On the Town

Con Song

Tony winner Scott Wittman talks fast about turning a Hollywood hit into tune-filled theater.

By Steve Wiecking June 23, 2009 Published in the July 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Based on a true story, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can follows a cat-and-mouse game in the 1960s between a middle-aged FBI agent and Frank Abagnale Jr., an astoundingly self-possessed teen who cons his way into romance, remarkable jobs (doctor, lawyer, pilot), and millions of dollars. The Tom Hanks/Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle had a real spring in its step—colyricist Scott Wittman and the rest of the Tony-winning Hairspray team give it song on stage this month at the 5th Avenue Theatre. The production features a book by Pulitzer-winner Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!) and Broadway actors Norbert Leo Butz (a Tony-winner for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Aaron Tveit in the leads.

What about the movie provides good source material for a musical? For us, it was a chance to write in the style of that period, like a Frank Sinatra special—something that has the feel of songwriters along the lines of Sammy Cahn or Jimmy Van Heusen. Because the boy is telling the story, in his eyes he’s starring in his own TV special of his life. What’s also inherent in the piece is a sort of father-son story, and we wanted to write that kind of camaraderie and relationship into the music. And there are a lot of male songs in it so that was appealing as well.

That’s rare, isn’t it? You think of Broadway musicals as a place for divas and… Belting witches, yes. [Laughs]

But you will have a belting hooker, I assume, based on the character played by Jennifer Garner, who seduces young Frank in the film? Oh, yes, she gets quite a number. I would call it an 8:30 number. [Laughs] There are a few belting girls. I mean, we don’t want to deny anyone that pleasure. There are some belting nurses, belting stewardesses…

Have you made substantial changes to the characters or the plot? There are some things pulled from the real Frank Abagnale Jr., who we’ve gotten to know. And to make a completed arc for the FBIcharacter, the part that Norbert’s playing, we have him go through some changes that weren’t in the movie.

How do you choose who gets a song and when that happens? We worked closely with Terrence McNally on this and figured out, obviously, what the story is then determined what the emotion of each scene is. When they’re talking in dialogue it has to get to an emotional point that lets the song come out.

How much does your lyrical language have to match McNally’s language? Well, a lot of times Terrence will write a scene and then he’ll write a monologue and we’ll cull from that. So we do appropriate a lot of his dialogue into a song. Sometimes he’ll have to rewrite the scene because we’ve “stolen” it, so to speak.

How many songs do you have so far? It’s a full evening. I think there are probably about 18 right now. But it changes all the time—Seattle, for us, is all about the rehearsal process and finding new things. We’ve never done this on its feet. We’ve only had little readings here and there, so to finally get a chance to rehearse and work on things is going to be a great joy.

Is there a song right now in the show that you like a little more than the others? Oh, that’s like Sophie’s Choice. I couldn’t do that. I love them all.

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