Musical Director Jim Vukovich: On The Marc Shaiman Benefit

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A Chat with Jim Vukovich

BWW: Can you tell us about the event you are having on February 9th honoring Marc Shaiman and how it came about?

Jim Vukovich: I was born and raised in Waukegan, Illinois (Chicago suburb). My sister-in-law, Dawn is the Executive Director for a home (in Waukegan) that houses homeless people who are afflicted with substance abuse addictions and who also are afflicted with HIV/AIDS. That home is called The Harbor. The Harbor is part of The Alexian Brothers Ministries in the Chicago area. They have another “sister” home in Chicago proper called The Bonaventure House as well as similar homes throughout the country. The purpose of these homes are to rehabilitate, educate and nurture these people so they can re-enter the world as self sufficient members of society.

When I knew that the Hairspray tour would be playing in Chicago, I wanted to do something for my sister in law’s organization, not only because it’s an AIDS related non-profit organization but because of my love for her. She’s an incredibly humble and selfless individual. While raising my 3 nephews with my brother Blake, Dawn went back to school and went into the work force and found a calling that was most unexpected. She’s not only the Executive Director of the Harbor. She’s a true humanitarian. She makes a difference in the world. I felt a strong desire to make a difference in hers. I’m so proud of her. She’s an amazing woman. So, I came to her with the idea of producing a fundraiser in hopes that I could get some of the Hairspray family involved.

I didn’t want to do the typical benefit that so many Touring Shows do; meaning they all get up and do songs unrelated to each other and call it a show. Those types of benefit concerts bore the shit out of me. I needed a theme. I needed a thread. I needed something that would entice the cast and company to participate. I kept thinking to myself that it would be so cool to do a night a Marc Shaiman material but I was afraid to approach Marc about it. At the time, Marc and I were still cultivating our own professional relationship and still didn’t know each other too well. So I tip-toed around the idea and then while the tour was in Boston, Marc and I went out one night and I just asked him how he would feel about doing a benefit show of his music? In true Marc Shaiman fashion, he made me sweat for a few minutes. So I waited and asked him if he though I was crazy. His response was “Are you crazy? I’m completely flattered. I’d love to do it”! That was the biggest hurdle. Then I asked Bruce Vilanch is he would host the evening. On top of Bruce playing Edna Turnblad 8 times a week, he’s also the head writer for Bette Midler’s current tour. He was more than happy to host this benefit. Marc, Bruce and myself cross referenced our availability and had a handful of dates to work with and away we went….

So, the first thing was finding a venue. We searched long and hard. Most venues wanted enormous deposits and didn’t offer anything useful for our needs. After all, this was to raise money, not to pay it back! We stumbled upon a cabaret club called Gentry on State. They offered us the space, public and in-house promotion and NO OVERHEAD! On top of it, the General Manager, Eric McCool is very savvy when it comes to these types of events. It was too good to be true. So we locked in a date and then I posted a sign up sheet on the call board backstage at Hairspray. The response was overwhelming. Every cast member, musician, a lot of the tech, hair, dressers and all 3 stage managers enthusiastically signed up. There were a few company members I expected to sign up but didn’t………which brings to mind Bill Murray’s acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globe Awards saying something to the effect that “those will be the people bragging and taking credit for our incredible experience”. I’m not bitter but mark my words.

I take no credit for the creative content of the evening. Marc put it all together. I’m just so grateful to be able to produce such an incredible show. However, more than that, I’m amazed at how this little fundraiser idea has turned into a real media event. I have no doubt we’ll raise a lot of money for our benefactors.

BWW: Who else is helping to organize the tribute?

JV: The main organizers are Eric McCool and myself. Some of the biggest contributors to our silent auction items, etc. are The House Of Blues Hotel who donated their Presidential Suite for Marc Shaiman and his long time partner/collaborator Scott Wittman to enjoy during their stay. (Scott also won the Tony Award for his writing on Hairspray).

Several hair salons have donated services and “day at the salon” packages, local hotels and restaurants have provided stays and dinners to be packaged with show tickets for “night on the town” packages, Desiree Irwin and Jen Porter (two of Chicago’s cabaret entertainers) have donated a 90-minute private party dueling pianos performance that has been packaged with the donation of (2) servers (5 hrs each) from and liquor baskets from suppliers for a “no-brainer party package”, The Fireball (circuit event that benefits The Hearts Foundation — an AIDS charity) has donated 2 VIP passes to their events Valentine’s weekend here in Chicago, many other assorted donations are and keep coming in to fill both of the live auctions and the silent auction. In addition, Shaiman’s movie posters, original music manuscript, sheet music and various items are being gathered for autographs. Among those, an original FORMERLY THE HARLETTES promo poster for Charlotte Crossley (Hairspray cast member and one of Bette Midler’s original Harlettes) to sign and this year’s OSCARS poster for Marc and Bruce to autograph.

We’re also auctioning off what we’re calling the “Co-Pilot” seat for 3 different performances of Hairpsray. This is a seat placed right next to my left, while I conduct the orchestra from my keyboard. It’s an overwhelming vantage point to watch the show and be part of the “action”. We’re hoping this item brings in a good amount.

We’re also auctioning off the seat with our drummer, Alan Childs, in his drum booth during a performance of Hairspray. Alan Childs is a legend. He used to be David Bowie’s, Tom Waits, Rod Stewart and many other major artist’s drummers. He also was the drummer for the National Tours of Aida and Rent.

We are auctioning off one walk on role during our last week of performances of Hairspray in Chicago. That’s pretty cool.

BWW: Tell us a little bit about Gentry and also who is benefiting from this event.

JV: Gentry opened their cabaret doors in 1983 and continue provide live piano bar/cabaret entertainment every night of the year with no cover (pay attention NYC) and weekly open mic nights. Even though it’s considered a GLBT club, everyone’s welcome and treated with respect. In 1999, Eric started opening the Gentry doors to national tours and local productions to hold promotional/benefit shows to help raise funds for BC/EFA and, the local version — Season of Concern. Since the club is just a few blocks from the Chicago Theatre District it’s a natural location for pre/post-show gatherings and a place for company members to hang out and work on new material. Their most recent “event” along these lines was with the national tour of Rodger’s & Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA (Eartha Kitt, Deborah Gibson, Paolo Montalban) and in four (4) hours they raised $7,212 from tips and auction items and with NO COVER. We’re two weeks from the night and we’ve already raised $2,400.00!!

BWW: What have been some of the past events you’ve held?

JV: Well, this is the very first benefit event that the National Tour of Hairspray has done. In LA, where I live, I produce a lot a theatre and music events (I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up). So I have a lot of experience organizing, producing and fundraising, not to mention BEGGING.

BWW: Are tickets still available? And if someone isn’t in the area, is there a way for them to participate in the auction or make a donation?

JV: Yes, tickets are still available for the 10:30 pm show. We are also going to videotape the evening and those videos will be for sale. Also, we’ll be simulcasting the show throughout the club for those who can’t get a seat in the cabaret room. I should add, it’s a big club with video monitors everywhere.

Tickets are available for the 10:30p show but are going fast…contact Eric McCool at 312.836.0933 for reservations. Monetary donations may be made by calling Dawn Nahf at 847.782.8015.

Auction item donations may be made by filling out the form found at, faxing the form to Eric McCool at 312.836.0934 and mailing the item to Shaiman Event, c/o Gentry of Chicago; 440 N State St. ; Chicago, IL 60610