Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Catch Them When You Can
An Interview with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of Catch Me If You Can

Aaron Tveit and Angie Schworer
My interview with the illustrious, Tony award winning Hairspray composer/lyricist Marc Shaman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman was as pleasurable as could be, even if it was a bit truncated by the fact that their new musical, Catch Me If You Can, was moving to the stage from the theatre's adjacent rehearsal hall that very afternoon.  The production, based on the autobiographical book by Frank Abagnale, Jr., and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Stephen Spielberg, features a book by playwright Terrence McNally, who knows from adapting novels and films, with Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman among his impressive credits.  Add to that their Hairspray cronies, director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and legendary veteran costume designer Bob Mackie, and the team is palpably excited to see the show, which makes its world premiere with this production.

It should be noted that this interview took before the tragic stabbing death of Teresa Butz, sister of Catch Me If You Can leading man Norbert Leo Butz, in her Seattle home on July 19. Previews were delayed during Mr. Butz's necessary absence from the production. The final preview, Wednesday August 5, prior to the official opening on August 6, is now a special benefit for the Compass Center, a non-profit agency serving homeless and low income individuals and families in the greater Seattle area. Teresa Butz was a board member of the Compass Center. Five dollars of every ticket sold for this performance will be donated to the Center, with half of the donation coming from the theatre and half from the show's New York producing partners.

David-Edward Hughes:  There is an air of excitement at the 5th today, what with your moving the show onstage.

Scott Wittman:  Yes, the cast has never been upstairs, and it's all about the spacing of things. We've been in the rehearsal studio where numbers are on the floor but they're imaginary, and now we're upstairs where you realize it's a whole other animal.

DH:  Has the material you've written evolved much in rehearsal here in Seattle?

Marc Shaiman:  Yes it has, actually. All we've had on this show is readings. They use the word workshops a lot, but we've had no workshops, only readings where the actors learn the lines as fast as they can, and then you rewrite. Finally having the actors on their feet, investigating the scenes and the songs, and bringing so much to it, our cast is unbelievable, and it's just inspiring to suddenly go, "Let's add this," "Is this not clear?" or "What can make this song land better if we add something in the scene before it?" There's just so much, and it's all exciting kind of stuff.

DH:  How different has this show's process been from Hairspray which also launched public performances here?

SW:   Well, we rehearsed Hairspray in New York, so that was a very different scenario. Norbert Leo Butz (who plays Detective Carl Hanratty) was only in one reading of the piece, so we've tailored a lot of things after seeing what Norbert brings to the character. But we never did a full-on workshop; we only had like 29 hour rehearsals and then the readings.

MS:  Maybe the word workshop means something else to people now, but when I first got to New York, a workshop was where you really rehearsed the show, and put it on its feet.

SW:  They don't exist anymore, they're too expensive.

MS:  The modern workshops, you just hear actors read lines, and sing songs. With those you don't get to see the work on its feet. That's why this process is so exciting.

DH:  Hairspray really didn't seem to change greatly from here to New York, am I right?

SW:  Not greatly. We wrote a new song for Velma, and a few other fairly minor things.

DH:  That was what I would think of as a blessed experience.

SW:  Yes, it was.

MS:  We had a preview audience of that show from the Gay Men's Chorus, and of course they whooped it up. But then the first regular audience responded just as enthusiastically. That was a wonderful experience.

DH:  The film versions of Catch Me If You Can and the original film Hairspray are as different as can be, and I imagine the same can be said of the musicals. And then you hear cynics say "Oh, well it's not going to live up to Hairspray."

SW:  If we were going to try to live up to Hairspray, we would have written Pink Flamingos The Musical. Although it takes place in the same time period, it has more of an adult sound than Hairspray has. It's informed more by the adult contemporary sound as told through this boy's dreams of his life. His life is like a 1960s TV spectacular.

MS:  For the most part, despite the civil rights aspect and people making fun of how people look, the characters in Hairspray were full of joy, which spread until it became the most joyous ending of a show ever. This show is about divorce, looking for father figures, its themes are more mature, but I don't want to make it sound like it's dark.

SW:  I say it's Les Miz with girls and laughs!

