June 30 marks the 15th anniversary of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut—the movie adaptation of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s iconic irreverent TV series—and co-songwriter Marc Shaiman is quick to award quite the superlative to his work on the now beloved animated film.
“It’s just about the most important movie or creative experience that I’ve ever had,” said Shaiman, a respected voice in the theater and film worlds for his musical/lyrical contributions to Broadway hits like Hairspray, TV shows like Smash, and movie scores ranging the scope from Sister Act to Sleepless in Seattle. “South Park was the most fun movie I’ve ever worked on, and certainly the thing that really led to me being asked to do Hairspray.”
With Broadway composing legend Stephen Sondheim among the film’s passionate fanbase, the movie remains one of the funniest and most fluid musicals ever put to film. Although it holds a fond spot in his memory, Shaiman actually hasn’t revisited the film since South Park’s premiere in June of 1999 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater: “Most premieres can be filled with industry people, always looking around at each other, not necessarily being the best or most attentive audience…but the premiere for South Park was unbelievable. People banging their feet and screaming and yelling. I just knew right away, I’ll never watch this movie again. The memory of that night is just so spectacular, I prefer to keep it incredibly precious.”
Still, that didn’t deter Shaiman from indulging with EW and revisiting the songs that made the movie great—sweeping ensemble choruses like “Mountain Town” and “La Resistance,” utterly ridiculous dance numbers like “It’s Easy, M’kay” and “Uncle F–ka,” and of course, the Academy Award-nominated “Blame Canada.”
Shaiman shares with EW a number of stories behind the creation of the songs, but he’s very clear about one thing: these songs were very much borne almost entirely from the brain of South Park co-creator Parker. “I’ve said it before: I was Igor to Trey’s Dr. Frankenstein,” Shaiman emphasizes. “The word genius gets thrown around a lot, but Trey truly is a genius. He can do it all. I understood and shared his sense of humor and musicality, but this was all Trey, and I was just along for the ride.”
(Warning: The following songs are pretty NSFW, but you obviously already knew that.)
“When Scott Rudin sent me the script, the opening number was sketched out with a few lyrics, but that was one I can really remember collaborating 50/50 with Trey. Really writing together, knowing what he wanted, and just helping him achieve that…and always trying to get him to make sure that the lyrics rhymed. As long as it was close to rhyming, he was okay with it, but I was always like, ‘Come on, let’s take another two minutes and we’ll figure out a way to say it that rhymes.’
The whole movie has obvious influences, and of course Beauty and the Beast is certainly a big influence for ‘Mountain Town.’ I remember the little intro that starts things off. I remember we did make changes. The thing with animation is, we could change things rather quickly, especially because of the style of South Park. So I remember going back in with an orchestra maybe three or four times on that number, to the point where the orchestra could practically play it by memory because we were only switching a few measures here and there. The more we wrote, the more it would inform other things, so some things we had to go back and adjust several times after other songs were written.”
“When I think of the South Park movie, I always remember this one day where I was nominated for an Academy Award for the score to Patch Adams, and so I’m at the Oscar luncheon and I’m at a table and some very tasteful lady says to me, ‘So what are you working on now?’ And I didn’t know how to tell her that just that morning, I had called down to South Park and said, ‘Send me all of your fart sound effects.’
Trey had basically already written ‘Uncle F–ka’ but I wanted to bring my own idea to the song, so I said to Trey, ‘How about if they do a tap break, only with farting for the taps?’ I had been sitting all morning listening to farts, about which ones go up and which ones had a rhythm, and how to put them together so that they created little tap rhythms. And I didn’t know how to tell the lady that that’s what I was doing before the luncheon, and it’s what I would be doing when I go back home.
And also, doing it with the orchestra! Oh, they were just loving playing it. But when you’re recording with the orchestra, they don’t want to hear the lyrics. They just want to hear the tempo and listen to themselves playing. But sometimes they come in to listen to the playback, and I remember Pam, the first-chair viola, watched a playback with the lyrics up, and it was the funniest experience I’ve ever had in the control room. She just walked out shaking her head, sighing, “Four years in the conservatory…’”
“It’s Easy, M’kay”
“That was mostly Trey, and I just joined in on the insanity. That was definitely one that he demoed, I think. I have to listen to it—I just remember how much fun we had recording it.”
“I think ‘Blame Canada’ was the only place in the movie where we kept writing different songs. I swear, it might have been the fourth song we tried. We were just trying to nail the character and the plot. There were two or three different versions of songs for the mother to sing, including one where she became a huge Disney villain, like Maleficent growing up big with shadows and fire and stuff. That’s when I remember saying, let’s not totally demonize mothers protecting their kids. But to say blame Canada was more like, how about they’re just shifting the blame somewhere else? Also, it was right during Columbine, and so even within the sense of humor of South Park, I just remember trying to deal with that as we were writing. We were discussing the idea of ‘blame’ a lot.
