Creating the Sound of Catch Me If You Can

During a recent performance of Broadway’s new musical Catch Me If You Can, audiences were treated to a special guest appearance, although it’s likely that nobody watching the show had any idea who was stepping into a role for a one-night stint. As a handful of ensemble cast members situated themselves on hospital gurneys for a scene involving the show’s main character, Frank Abagnale, Jr. passing himself off as a doctor, one of the production’s musical creators slid under a sheet and ended up on the stage, lying on a gurney. Scott Wittman, Catch Me’s lyricist, decided to have a little fun that night, switching up what would have been another typical evening of visiting his show – a task he often does.

“I think it’s a good thing. As a parent [of the show], I always like to check on things,” Wittman told me. “Whenever I’m not able to be there, I will text the cast,” he said, before his partner, and Catch Me If You Can’s composer Marc Shaiman added, “the cast always seems surprised at how much we come to the show.”

It’s no small task for Shaiman and Wittman to show such attention to their latest Broadway creation – their last production was the popular musical Hairspray – as the creative duo is busy with a seemingly endless number of projects, the most time-consuming being NBC’s new series Smash, a scripted show following the process of creating a new Broadway musical.

“People would not believe the amount of work that goes into every second on stage,” Shaiman said. The workload for Catch Me If You Can started a few years ago, by chance, as Shaiman and Wittman stumbled upon a book about the 2002 feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. On the cover was a picture of DiCaprio and a group of stewardesses. That image set a bell off in their heads, and from there, they set out to musicalize the DreamWorks movie.

Ultimately, they decided a variety show format would work best for Frank Abagnale, Jr. to tell his wild tales about check forgery, assumed identities, and outrunning the FBI, all with a song-and-dance sensibility. And it was the variety show format that dictated a need for an 18-piece orchestra on the stage each night. Taking into account the 1960s setting during which Catch Me If You Can takes place, the musical sound of the show began to take shape in Shaiman and Wittman’s heads.

“It’s like any episode of the Ed Sullivan Show, where you had great performers working with big bands and strings,” Shaiman said. “The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Beatles, in one hour on a Sunday night, you had a great musical education in all different kinds of music.”

As for the specific songs each character would sing, Shaiman and Wittman turned to the movie for inspiration, just as they had done for their previous Broadway creation. “Much like how in Hairspray when Tracy said, ‘Oh momma, welcome to the ‘60s,’ that sounded like a title, in Catch Me, Chris Walken’s character gives his son a checkbook, so we wrote a song called ‘50 Checks’ to test the water,” Wittman recalled.

In fact, it is catch phrases and titles that dictate most of the songs the two write for their musicals. “We start making lists of phrases that the character would say, and hopefully from those, we come up with a title,” Shaiman said. “Then, all of those phrases that we didn’t use become the foundation of the lyrics.” The two then go through putting each song together, word by word. “There are some songs in the show that when we listen back to them, I just think, wow, listen to all of those lyrics. I only have a fever dream memory of writing them.”

With Catch Me If You Can, their music-writing duties lasted quite a while, as the production had an out-of-town run in Seattle, Washington, then took a hiatus before landing on Broadway. That frustrating waiting game did have a positive effect for the duo, as it allowed the creative team to revisit the musical and try changing things around. “You’ll find out on stage that perhaps the actors need more time to change or other physical situations that require music or set changes,” Wittman said. “That can only be figured out in front of an audience.”

While songs were tweaked, and in the case of that original number “50 Checks,” removed from the show — Wittman said it was simply grinding the show to a halt — the entire show was finally locked in place once opening night came around for the Broadway run. While Wittman can remember turning to the musical’s director, Jack O’Brien, right before opening, and telling him he was happy with the final product, Shaiman “would always want to change it,” in the sense that he is never one to easily stop tweaking things.

That drive to reach perfection was coming in handy for Shaiman the day I spoke with him, as he was in the middle of mixing the Broadway cast recording, set for a digital release May 23rd with a physical CD release June 28th. “I was able to re-instate a couple of verses that we cut for pacing sake, and we were able to record that song ‘50 Checks,’ which is a bonus track on the record.”

Now that their work on Catch Me If You Can is wrapped, Shaiman and Wittman are back to work on NBC’s Smash, which will premiere this fall, and will feature original music by the songwriters each week. And their work on the physical stage is about to get a little sweeter, as they are finishing up the music for a stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, aiming for a London premiere under the direction of Sam Mendes.

I originally wrote this article for