Some Like It Hot Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Some Like It Hot Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman on the Language of Jazz in Some Like It Hot

Give Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman a period film, and they know exactly what to do with it.

The songwriting pair has supplied scores for stage musical adaptations for two decades, seamlessly transporting audiences to days gone by with their toe-tappin’ melodies and catchy lyrics.

Their first collaboration was bringing John Waters’s 1988 film Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore, to Broadway in 2002. Their songs from that musical, including “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “Run and Tell That,” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” cemented them as pillars in the musical-theater canon, and also won them their first Tony Award for best score.

A decade later, Shaiman and Wittman returned to the 1960s sound with their Tony-nominated score for their adaptation of the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. They also lent their musical sensibilities to the score of the fictional musical Bombshell, about Marilyn Monroe’s career in the 1950s, for the 2012 NBC musical-dramedy Smash.

Next up is Some Like It Hot, which begins previews at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre November 1.

The new stage musical is based on the 1959 film that follows a pair of musicians who disguise themselves as women to hide from Mafia gangsters during the 1920s Jazz Age. For this version, Tony-winning playwright Matthew López and late-night talk-show host and writer Amber Ruffin are cowriting the book. As they dug into adapting the script, López and Ruffin updated the story in several different ways — including addressing gender and race.

Instead of taking place in 1929 as the film does, the stage musical is set in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression and six months before Prohibition ended. The time period change unlocked opportunities from a songwriting standpoint.

“The world of swing bands and speakeasies — and the language of jazz — were all further developed at that time,” says Shaiman.

“We were very excited because Matthew had the idea to make the Marilyn Monroe character a Black woman in this adaptation,” adds Wittman. “It brought to mind those great women in the 1930s — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters — these great legends who sang in front of bands.”

Fitzgerald, Holiday, Horne, and Waters all sang at The Cotton Club in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Opening in 1923, the nightclub was a whites-only establishment and would not allow Black patrons, except for certain Black celebrities such as Bill Robinson and Langston Hughes. Despite their racist and segregation practices, the venue boasted a roster of Black artists. Duke Ellington’s Orchestra became the house band in 1927, with Ellington debuting his compositions during his time as bandleader. Three years later, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler were brought in as the in-house songwriting team.

“At least behind the scenes, Black and white artists were really mixing,” said Shaiman. “Duke Ellington was writing these fantastic songs, and Harold Arlen, the son of a Jewish cantor, wrote ‘Stormy Weather,’ and so many of the classic songs that were sung by Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. It was this great melting pot of artists, even though there was the nightmare of Black musicians and singers not being able to stay in the same hotels when they were all traveling.”

Shaiman and Wittman dove into that history as they began their creative process, which gave them a solid foundation as they developed the Some Like It Hot sound. The pair was already sonically familiar with that era because of a nostalgia-fueled zeitgeist that happened as they grew up in the 1970s: Bette Midler released a cover of The Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in 1973; John Kander and Fredd Ebb’s Chicago, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, premiered on Broadway in 1975; and Diana Ross played Billie Holiday in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues.

“You immerse yourself in the period and try to find the artists that kind of fell through the cracks,” says Wittman. Shaiman adds, “We did a lot of research to make sure we’re not covering ground that’s already been covered.”

Once they have their sense of sound ripe with research, they’re able to layer on the storytelling aspect and speak to the larger story.

“We start with the character’s vocabulary and write from there,” says Wittman. “Sometimes we ask the book writer to write a monologue so we can take some of those words and musicalize from there.”

Usually, Wittman will come in with a title in mind for the song, and then he and Shaiman will trade phrases as they start building the lyrics together. Since most of Some Like It Hot was written during 2020, Shaiman and Wittman collaborated with López and Ruffin virtually. Now that they’ve been in the rehearsal room, they’re excited about seeing their music come to life.

“We were just rehearsing the final number and I looked around the room and everyone was smiling,” says Shaiman. “The performers are really fun to watch. The young members of the ensemble have really never sung or danced this kind of material, and they’re really loving it. To watch their expressions while they’re diving into it is really fulfilling.”

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