MS:  But it's not cotton candy colored like Hairspray, and that is the scariest thing for us doing it here. Are people going to walk in expecting Hairspray 2? That would be weird. But hopefully after five minutes they'll settle into what this is, and get caught up and moved by it.

SW:  And it's a really good story about when you say who you are, people believe in you, and take you at your word.

DH:  Have a lot of the songs grown out of your collaboration with your brilliant book writer Terrence McNally, or did you come into your first meetings with him with songs you'd all ready written?

MS:  All versions of that.

SW:  We'll often take a monologue that Terrence has written, and we'll take it and turn it into a song. Norbert and Tom Wopat say that in act two, they have a scene where they feel they've done a small one act with a great song in it. It's exciting material for an actor, because Terrence is very witty in a smart, kind of character-driven way.

MS:  And the scenes are real scenes, not just crossovers and transitions, they are real, real scenes. And when Terrence hears the work in rehearsal and comes in with new stuff, that's really, really helping connect the dots even more. And the concept of the show didn't really start materializing till we were in the room and Jerry had the chance to put the concept on its feet, which is Frank telling and describing his life as if it were a television spectacular of the early to mid sixties. That's something we've described, and people either got it or didn't. But now Jerry's doing it, and making Frank be this figure that runs throughout, you always are reminded this is how he is seeing it, not unlike how the camera zoomed in on Renee Zellweiger's eye in Chicago. Jerry is still finding ways to keep reminding the audience why we are telling the story this way, because it's how Frank sees it.

SW:  He's like Puck.

MS:  It's so very important to the whole evening.

DH:  This is a strong male-dominated musical, again unlike Hairspray, with three wonderfully rich central roles for the actors to sink their chops into.

MS:  I've really been thinking about that a lot, about how it really is a musical for men. I mean, Billy Elliott is about fathers and sons too. This is a musical for straight men. I think most men who come to this will really be choked up in the end. It's really a musical for a section of society that hasn't really had a musical geared toward them, telling this kind of story, or telling these kinds of thoughts about our lives.

SW:  Then there are a lot of sexy nurses and stewardesses?

DH:  Not to forget that!

MS:  That's part of of it. When Frank thinks of nurses or stewardesses, they always seem to be sex symbols. I saw one of the girls in the cast wrote on her Facebook "Nothing will send you to a gym or on a diet quicker than a costume that fits in the palm of your hand".

DH:  Your three male leads, Norbert Leo Butz as Detective Hanratty, Tom Wopat as Frank Sr., and literally plucked right out of his acclaimed role in Next To Normal, Aaron Tveit. Let's talk about them, and writing for their characters.

MS:  We've gotten to expand the role of Hanratty, which Tom Hanks played in the film. The musical has really allowed us to know what he's thinking and feeling. In the film you really didn't get to know his back story. Tom Hanks is so fantastic; he put a lot of that across with just his presence. Here with all the characters, that is the character that has really bloomed. And Tom Wopat is taking a role that Chris Walken played so fantastically in the movie, and is his equal, and yet very different. He doesn't look, or act or sound like Christopher Walken, yet he finds the same pathos and heartbreak in that character.

SW:  And Aaron is just so exciting. So wonderful to watch a young actor own the stage like this, and to share scenes with such generous other actors as Tom and Norbert. He's really bloomed here, and we're so proud of him.

MS:  He came to us so directly from Next to Normal, and he hadn't been really been the two readings he'd done of our show. He was playing the part not unlike what he'd just come out of, everything was angry and trying to get his point across to his parents. Jack O'Brien worked so wonderfully with him to try to find the lightness of this project, and then had almost like a Helen Keller moment where he really started to get what Jack was saying. It was like suddenly he went "Oh yeah, if I say that it still puts the point across". And it makes it all the more heartbreaking in the end, when he finally has to start dealing with reality. Anyway, he has just so flowered. And I think he's having the time of his life, discovering tools he didn't even know he had.

DH:  What do you hope Seattle audiences will tell you from their responses? I think the crowds here, while hardly uncritical, will come to the show looking to have a good time.

