Composer: Marc Shaiman
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $16.98
Grade: A

Few composers have gotten so famous for playing it big like Marc Shaiman. Sure this elfish composer’s first gig was a horrific one-off called Misery. And he may have done decent dramatic work on A Few Good Men and Ghosts Of Mississippi. But this is a guy who’s greatest claim to fame just might be his appearance as the upside-down piano player in Hot Shots, so we know that Shaiman’s got a thing for comedy. And we’re talking about the big, boisterous scores for the likes of City Slickers, Down With Love, South Park- The Movie, The Addams Family and The First Wives Club. Even though they all showed up before he adapted Hairspray into a smash musical theater piece, you could say that all of Shaiman’s comedy scores played like a glorious drag queen belting it into the front row. And it was a godsend sound to those of us who remembered when comedy scores could be unabashedly huge and melodic instead of the pizzicato hodge-podges that Hollywood favors now.

So who’d think that a composer who seems more comfortable with a bang instead of a whimper could do so much with musically less – and unleash perhaps the biggest emotions of any of his scores to date? But that’s what makes Shaiman’s beautifully moving score for The Bucket List particularly astounding. Just when you’d expect to hear a full orchestra pounding in the schmaltz like snot in a handkerchief, Shaiman relies on subtle strings and lite jazz to effectively play the heartstrings. Sure critics may have lambasted Rob Reiner’s movie. But screw ‘em, because this one had me at the first appearance of Shaiman’s terrific theme, a wellspring from which the entire score beautifully flows.

First gently played on harp, then with strings that barely rise above a whisper, Shaiman conveys the gut-kick of seemingly terminal illness with a quality that’s almost whimsical, if not slightly magical. It’s a foreshadowing of the live-while-you-can romp that Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman will later embark on. But in the meantime, their bouts of chemotherapy and depression have a resigned vibe, with a sad-sack sax that gets across the resignation of an unfathomable diagnosis. Yet Shaiman avoids becoming maudlin in the process – something even more amazing when you consider that this is the guy whose score for Patch Adams caused a generation of moviegoers to go into diabetic shock.

Perhaps the reason that treacly Robin Williams approach is nowhere in sound here is because a smart-ass curmudgeon Jack Nicholson’s the star. But then, I’d suspect The Bucket List works so well because Shaiman’s investing his own past losses into the score. And it’s the kind of deeply personal place from where the best work springs. About the only time the full orchestra swings in is when the characters find their eternal bond, and rest atop Mount Everest. And it’s the sound of orchestral handkerchiefs that are well earned yet still aren’t over the top. For once in a score like this, you can hear the sound of your own sniffling instead of the gushing symphonic tears that are gonna make you cry, dammit.

Shaiman and frequent director Rob Reiner have done a great job spotting the film, playing emotion instead of comedy-drama. And that’s made the The Bucket List come in at 27 minutes of score. The rest of the 21 minutes are filled out with Shaiman’s piano renditions of such favorites as Mother, North, Simon Birch and his Oscar-nominated South Park song “Blame Canada.” And devoid of the big strings and brass, the performances come across as Shaiman unplugged. Even the theme from The American President gets new lyrics with a nice, small chorus. It’s the closest thing a soundtrack fan will have to hearing Shaiman play in a nightclub right side up. And his talent for memorable, melodic themes comes across quite nicely – as does his hilarious satirical ability in “Printmaster.” With apologies to “Goldfinger,” Shaiman transformers John Barry’s melody into a composer’s universal lament at having their music chewed up by sound effects and song-hungry studio execs. It’s a great compliment to his hilarious “Finding Kraftland” video on YouTube.

On that note, special mention should be made to Shaiman’s agent, the nearly-as-funny raconteur Richard Kraft. In what seems to be a small book, Kraft details his relationship with a composer whom he at first thought couldn’t write beyond a Bette Midler stage show. In his deeply felt reminiscence, Kraft details the heart of an agent-composer relationship that became a real friendship. Kudos also to album producer Robert Townsend, who’s fashioned what could have been a filler album into a tribute to Shaiman at his restrained best.

Yet all of this isn’t saying that I don’t still love Shaiman’s rambunctious comedy sound-by-way of Broadway. In fact, I can’t wait for him to put out another score that sounds like a guy in drag having a blast at orchestral happy hour. But even the biggest of voices have got to rest some times. And Shaiman lowers his for The Bucket List to enormously moving effect.

Kick it with THE BUCKET LIST here.

Watch Marc Shaiman’s FINDING KRAFTLAND video here.