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Marc Shaiman Finds His Inner Activist

Marc Shaiman Finds His Inner Activist

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Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman made headlines when he took a theater director to task for staging a production of his musical and then donating money to Prop. 8. The director ultimately resigned, but Shaiman, still fired up, sunk his energy into a new project, Prop. 8 -- The Musical.

Like many gay people, composer Marc Shaiman wrote a check to No on 8, watched the polls enthusiastically and, perhaps blinded by the promise of a Barack Obama presidency, thought that on November 4, California voters would extend this idea of change to marriage rights. And like many gay people, on November 5, when it became clear that Prop. 8 had passed and same-sex marriage had been banned throughout the state, Shaiman sprung into action.

First up was his now well-chronicled call to a theater director in Sacramento who Shaiman found out had donated money to Yes on 8. Coincidentally, California Musical Theatre's artistic director, Scott Eckern, had just produced one of the first licensed regional theatre productions of Shaiman's musical Hairspray. So the composer called him up to ask why, then issued a public decree that the theater would no longer be able to produce any of his works. Other composers followed suit, the public caught wind of the conversation, and days later, Eckern resigned.

That exchange, plus an idea Shaiman had thought up in passing during the Prop. 8 campaign, sparked this week's must see video clip -- the FunnyOrDie.com-hosted Prop. 8 -- The Musical. "At the risk of sounding insensitive to the people who did the [anti-Prop. 8] commercials, they were good, but they weren't good enough," Shaiman recalls. "I do remember sitting there, watching the commercials and thinking to myself, God, I wish someone would call me and ask me to do something. But, I'm the fool who didn't figure out who I needed to call."

The mini-musical, featuring an all-star cast of your typically outspoken gay rights advocates (Margaret Cho, Kathy Najimy, Neil Patrick Harris) mixed with some surprises (John C. Reilly, Jack Black), premiered Tuesday, and Shaiman talked to Advocate.com about what prompted this engaging, albeit (his words) "six weeks late" call to action.

Advocate.com: How did Prop. 8 -- The Musical come to be?
Marc Shaiman: Two years ago, I guess, Adam [McKay, from FunnyOrDie.com] and I did this Oscar number with Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly. Me and Adam and Judd Apatow had written that together. So that's how I knew him. Anyway, he e-mailed, amid all the e-mailing I'd been doing [re: the Sacramento theater director] and said, "Why don't you do a song about it for FunnyOrDie?" I thought, Oh, God. Why didn't I just write a song about it in the first place? That's what I do. So he planted that seed. Literally, I wrote it on a Tuesday. We started thinking about how to put it on Wednesday, cast it, brought in Adam Shankman. We got on the phone and called friends, called agents and managers -- we spread around my demo, which was just me singing it. People said yes and wanted to be a part of it because of what it was about, but because of the nature of doing this so fast, if we had said we're filming it Monday night instead of Monday afternoon, when we shot it, we'd have had a whole different cast. It was right before Thanksgiving.

So once you had everyone in place, how long did the actual shoot take?
Adam staged and filmed that thing basically in four hours. As silly as it is -- even when something's silly, what he pulled off was unbelievable. We all had the best time -- we felt like we were 15 years old again.

It's got that musical theater summer camp feel to it.
And that's what I wanted when I wrote it. I knew the second I started writing it, I was writing just that -- music summer theater camp style of cramming all this stuff into three minutes and writing in a simplistic, unvarnished style. Kind of almost like this Gilbert and Sullivan light opera. We kept thinking, Where are we gonna film this? Luckily, once Adam came aboard, he called production designers and costume designers from films, and then I remembered that this magic store in Santa Monica has a theater. If you open this door at the back of this magic store, you're suddenly in this theater -- it's this bizarre thing.

I know you said on the FunnyOrDie website that you wrote this, but you did it six weeks too late. Do you think a lot of people couldn't fathom that Prop. 8 would pass and therefore didn't get as in involved as they should have?
In my silly first eight measures of gays and the people who love them, just dancing and cavorting about -- the spirit of Obama's election just made it impossible for us all I think to really believe it could happen. We were watching it sort of happening, I was giving money, but no one went the distance because we just couldn't believe it. It seemed like we were about to turn such an incredible page in history that we were just sedated by it. So in my silly way, I purposely started the video, showing that we felt this way, which is how this must have happened.

On the flip side of things, once Prop. 8 had passed, you were one of the first people to come out swinging with that theater director and say, "This is not OK. You can't use my work and then turn around and let the Yes on 8 people benefit from it."
Even there, I would want to at least be fair and say ... if it hadn't been a theatre that had just done Hairspray, I might have still been outraged, but would I have picked up the phone and called the guy? Probably not. I still have to look into myself to not as selfish about when I choose to be outraged about things that affect me and all of us like me. But the fact that it was Hairspray and what Hairspray is about ... clearly someone who works in a place that puts on musicals year-round is working with and friends with gay people. To me, that was a slap in the face in the realization of ... the crazy Phelps who picket funerals, the Bill O'Reillys, and such -- we know who they are, we know what they think. To me, it is those among us who silently still feel this way about us. Prop. 8, to me, was really just a smokescreen. It was really about, these people felt, a chance to just openly express our disgust with gay people. The fact that this was a person who was among us, a form of bigotry you don't even know is there ... I just needed to call him man to man and then let people know about it, to encourage them -- maybe it was a little bitchy of me ... I am gay -- to e-mail and call him and really make it clear to this man, "What have you done?"

Did you get many other composers to stand behind you and support what you were saying?
It all happened so fast. The fact that he resigned so fast and that his resignation was accepted so fast -- I'd like to think, Oh, look what I did. And by the way, it was a few of us, not just me. But as big as my ego is, I came to the realization that I'm not that powerful. There clearly had to be other reasons, and this was the straw that broke the camel's back. I understand why the theater felt sucker-punched and why they didn't return my calls. But I left messages saying, "Let's figure out a creative resolution to this." And the truth is, when I really think about it, I would have written this to be performed at such an evening. I would have written numbers to be performed like that. But they didn't call me. And I understand. I still need to figure out how to allow the people who were sucker-punched by my actions to express themselves to me.

Back to the musical ... did any of you get into conversations about Prop. 8 on the set?
There just wasn't time. We hit the ground running, and there was no time except to say "Cut," "Action," and "Laugh."

Well, you certainly got it done. And amazingly, with tons of standout moments.
And if we'd had an extra few hours or I 'd had more time to write, we'd have done even more.

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