Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Years ago when I did some entertainment writing I had the good fortune to interview Marvin Hamlisch.  He was generous with his time and I was sorry to hear of his death this month at the age of 68.  It's got some dated references, but here's the piece I wrote in what I've deduced was late 2001:

“Mem’ries light the corners of my mind.  Misty, water color memories of the way we were.”  The lyrics to “The Way We Were” may be pretty, but it’s the music that makes them memorable.  The man behind that music, and so much more, is Marvin Hamlisch, and he’s bringing his famous stage act to the RiverPark Center.  If you can find a negative review of his performances, please mail it into News4U, because our crack staff couldn’t find one.  We called Marvin Hamlisch to ask him about his long career and about the show he’s going to present:

            “This will be me, piano, and a singer.  We’re going to do different music, some of it that I’ve written, some of it that I haven’t written. We’ll probably do some Richard Rodgers, and we’ll do some things that I’ve written like ‘Ice Castles’, we’ll do the Rag, we’ll do ‘A Chorus Line’.  We do a thing that’s a lot of fun, which is called “rent-a-composer”, where I make up songs on the spot.  I ask the audience to come up with titles.  They give me a brand new title and I write the song.  So, it’s a lot of fun.  It’s a concert that’s particularly good if you want to bring your family.  Sometimes people always say, ‘Where can I bring my kids?  I can never take them here.  I can never take them there.’  Well, in this situation you can, and they can have a good time.”

            The award-winning music of Marvin Hamlisch has accumulated over a long career that began when he was only six years old.  Hamlisch’s parents were Austrian immigrants who fled to America in the ‘30s to avoid Nazi control and the persecution of Jews.  His father was an accordion player, but he didn’t teach his son the piano.  Young Marvin Hamlisch picked it up by ear, and was accepted to the well-known Juilliard School of Music after playing the same song in any key requested.  As a teen he attended the Professional Children’s School, where he met Liza Minnelli and started a friendship that continues today.  Contacts through Liza (with a “Z”) led to a job as a rehearsal pianist in his dream venue, Broadway.  Hamlisch had a passion for Broadway musicals, and his favorite was ‘Gypsy’, with music by Jules Styne.  The musical Hamlisch would be working on turned out to be ‘Funny Girl’, with music by none other than Styne.  Hamlisch was amazed to be working with his idol.
            “He was such a dynamo.  He was just this small guy with this incredible energy.  I always wondered did he ever fall asleep.  It was wonderful.  It was great to work with him because he was a very giving man and I learned a lot about the profession.  So many of the things that I’m doing now I learned from Julie.” 
            Hamlisch also met a young Barbra Streisand on the set of ‘Funny Girl’.  Years later he would score her film, ‘The Way We Were’, and write the music for the title song, which was Streisand’s first #1 hit.  In the past decade, he was the musical director for her 1994 tour and her Millennium concerts, which are reputed to be her last.

            His piano work for Broadway led to a gig playing at a party for movie producer Sam Spiegel, known for big films like ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ & ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.  Feeling that playing for parties was a step down in his career, Hamlisch took the job only in hopes of helping his career.  It led to work as a composer for his first film, ‘The Swimmer’, starring Burt Lancaster.  Though the film was not a hit, it did lead to more work, including the first two films of Woody Allen, “Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas”.  Hamlisch wrote in his autobiography, The Way I Was, that a problem he found with working for Allen was lack of communication.  But if we fast-forward 30 years, we may see the two collaborating again, this time for a Broadway version of Allen’s 1994 film, ‘Bullets Over Broadway’.
            “We don’t have the green light on that yet.  We would love to do it.”
            But is it easier than it used to be to work with enigmatic Allen?
             “Oh, he’s wonderful.  He’s just fantastic these days.  He’s really great, so I’m very happy about that.  Since he got married he’s been really quite wonderful.”

