jerry, who is hiding out from the mob by dressing in drag, realizes that they feel much more alive dressed as a woman. It becomes a life-changing and eye-opening experience for the character, which is a stark departure from the original story. How did you realize that was going to be a turn that character was going to make?
Wittman: Right from the very beginning we thought that, along with our Sugar being played by a Black actress [Adrianna Hicks]. Those are two things that made us say yes.
Shaiman: Scott and I had lived our whole lives around trans people from when the words weren’t always used. But literally since the time we moved to New York, we have lived, worked, loved and have been friends with trans people.
Wittman: Going back to when I did a lot of shows with the whole Andy Warhol crowd at Max’s Kansas City in the ’80s, with all of these performers like Jayne County.
I know the song “Let’s Be Bad” uniquely made the jump from Smash to Some Like It Hot. What’s the story behind that?
Shaiman: We had a different song that we had done a reading or two with when the girls, Osgood and Daphne decide to break curfew and go to Mexico. The original song that we had was called “The Good Neighbor Policy,” and it was a kind of sly, sexy South of the Border kind of song. But after the reading, [director and choreographer] Casey Nicholaw said, “Can it be something hotter and sexier? Maybe something a little less laid back?” So Scott and I went home and were thinking of the line “Let’s be..” And then we said, “Didn’t we already write this song, ‘Let’s Be Bad”?
We kept trying to figure out other ways to say what we had already said in a song. Maybe 20 percent at most of the lyrics are from Smash; for the most part it’s newly written lyrics for a song that now takes on a joyous and fun experience. It certainly works. We actually asked everyone working on these shows, from Smash and now the Broadway show, if we could use it. We didn’t know if they were going to say, “No, you can’t use that song, we’re gonna have it on our own show.” But luckily, everyone said, “Yeah, my God. That would be perfect.” We signed off by saying if the worst thing that happens is that there are two musicals at once with this song in it, then that’s a fantastic conversation piece.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Speaking of songwriting, I remember hearing Stephen Sondheim said that he’d never write lyrics without drinking a glass of something. Do you have any creative aids when you’re writing?
Shaiman: Yeah, I saw that. Well, I used to smoke dope before I wrote any music or arrangement, but then I started scoring movies. The first movie I scored was Misery, so I’d smoke a joint at then in the morning just to compose because I had never done anything without taking a puff. But by the end of the second day, I realized I couldn’t do it; they were 12 hour days and I’d have to do all of this math with the frames and it was so involved. So one day I said, “Let me see, can I do it [without]?” And that one day turned into the rest of my life.
You’ve been churning out shows for decades now. What have you learned about navigating the ups and downs of a notoriously difficult business over the years?
Wittman: Over the tears, you mean. [Laughs.]
Shaiman: I’m terrible at it. I’ve grown more thin-skinned as opposed to thicker-skinned over the years.
Wittman: We’re like Eeyore and Tigger. So it works in some ways.
Shaiman: I’m Eeyore.
Wittman: It’s not like a movie or a TV show where you do it and then you move onto the next one. It’s such a big chunk of your life. It’s a lot of time investment and sometimes heartbreak and sometimes great joy.
Shaiman: When you work on these things for years, it’s not that people are blowing smoke up your ass the whole time. You work hard to make it be the best that you can. So you’re surrounded by people who are encouraging you and are like, “Yes, that’s it, that’s great.” And then you’re in a room with the cast and you’re all enjoying it and you feel like you’ve done a good job, and putting all this money into it and months of rehearsals. So by the time opening night comes, you have this feeling that it’s worth it and it’s worthy. And then you can suddenly, in one night, in the most off-handed or nasty or rude ways, be shot down sometimes. There’s no way that that’s easy, or easy to ignore.
Wittman: But the opening night of Some Like It Hot was spectacular. We had a very private party with just close friends, most of them being famous. I said, “We don’t want to know about the reviews or anything like that,” but all of the sudden I hear this chant of “Rave! Rave! Rave!” from Bridget Everett. So that was a nice feeling.