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Last published at July 17, 2009 at 10:49 PM

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'Hairspray' collaborators back in town with "Catch Me If You Can"

"Catch Me If You Can," a Broadway-bound stage adaptation of the hit Leonardo DiCaprio-Tom Hanks film, is about to open at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, from the Tony-winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. It plays July 23-Aug. 16.

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview

"Catch Me If You Can"

Previews begin Thursday and the show plays Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 2, then Tuesdays- Sundays through Aug. 16, with the opening on Thursday, Aug. 6, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 E. Fifth Ave, Seattle; $22-$93 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org).

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Back in 2002, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman spent the summer in Seattle. But they weren't out sailing, or hiking Mount Rainier. They were mostly hunkered down in the 5th Avenue Theatre, refining their snappy score for a new musical, "Hairspray" — destined to become Broadway's biggest feel-good tuner of the past decade, and later a hit movie, too.

Now the couple — partners in life and sometimes in work for 30 years — are back in town. This time they've brought along their cherished golden retriever, and yet another Broadway-bound show, this one based on a popular Steven Spielberg movie about a dashing young con man in the 1960s: "Catch Me If You Can," a 2002 film that starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.

It starts previews Thursday at the 5th Avenue. And though not yet slated for Broadway, that's the planned destination.

It's a bit like déjà vu all over again for the hardworking, quick-quipping couple, who after several years toiling on the score for "Catch Me If You Can," are still adding to, subtracting from and polishing it — as they did here with "Hairspray."

"It's nice to be back," said lyricist Wittman, during a quick lunch between writing sessions. The taller, more tanned and, in his mid-50s, the elder of the two by a few years, he added, "It all feels familiar, in a good way."

"I got to Seattle and thought, well maybe if lightning can't strike twice, it can at least hit a neighboring building," cracked composer and co-lyricist Shaiman, the puckish, more sardonic half of the pair.

The duo has "about 100 years of show business between us," Wittman said. And their homes in New York and Los Angeles must have trophy rooms to hold their prizes and nominations (for Tonys, Emmys, Grammys) and tokens of gratitude from stars they've written material for — including Martin Short (they concocted his Broadway solo show with him), Bette Midler (Shaiman used to be her musical director), Patti LuPone and Billy Crystal.

But both men know Broadway can be a notoriously fickled mistress, even for those it has feted in the past.

"This is the fun time, when we're in the studio writing and everything is possible," Wittman noted. "Soon it gets scarier. You have this behemoth of a show, and can't fix something because it affects everything else."

During the "Hairspray" tryout here, for instance, several songs were cut because of audience reaction. And Shaiman said a solo tune they'd written for Frank's love interest in "Catch Me," the nervous nurse Brenda (Kerry Butler, another "Hairspray" alum), was just expanded into a duet.

"It's so much better that way. It shows how much in love they are, like as a musical snapshot."

"Yes," Wittman agreed. "It can mean a lot more when you sing it."

With its far-flung locales and zig-zaggy plot, "Catch Me If You Can" seems unlikely fodder for a musical.

It centers on the mid-1960s exploits of real-life, teenage swindler and escape artist Frank Abagnale, Jr., who cashed millions of dollars of fake checks and passed himself off as a lawyer, a doctor and a Pan Am pilot, all by the time he was 19. And who, after five years in jail for his crimes, became a fraud expert for the FBI. (He now owns his own consulting business.)

To tell the story, playwright Terrence McNally's book for the musical is "like a TV spectacle based on Frank's life," Shaiman explained. Added Wittman, "It's about the why of what he did, as much as the how. The story has a lot of heart, because it's about a boy dealing with his parents' divorce, and searching for a father figure."

The 5th Avenue Theatre is co-producing the show, and artistic director David Armstrong says the Seattle run alone will likely cost several million dollars — some of it "enhancement" money from commercial producers.

And the A-list team behind it includes hot young actor Aaron Tveit as Frank, Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz as the FBI agent doggedly tracking him, and such "Hairspray" cohorts as director Jack O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell and co-producer Margo Lion. Bob Mackie — the king of glam spangles, outfitter of Cher and other 1960s stars — is doing the costumes.

Shaiman says the score (19 songs thus far), echoes a wide spectrum of '60s pop radio — from jazzy Frank Sinatra-style odes, to bossa-nova riffs and rock numbers. It's a pastiche, like the "Hairspray" score that won them a 2003 Tony Award (in the show's total haul of eight Tonys).

The couple caused a slight kerfuffle by being the first gay couple to smooch on camera during their televised Tony acceptance speech. The kiss wasn't a big statement, insisted Shaiman, just what came naturally. "We did what any other couple would do in those circumstances."

Few couples have had their level of stage, screen and Internet success, however, throughout a partnership that began in 1979, when they met in Greenwich Village while traveling in the same music and theater circles.

"They're sort of an oddball pair," mused Armstrong, who has known them for decades. "And as artists, they are creatures of the theater who are first and foremost dramatists. They're not about the music, or the lyrics, but telling the story."

They've also crafted many a memorable TV moment — like the hilarious "who's who-on-Broadway" number host Neil Patrick Harris sang at the end of the 2009 live Tony telecast. In fact, they were in the wings during the ceremony, fervently updating the lyrics to reflect who won what.

Separately, Wittman sometimes works as a stage director, while Shaiman is one of the busiest film composers in Hollywood. He's scored dozens of hit movies, from "Broadcast News" to "Bowling for Columbine," and has earned five Oscar nominations. (One was for the immortal ditty, "Blame Canada," co-written by Trey Parker for the film "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.")

On TV, Shaiman also turned out swan songs for departing "Tonight Show" hosts, Johnny Carson (serenaded by Midler), and Jay Leno (in a recent send-off by Crystal). And he's conquered the Internet too, with "Prop 8 — The Musical," a spoofy, star-studded, viral Web video that defends gay-marriage rights.

Though he decried California's Proposition 8, the recent ballot measure that repealed the rights of gays to marry in that state, Shaiman has no plans to wed. "We're like Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell," he joked. "It's been so long already, why bother?"

But the two are so much on the same wavelength, they tend to finish each other's sentences in conversation. And they're settled on an idea for their next Broadway musical.

"It's a Western," revealed Wittman, "based on the Jane Fonda movie, 'Cat Ballou.' "

"Yeah, there's a lot of cheesecake, pretty women without too many clothes on, in 'Catch Me if You Can,' " Shaiman elaborated. "In 'Cat Ballou' there will be all those cowboys, and a lot of beefcake."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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