            In-between scoring films, Hamlisch found himself playing for Ann-Margret in her Vegas act, and working for famous film comedian, only one whose career was not being born, like Woody Allen’s, but was in its twilight – Groucho Marx.  Hamlisch found it hard to play straight man when everything was so funny.
            “Groucho once said to me…you know, he used to tell all these jokes, all the time.  They would come at you at record speed.  He said to me once, “I bought an anklet for my girlfriend.”  And I said, “What’d it say?”  He said, “Heaven’s above.”  They would come at you that fast.  That business of going out and finding out how much the world really loved him and doing concerts was really invigorating for him.  I think it held back his fragility and senility for awhile.”

            After scoring ‘The Way We Were’, Hamlisch was asked to adapt Scott Joplin’s ragtime music for the soundtrack to ‘The Sting’.  The two-film combination garnered him 3 Oscars.  His rendition of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” was a surprise #3 hit, and he found himself winning the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1974.  Hamlisch recognized the off-the-wall nature of his pop success, and knew his destiny lay elsewhere.
            “It didn’t really matter because I knew that I was not going to continue in that world.  It’s not like getting the Artist award and knowing that you have a record deal and you’re going to be an artist for the next 20 years.  I knew that my record career was as short as…that was it!  I made a record, or two, and that was it.  No career in that for me.  I think they probably wasted the award because I wasn’t going anywhere with that.”

            He was Broadway bound, to compose the show that is arguably his masterpiece, ‘A Chorus Line’.  But it is a shared victory of a show conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with lyrics by Edward Kleban.  The show would have a phenomenal run of about 20 years and would win, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize.  Besides the appeal of great songs like “One”, Hamlisch has his own insight into what makes the show successful.
“I think it’s very empathetic.  I think people see the show and they see themselves in it.  I think that that’s one of the things that pulls them in.  I think it has that going for it, that connection to an audience.”
            Another association that bore many fruits was working with Neil Simon.  Simon first wanted to turn his play “The Gingerbread Lady” into a musical.  They couldn’t work it out, but it did lead to Hamlisch scoring four of Simon’s films, and a successful musical collaboration, ‘The Goodbye Girl’.  Hamlisch’s other well-known film scores include ‘Ice Castles’, ‘Sophie’s Choice’, and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, for which he co-wrote the Carly Simon hit, “Nobody Does It Better”.  But Hamlisch likes to work in the present, not dwell on past triumphs.
            “I’m very pleased with what we’re doing with John Guare on a show called ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ which opens in about 10 months.  We have John Lithgow as our star, so we’re very excited.  I tend to look forward instead of thinking backwards.”
            That doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy revisiting a careerful of great music, especially when he feels the lure of the road.
            “One allure is the fact that when you’re writing music, you’re basically writing with a lyricist.  It’s very lonely work, two people in a room.  So, you get a chance to meet more people and get feedback, which is fun.”
            We may even get to hear “The Entertainer”.  But was it the wacky ‘70s that made that song a hit?  In the age of Limp Bizkit & N’Sync, could something like that happen again?
“Listen, you can always get something off the wall from a movie.  So tomorrow if Disney comes out with a movie and there’s a song about a banana who falls in love with an ostrich, and Mariah Carey sings it with, uh, what’s-his-name, whoever, then yes, of course it could happen.  It could always happen.”  

End Notes: 

Barbra Streisand toured again in 2006-07.

Official plans for a "Bullets Over Broadway" musical were just announced in February.  Woody Allen plans to use existing music from the 1920s and 30s. 

"The Sweet Smell of Success" was a hit in 2002 and it's star, John Lithgow, won a Tony for his role.

Hamlisch's last work was the music for a musical version of the original "The Nutty Professor" movie, directed by Jerry Lewis.  The show played Nashville as a tryout, hoping to work out any kinks before they take it to Broadway.

1 comment:

The Fan With No Name!!! said...

I recently read somewhere that he was involved with the production of Steven Soderbergh's Liberace Biopic which I believe is still currently filming (& he worked with Soderbergh before doing the wonderful (retro) score for THE INFORMANT).