MS:  We hope they do. We think the show is entertaining, the sixties spectacular numbers are certainly entertaining, and the set by David Rockwell is looking uniquely spectacular. But at heart it's a story about family, its universal feelings, and hopefully they'll just get caught up in that, besides learning to love all these flawed characters. I can't wait to have an audience see it!

DH:  You have in this cast ten Seattle area performers. I know it's a thrill for them to be a part of this project.

SW:  They have been just spectacular; they've been really, really great.

MS:  And it's great for them, as it is for us, to see it all gel. We had a run-through the other day when everyone felt it, like it was really happening. And afterwards Jack got up and just said "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just witnessed the birth of a new musical." In that run-through, everything finally coalesced, and it's just great the Seattle actors got to be part of that process.

DH:  In your lengthy collaboration as writers, what is the easiest thing, and the hardest thing about writing together?

SW:  The easiest thing is that we finish each other's sentences, and that we have similar taste and sensibility. You are never afraid to say, "I don't like that" or "What do you think of this?" The hardest thing is how long the process is of getting something from the page to the stage. It's a really long process. So when our people call and say "Do you want to make a musical out of this?," you really have to ask yourself, do I want to spend five years with these characters, and why do I want to do this? This one had a lot of personal things to say to me, about my father and my growing up. I've liked working on this piece with Marc.

MS:  The other day everyone was sharing some rather sever stories about fathers and grandfathers, and I realized my father made me get a haircut the second time I got suspended from school. That was about the roughest it ever got for me. I realized how blessed and lucky I was.

SW:  (with feigned annoyance) You're supposes to talk about how beautiful it is to work with me!

MS:  I know I was just getting to that. The songs almost just write themselves. Like Scott said, we just see things the same, and even when we have different ideas, six of one half a dozen of the other, we just figure out how to make us both happy. The music just kind of comes so naturally to me that I don't really think about it, but the lyric writing is the most fulfilling part of it, nailing a lyric. There are some lyrics in the show that I barely remember writing. There is a song "Fly, Fly Away" that Kerry Butler sings and I was listening to the lyrics other day, and I was like "They are good!" Hanratty has this long solo, "Breaking All the Rules," intricate lyrics, lots of inner rhymes, and all the good stuff. Yet, within the all those inner rhymes, it's saying stuff, it's not just a class on rhyming. I'm really proud of them, but I barely remember writing them. We were in some kind of fever dream.

SW:  Norbert said a great thing the other day about it. That when you hear the songs for the first time, you actually feel like you've heard them before, that they feel like standards of this period. That's a really nice compliment, sort of what we aspire to in the piece.

MS:  That's where it is like Hairspray, in that we are using the pop music vernacular of the time. Not just because it took place then, but it's actually part of the performance of it.

SW:  I was in the theatre a while ago watching a technical rehearsal, and they were putting the stewardess number together, and I was thinking, all these people are coming together and doing this, and all because we sat in Amagansett or wherever dreaming about these stewardesses coming to life onstage, and now a whole theatre full of people are making it happen.

MS:  And, as of yet, neither of us are blasé about it. All these people are working so hard. And then by writing something you create, people have jobs. On Hairspray it changed their lives, it changed our lives.

SW:  And the caliber of people it has attracted to work on it. David Rockwell, John McDaniel, Jack and Jerry ...

MS:   ... And the cast.

SW:  On Broadway they call Norbert "Dr. No" because he says no to every musical, so we are just so lucky to have him.

MS:  And they all moved to Seattle for the summer because they were so taken by the piece. That's a compliment I don't even know how to take. And David Armstrong and the 5th Avenue Theatre have been more than instrumental in making this happen. It is truly part of Seattle. We're not just passing through.

DH:  And what is the scenario post-Seattle?

SW:  Well it's contingent on everyone's schedules and availability. We are hoping for spring 2010.

MS:  And first the show has to not suck. It's an intimate show, but with big moments. It's a challenge to do in this big theatre, but an exciting one.

The world premiere of the new musical Catch Me If You Can started previews on July 28 at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Opening night is August 6, 2009 and the production runs through Sunday August 16, 2009. For ticket purchase and further information, visit

Photo: Curt Doughty

- David Edward Hughes

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