The early work of the Tony Award-winning musical collaborators behind Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—not to mention the unforgettable songs from the fictional musical Bombshell on NBC’s Smash—were celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art February 12 as part of its Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 exhibition.
Shaiman and Wittman were among a collective of artists who used to converge upon the basement bar beneath a Polish church at 57 St. Mark’s Place—known as Club 57—that served as a fluid space where they could gather to socialize, create, and exhibit a vast array of work encompassing theatre and performance art, film and video, photography, painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, zines, and fashion design.
This nexus of creative activity, which existed only from 1978 to 1982, attracted iconic artists such as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joey Arias, Ethyl Eichelberger, Klaus Nomi, John “Lypsinka” Epperson, and Ann Magnuson, who ran the club along with Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully.
Before they turned John Waters’ plus-sized cult heroine Tracy Turnblad into one of the most sought-after roles on Broadway, Shaiman and Wittman churned out gender-bending, pop-cult musicals such as Livin’ Dolls (based on Barbie and Ken); Trilogy of Terror, a camp version of The Trojan Women set in the burnt out ruins of the Las Vegas MGM Grand; and Pagan Place, in which a cast of 200 told the story of The Bible in 20 minutes. Coincidentally, Pagan Place was staged by Jerry Mitchell, who would later collaborate with Shaiman and Wittman to choreograph Hairspray.
The writers revisited these works during the evening billed as part video retrospective, part conversation, and part mini-concert. Michael Musto, who himself appeared in several of Shaiman and Wittman’s Club 57 shows, hosted the evening.
In the interview below, Shaiman and Wittman talked with Playbill about the formative years they spent at Club 57, and the experience of seeing come to life again in the MoMA exhibit.
What was the creative scene like at Club 57 when you discovered it?
Scott Wittman: It was a great period because it was so fearless, in a way. They were very sort of ephemeral nights. They appeared and then went away. There were some that were barely video taped or recorded. They were just really fantastic one-offs.
How did the two of you first meet?
Marc Shaiman: I was a kid from New Jersey. I left school at 16 and got my diploma because I knew I wanted to be in show business. It was the summer of 1976. I was in Manhattan with some friends from New Jersey, and we dropped into a little bar there on the corner of the street, which happened to be Marie’s Crisis. One of the last things still standing. I started playing the piano. It was the middle of the afternoon. I was 16 years old. I shouldn’t even have been there, but the bartender said, “There’s a comedy group next door that needs a funny piano player. Don’t move.”
SW: And they came and got me [to hear him].
MS: And everyone who was with Scott… They were all our friends who ended up coming over to Club 57 eventually. We ended up working with the comedy group The High-Heeled Women, and we started writing a little bit then. But it was at Club 57 where we said, “Let’s write musicals.”
When Hairspray arrived on Broadway, some of your friends from those days remarked that it felt like an uptown Club 57 show with a much bigger budget.
SW: I think that John Waters’ sensibility was very akin to Club 57. His sense of humor was rooted in the same place.
It’s amazing to think that there are elementary school children doing a junior version of your John Waters musical. Did you ever think that Hairspray would turn out to be so huge?
SW: No. We actually thought the Barbie and Ken musical we wrote at Club 57, which did move uptown and sort of fizzled [at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1982], was going to be our ticket out. That was gonna be the show to launch us to the stars.
And since we’re looking back, I also want to ask about what’s ahead for the two of you. Has there been any development on your stage adaptation of Bombshell?
SW: We are hoping someone will come along and have the key to unlock how to do it. We are certainly open to those conversations, and have met with a few people who’ve had ideas. So when the right one hits it will be right.
When it comes to your Club 57 shows, there’s a sizable amount of video footage.
SW: There was a guy named Nelson Sullivan, who was kind of the Boswell of the time. He just recorded everything. But Club 57, all of that ended because the AIDS crisis decimated that community. When I look back at all that material, and I see photographs—half of those people who were clearly amazing creative artists are gone. The thing I’m most proud of about the MoMA show is that it’s a tribute to these people who were working at the top of their craft and had so much more promise ahead.
MS: I remember at the opening night of Hairspray, in my curtain speech I said that I wished that the balcony reached all the way up to heaven. And I was thinking of all those people at Club 57 who I wished could have been there to see it.
SW: The fact that it’s at the Museum of Modern Art is amazing. These people who were creating every day, constantly—their work is in the Museum of Modern Art now. That’s what touched me the most about the exhibit. Just the scope of it, and also the movies that they are showing as part of the film festival. We used to show movies there. We didn’t have video, so there was a giant projector showing 8-millimeter films. All of those movies are being screened. And the artwork of people like John Sex is being seen again.
MS: And we are so in debt to Ron Magliozzi and Sophie Cavoulacos at MoMA who curated it. To think that they do this all year round on all sorts of different projects. They’re like Margaret Mead.
SW: You know, the germ of the Club 57 exhibition came from John Epperson, Lypsinka. He wanted to a film festival of the movies they showed at Club 57, and this was born of that.
What do you want today’s young theatre writers to know about Club 57?
SW: That we just created to create. Nothing was done with an agenda. That’s a really invaluable lesson for young people. Because the fear that creeps in later on in your life is sometimes hard to overcome. But back then we had this constant outpouring of material and nights to fill. It was this very creative time for us and the audiences that came.
MS: I almost feel bad for everyone now because everything is so documented, and you can post everything on YouTube right away. In a way that is also great that things can get exposure now and get found out. You don’t have to be in New York City, you can be anywhere. But there’s something to be said about the fact that we were doing these shows without anyone having a phone that had a video camera on it. Nobody even had a video camera. We were just doing these shows for the enjoyment of the evening and the creative joy of putting these shows on. We had the best times of our lives.
It’s amazing to think of these people together in the same space, and no one was distracted by their phones. Everyone was present, and focusing their energy on creating.
SW: I think that is something that is very present in the work. You can feel that in the exhibit.
MS: The world is so full of distractions now. That was also what was so great: We would all just pour into our clubhouse and be in our own world. Scott’s brain was just on fire. Like with Trojan Women, a recreation of Euripides’ Greek classic placed in the rooms of the Las Vegas MGM Grand. And he put on that bad play Boeing-Boeing, which much to our shock, 30 years later became a hit on Broadway.
SW: We were 30 years ahead of our time!
MS: Scott had this brilliant idea. Club 57 was just this small clubhouse and we needed the space to perform. There wasn’t really a place for sets. So when we did these shows, they would take place on all four walls and corners of the club, and Scott would just yell out, “Rotate!” And the whole audience would have to pick up their chair and turn.
SW: And I was constantly saying, “Will you tell Keith [Haring] to get these paintings out of here! These are in the way! I need the space!”