Interview with Marvin Hamlisch
Editor’s note: In October of 2006, prior to a fundraiser performance in Cleveland, I was fortunate to conduct a interview with Marvin Hamlisch. Through the courtesy of the Cleveland Jewish News, most of that article appears here.
By ALAN SMASON
Marvin Hamlisch’s credits read like American musical royalty, but, despite his many accomplishments, he is not content to sit on his laurels. He is happy when he is busy, and these days he is exceedingly happy. “I tend to thrive on work,” said Hamlisch in a 2006 Cleveland Jewish News phone interview. “My teacher used to say ‘The more you pump, the more beautiful and clearer is the water.’”
An award-winning composer, pianist, arranger and conductor, Hamlisch admitted that he still enjoyed just making his music. “I still just get a kick out of playing the piano and enjoying my music,” Hamlisch said. He conceded that he tends to tell more Jewish jokes at Jewish affairs, but said he makes sure there are jokes at whatever venue he plays. ”There should be laughter and enjoyment in it, because these days laughter is such a hard thing to come by,” he stated.
Currently the award-winning composer, pianist, arranger and conductor divides his time between working on movie projects and live performances or concerts. He has been nominated for every conceivable entertainment award. In addition to three Academy Awards, he has won four Grammy Awards, two Emmys and a Tony Award for “A Chorus Line,” which also garnered him a Pulitzer Prize.
Hamlisch’s diversified career in popular song, movies and theater began 63 years ago when, as a child of 5, he began to mimic the music he heard over the radio on the family piano. Hamlisch’s father was an accordion player and dance bandleader and he soon arranged for piano lessons for his son.
The next year, the child prodigy auditioned for entry to the acclaimed Juilliard School of Music and was accepted at age 7, the youngest student ever selected in the school’s history. Reportedly, the judges were astounded at Hamlisch’s uncanny ability to spontaneously transcribe the then current hit “Goodnight, Irene” from one key into another on their demand.
Although he was considered a major musical wunderkind, Hamlisch determined that performing in public brought about high levels of anxiety. His career as a concert pianist was sidelined, while he chose to pursue a career in composition. Only in later years did he overcome inhibitions about performing in public.
While still enrolled at Juilliard, he attracted the interest of Liza Minnelli, who recorded his song “Travelin’ Man” on her debut album. They had already become close friends, and he began to play piano at parties at the home of her mother, Judy Garland. At 21, he scored his first popular success with “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” and “California Nights,” both Top 20 hits for teen star Leslie Gore.
Hamlisch’s movie career started with his chance encounter at a party, where he overheard Hollywood mogul Sam Spiegel remark how he needed a music score for a new film he was producing. Hamlisch went straight to his piano and composed a theme for the movie “on spec.” Impressed, Spiegel signed him to do the score for “The Swimmer” on the spot, and the rest became film history.
Around the same time, Hamlisch became friendly with Woody Allen and composed the scores for his two earliest comedies “Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas.” Since then, he has scored over 40 other motion pictures and set a record by winning his three musical Academy Awards in the same year (1973) for the song and score of “The Way We Were” and his arrangement of Scott Joplin’s music for “The Sting.” Some of his other well known music scores include “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Ice Castles,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Same Time Next Year.”
His work on “The Sting” created such a resurgence of interest in the music of Scott Joplin that his album of Joplin’s music titled “The Entertainer” soared to the top of the charts.
Hamlisch’s work on Broadway began as a rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl,” where he first met his longtime friend and collaborator Barbra Streisand. The legendary Groucho Marx selected Hamlisch to be his pianist and straight man on his nationwide and college campus tours.
“A Chorus Line” generated one of Hamlisch’s biggest hits with “What I Did for Love,” recorded by numerous high profile singing stars. His follow-up 1978 production, “They’re Playing Our Song,” was a loosely autobiographical story based on his then-current marriage to Carole Bayer Sager.
The 1980s proved to be a downturn in his career and personal life. While he started the decade by writing music for several Neil Simon films, he could not recapture the impact he had experienced in film or on the stage. Eventually, he and Sager divorced, and he married his current wife in 1989.
With fewer movie projects being offered to him these days, Hamlisch is working hard to keep himself busy. “I’ve gone to doing more conducting and performing,” he says.
Hamlisch has been appointed as the first-ever principal pops conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. When he is not wielding his baton there, he is winging his way to either San Diego, Dallas , Pasadena or Pittsburgh, where he is also principal pops conductor of those orchestras. The multitalented musician is quite at home conducting symphonies in popular or classical works like a recent all-Gershwin concert. At the time he said he was especially looking forward to an upcoming National Pops Orchestra Halloween performance where the audience was to be treated to an evening featuring “The Phantom of the Kennedy Center.”
Yet Hamlisch clearly felt more comfortable at the keyboard performing his own selections. The best part about performing live, he says, “is you get instant feedback.”
Speaking of “A Chorus Line,” the revival opened in October of 2006 on Broadway. “I’m very proud of it,” Hamlisch said at the time. The idea for the revival came from the lawyer who represented the show’s original choreographer and director, the late Michael Bennett
“Since some of the original players were still alive who were part of the original production, he felt it was important,” Hamlisch continued, noting that over 200 people auditioned for the 17-member ensemble. “It’s a very young, effective cast. They are really making it their own – it’s quite wonderful.”
That revival, directed by original choreographer Bob Avian, closed in August of 2008 after 759 performances and 18 previews. “A Chrous Line” still ranks today as the fifth longest running show in Broadway history.