Trey was in my home studio and we kept saying, ‘What do we write next?’ And that’s the only song where I was actually at the piano first and I said, ‘Well, it should maybe sound like a march.’ And I just started singing, it just started vomiting out of me and it just stuck. It was one of the few songs that Trey and I really, truly co-wrote. It’s also a song where Trey wrote a lyric that doesn’t rhyme, and it’s funny because it doesn’t rhyme. They’re not even a real country anyway. It doesn’t rhyme, it’s a non sequitur, and it’s a great example of how a complete ignoring of rhyming can sometimes be really funny or effective. That song was submitted for Oscars because it was the only one that could be performed: it only had one ‘f—‘ in it.”
“Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch”
“That’s a song they had written for the TV show, but then I said, ‘What if we do an around the world travelogue section?’ That whole It’s a Small World section was just me in my house, singing all those parts. You can’t understand what the f— I’m saying, but I remember that was just the beginning of digital editing and the Internet, and I remember calling Trey and Matt’s assistant and saying, ‘Can you get me translations of ‘Kyle’s mom is a bitch’ in as many languages as you can imagine?’ Everything I’m singing there is an actual translation, including the African one, and I would slow down the tape and record myself, always thinking that we’ll record this with real singers eventually. And then one day, Trey saw on the schedule that I was going to be re-doing it with real singers and he was like, ‘Don’t touch it! I won’t let you change it.’ These are songs that I was actively involved with but I have to stress—it’s all Trey.”
“What Would Brian Boitano Do?”
“Matt and Trey work with a girl named Pam Brady, who I believe actually co-wrote the script of the movie, and one day in a meeting some random business problem came up and out of nowhere she just said, ‘Well, what would Brian Boitano do?’ And they just cracked up and never forgot that she said that. That’s one song that we wrote and recorded in the room together. The thrill of my life is that at the end, when the three boys are singing, I’m one of them. That is one of the great thrills of my life! And once again, Trey said, ‘No, don’t replace it.’ He really does love when things happen kind of naturally.”
“Trey knew what he was doing. That was definitely once again me adding this or that and then getting to orchestrate and arrange and make them sound like what he wanted them to sound like. But that’s Trey. It’s inspired by those Broadway ‘I want’ songs, the ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ type. Or that one from The Little Mermaid.”
“That song had to be written last, obviously, after everything else was written. This was the kind of area where it was really smart of Scott Rudin to bring me in, because that’s just where I live, doing that kind of arranging. I don’t want to say it was easy…but it’s almost not hard. It’s like joyously wonderful. For me, it’s breathing. Now, don’t ask me to tie my shoes right, but that was wonderful to get to do, figuring out how to quote each song and yet make it all live within the structure of that other rhythm and counterpoint and harmony.
Trey absolutely was just the biggest Les Mis queen on earth, if he doesn’t mind my saying so. I mean, he really loves Les Mis, and the truth is, when that show came to Broadway, it was right when my partner Scott and I were in New York wishing we were writing Broadway musicals and not getting a break. So as all those European musicals were coming in, there was like a 10 year period when I never went to see shows and I was just a bitter young man…as opposed to now, when I’m a bitter old man. [laughs] So I never saw Les Mis. Ignored it! It wasn’t in my body. So I actually had to listen to that number [‘One Day More’] to know what Trey wanted. Since then, of course, I’ve seen Les Mis and I know it more. But I had to study it a lot for that song.”
“I Can Change”
“Trey basically wrote the main body of it and I just added to it. [That dance break was] a snake charmer-y kind of thing, I seem to remember. Going back to Oliver, a Fagin kind of song, with that Middle Eastern-ish sound.”
“I remember hysterically writing that song. I also remember, there’s a line about Merv’s. I bought something at Merv’s. I always thought it was a Merv Griffin joke, and I once asked Trey, ‘That’s Merv Griffin you’re talking about, right?’ and he goes, ‘No, there was a store called Merv’s. It has nothing to do with Merv Griffin.’ I always thought that was funny.
I’m sure, 15 years later, the political correctness outcry over that entire movie would be crazy. But they get away with it because they offend everyone. And still today, that cliché of the equal opportunity offender. I mean, I’m gay and I was co-writing that song with a vengeance. It was so much fun!
Matt and Trey also gave me the great honor that in a subsequent South Park episode about Big Gay Al, I am at his house playing piano. I’m actually in the episode, and he calls me Marc. I’m also in the movie! That’s right! At the beginning of the number, watch when the piano player comes out. And I think I wink at the camera or something. It was just the greatest thrill. The entire movie was just the greatest gig I’ll ever have gotten.”