Jess Cagle
July 30, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

His anonymity is not for lack of credits:

· He’s the wit behind all those rollicking ’60s girl-group ditties merged with religious lyrics in last summer’s Sister Act (”Nothing you could say could take me away from my God ”).
· Bette Midler covering ”Wind Beneath My Wings” in Beaches was his idea; so was her ”One for the Road” (for which he wrote special lyrics) on Johnny Carson’s big Tonight Show send-off.
· Those are his scores moving swiftly and effectively through City Slickers, A Few Good Men, Mr. Saturday Night, and The Addams Family.
· Currently, as musical supervisor for Sleepless in Seattle, he gets the movie started with Jimmy Durante’s warm, goofy version of ”As Time Goes By.” He cowrote the film’s ”A Wink and a Smile,” asked his friend Harry Connick Jr. to sing it, and now the movie’s soundtrack is an unlikely No. 4 on this week’s Billboard pop-album chart.

The name: Marc Shaiman, a puckish 34-year-old, 5’8” former wunderkind who is long on talent, short on legs. Here on the patio of L.A.’s Signet Sound Studios, he is taking a break from mixing and sweetening Whoopi Goldberg’s rough vocal tracks for Sister Act 2. Even she admits, ”Asking me to sing is like asking me to be an Olympic swimmer,” but Shaiman and vocal coach Seth Riggs pulled miracles out of her in the first Act. ”I am nothing without Marc Shaiman,” Goldberg says.

Earlier this morning, Shaiman was on the set of the Addams Family sequel (which he is scoring), and later today he will give some thought to his music for Heart and Souls, the Robert Downey Jr. comedy coming in August. He’s already fiddling with arrangements for Connick’s Christmas album. Midler, who has employed him as music director or composer on five of her albums and five of her movies, tells him he works too hard. ”I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” he jokes, smiling and squinting through the California sunshine, the way people who’d rather live in New York City always do.

Shaiman’s head is an encyclopedia of American music — pop, show tunes, swing, even TV themes. No formal training. He learned by playing piano for high school and community theaters while growing up in Scotch Plains, N.J., the son of a beverage distributor and a homemaker. ”Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, I did just about every show written,” he says. At home he was hanging Bette Midler posters on his bedroom walls and deconstructing the arrangements on her albums. He met the object of his obsession after graduating high school early and moving to New York City at 16. Some of the Divine Miss M.’s friends happened into the Greenwich Village piano bar that had hired him. Struck by the youngster’s deft, quirky tinkling, they introduced him to Midler. Within a year, Shaiman was an arranger and lyricist on her Thighs and Whispers album. When Midler went Hollywood, the still die-hard New Yorker got a gig writing music for Saturday Night Live, where he came up with the sappy, hilarious Sweenie Sisters and met then cast member Billy Crystal, friend to Rob Reiner. It was Reiner who jump-started his movie-scoring career (finally forcing Shaiman to move west) by hiring him to supervise the music on When Harry Met Sally…, then to score Misery.

Shaiman’s talent is formidable, his quirks lovable. ”He’s the only guy I know who sits cross-legged on his piano stool,” says Crystal, who has hired Shaiman for his tours as well as to cowrite his hilarious Oscar parody medleys. ”He’s a little baby. He’s a koala bear.” With the palette of a 10-year-old. ”This is a man who will only eat a hamburger,” rails Midler, as much bossy big sister as colleague. ”I always tell him that his insides are gonna rot and fall out of his pupik.”

But Shaiman’s boyishness and gurgling laugh belie a wicked sense of humor — Elroy Jetson channeling Bette Davis. He shares his kitsch-filled Hollywood Hills home with longtime companion and collaborator Scott Wittman, 38. (It was Wittman who discovered Durante’s ”As Time Goes By,” for Sleepless, in a secondhand record shop.) Overseeing the grand piano in Shaiman’s shabby-chic living room are three muses: a bust of Elvis, a portrait of Liberace, and framed snaps of Midler.

The Shaiman-Midler duels can be bloody. ”He has quite a temper on him,” she says. ”You always know when he’s mad because he shuts up and wanders around the room looking at the ceiling. I just say, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, spit it out!”’ Says Shaiman, diplomatically: ”As with any huge talent, hugeness runs into all parts of her life, so good times are intense, and then fights and struggling are intense.” Midler still feels dissed because he turned down working on her upcoming 10-city tour. ”I’m too busy,” Shaiman says. ”Plus, being a composer is more important to me than being a musical director.”

”He doesn’t want to have any more to do with me,” says Midler, dramatically sighing — but only half kidding. ”He’s all grown up now.”

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