Saturday, February 21, 2015

American Songbook at NJ PAC: Shaiman & Wittman

If you want to transfer a hit movie to Broadway, they’re your songwriting team. Hairspray was a huge hit for them. Catch Me If You Can maybe not so much, but it wasn’t a total Lestat level disaster—and now they have Willy Wonka chugging right along in London. Years from now, they could very well be considered part of the Songbook canon, so NJPAC brought them in when they happened to have a free evening. Marc Shaiman sings and accompanies guest performers, while Scott Wittman provides the reminiscences in this season’s final installment of American Songbook at NJPAC, which premieres this Wednesday on NJTV.

Knowing how to construct a show, they kick off their set with “Good Morning Baltimore,” the rousing opener to Hairspray, featuring vocalist Annie Golden, who recorded their original demos for the musical stage transfer. Appropriately enough, Shaiman then performs two of his Oscar nominated songs (penned without Wittman). Frankly, both “A Wink and a Smile” from Sleepless in Seattle and “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie are considerable superior to all of this year’s nominated songs, except the poignantly on-the-nose “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me. For reasons that hardly need belaboring, Shaiman had to abridge his South Park anthem for PBS, updating the lyrics with Justin Bieber and Rob Ford references in the process.

To their credit, Shaiman & Wittman do a good deal of master-classing and mentoring, which is how they found the young but poised Alex Stone and Micailah Lockhart, who both show remarkable range on their selections from the aforementioned Catch Me if You Can and the Broadway themed television show Smash, which apparently started out all well and good, but got progressively less fun and rewarding as it went along. “Goodbye,” from their Tony nominated but underperforming Broadway show particularly lends itself to dramatic interpretations, suggesting it deserves a songbook life outside the book musical.

Frankly, the same is true of the Marilyn Monroe-inspired “Second Hand White Baby Grand,” also written for Smash, featuring Golden again. However, the highlight of the set has to be Marilyn Maye’s old school cabaret rendition of “Butter Outta Cream,” a quirky novelty-esque number from Catch Me. She totally takes charge of the songwriting partners, but they love it, even though she is obviously winging it.

There is more talking during Wittman & Shaiman’s set than in prior NJPAC Songbook concerts, but their anecdotes and needling are all part of the act. It is also a timely reminder: sometimes the best nominated song wins the Oscar (“The Theme from Shaft” in 1971), but more often than not, it doesn’t (like “Blame Canada” losing to Phil Collins’ Tarzan tune). Some of Wittman & Shaiman’s selected songs are far more likely to become time-tested standards than others, but they fit together into a rather entertaining program, nicely varying the tone and tempo. Recommended for Broadway and movie music fans, the Wittman and Shaiman concerts concludes the current season of American Songbook at NJPAC this Wednesday (2/25) on NJTV, with a later broadcast scheduled for April 18th on WNET Thirteen.

(Photo: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)