On Tuesday night I had the privilege of conducting an InDepth InterView with legendary composer, conductor and musical director Marvin Hamlisch. The three-time Oscar-winner has also won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony, Emmys and Golden Globes making him the only individual besides Richard Rodgers to accomplish as much in his forty-year-plus career. His scores for A CHORUS LINE, THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, along with his work on classic films like THE WAY WE WERE and THE STING surely cement his place in the pantheon of great American artists, a legend in his own time. On Monday night he also participated - accompanying Idina Menzel on a song from A CHORUS LINE - in the White House celebration of Broadway also starring Nathan Lane, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald and the First Family themselves which will be airing on PBS in October. He also hosts the 70s music special THE WAY WE WERE, MUSIC OF THE SEVENTIES airing in August on PBS, as well.
Hear The Music, Let It Play
"One", as one of his most famous song titles states, and it is also the case with the composer of the song himself: Marvin Hamlisch. As in: One singular sensation. Not only a musical director, conductor and arranger, but a composer and musical dramatist in his own right, the proof residing in the breathtakingly innovative scores for A CHORUS LINE, Jean Seberg and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. From his pop hits for Lesley Gore as a teenager to his work with Barbra Streisand - he conducted THE concert of her career in 1994, after all - and Liza Minnelli under the direction of Bob Fosse on THE other concert event of the twentieth century, LIZA WITH A Z. Someone with these credentials certainly needs no further introduction, but it is clear to see and hear how passionate Mr. Hamlisch is about his work in Hollywood and on Broadway in his words here - a passion running from Woody Allen's directorial debut TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN in 1969 to Steven Soderbergh's THE INFORMANT! from last year, and on Broadway from dance arranging SEESAW to composing A CHORUS LINE to writing the new score (six songs!) for next year's Jerry Mitchell-directed reconsideration of QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALLROOM. The sheer amount and quality of his work is simply astounding, then and now. Furthermore - as if all of his past accomplishments weren't enough - he is presenting a series of specials on the music of the seventies this fall on PBS as well as continuing on his concert tour of the entire United States. Touring schedule and tickets can be found on his official website here.
The following is a sneak preview of the upcoming complete InDepth InterView: Marvin Hamlisch. In this exclusive discussion, Mr. Hamlisch reveals his favorite Broadway shows growing up, his favorite cast album, what Bernstein's music means to him as a classical conductor and composer himself, illusory comments on the forthcoming QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALL and Monday night's White House Broadway concert, in addition to tracing SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS from inception to rehearsal to Broadway to cast album, writing the famous theme song for THE WAY WE WERE, his affection for "My Funny Valentine", his acceptance of auto-tune, as well as the very state of Broadway itself and much, much more! Enjoy!
PC: What were your favorite Broadway shows growing up?
MH: My favorite shows were MY FAIR LADY, GYPSY and WEST SIDE STORY. I also have a real love of BYE, BYE BIRDIE. I just love that show.
PC: Oh, did you get the chance to meet Charles Strouse and tell him?
MH: Yes. Yes, I did.
PC: Did you find that Bernstein's work appealed to your classical side?
MH: I mean, what I loved about WEST SIDE STORY was... it was very daring. It was a very daring show and it was just wonderful to have something like that on Broadway.
PC: Do you find that music or words affect you first? I'd think it'd be the musical side...
MH: I think I have the music reaction.
PC: Do you feel there really is a difference in the visceral reaction to a show or score with words versus music, like the first scene in WEST SIDE STORY being wordless?
MH: No, I think there is a difference. I think, being a musician, music really gets to me.
PC: Can you tell me what your favorite cast album is?
MH: Oh, boy. (Laughs.)
PC: I write a cast album column, I have to ask.
MH: Umm, that's a good question.
PC: What's on your iPod?
MH: Probably GYPSY.
PC: A new recording or original with Ethel Merman?
MH: Only original stuff! (Laughs.) I'm not big on... what do you call them, recreations and stuff...
MH: Revivals. No. I'm not big on revivals at all. In fact, I have a real problem with revivals because I think they've taken away a lot of the real joy out of Broadway. I mean, Broadway to me was always the place where it was always "NEW". It was all about NEW. Revivals, to me, are, I guess, useful - they may be wonderful for the new generation so they know what the show was - but, to me, I loved when you went to Broadway because something was brand new.
PC: And nothing was more innovative than A CHORUS LINE. All your scores are so singular, particularly A CHORUS LINE and Jean Seberg - as well as SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS - all are outside the normal, traditional structure. Is that because you need to satisfy what you, yourself, want as an audience member?
MH: Well, probably. But, on the other hand, I don't think there's anything wrong with doing a very wondrous, fabulous, commercial show. There's nothing wrong with the word "commercial".
MH: And sometimes it's very hard to tell what is commercial and what isn't because the taste of the Broadway audience changes a lot. But, I just am attracted to something that's new. That's all.
PC: Do you get a lot of inspiration from your collaborators or does there have to be a hook to the show to begin with?
MH: Well, the real hook is the story. Once you are hooked into a story then everything is fine. It's finding the right story that is the hard part.
PC: So, with something like SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS the film was the main inspiration?
MH: Oh, no doubt. No doubt.
PC: How did you approach that score? Did you and Craig Carnelia feel you wanted it to be an almost sung-thru piece with the Greek chorus constantly commenting or did that develop out of the rehearsals?
MH: It all developed out of the rehearsals. It all came together slowly, know what I mean?
PC: Yes, I do. There are so many great cut songs from that score. "That's How I Say Goodbye" is one of my favorites!
MH: Oh, yeah.
PC: Any reason it was cut? It's marvelous.
MH: You know, it was a very bittersweet experience for me because I really thought it was a very good show. So, I tend to have blacked out most of the stuff that happened on that show. It was a hard one to swallow, in terms of the fact that it was not successful. So, I don't remember why something was cut or why it wasn't or whatever. I really just don't remember.
PC: As a cast album reviewer, that's one of the best cast recordings in recent years. Technically, it's pretty much perfection.
MH: Thank you very much.
PC: Is there material that didn't make the recording? So much of your score was left off the album, though it's eighty minutes.
MH: That always happens. I mean, unless you're going to do a double-CD or something like that which is very expensive, too, that usually happens. But, I think most of the songs and everything made the recording so I was very happy with it. I am very happy with the recording. I am very happy that it was done.
PC: You're the 21st century Aaron Copeland. So, as a melodist first and foremost like he was, what do you think of auto-tune?
MH: I'm not sure what you mean by auto-tune.
PC: It's most famously used with the GLEE songs - like your "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" that was on earlier this year - and Cher's "Believe".
MH: Oh, right, right, right. I understand. You mean when they alter it here and there with computers. Yeah, I know what you mean.
PC: With a robotic hint.
MH: Yeah. Exactly. Well, to be honest with you: we're living in an age where a lot of stuff is being done electronically, you know what I mean?
MH: I don't think there's anything terrible about it. (Pause.) I mean, I'm used to Broadway so I'm used to live. I love live. Live to me is the most exciting thing that can happen. But, I'm not against the idea of occasionally helping the performer get the right note and stuff in the studio. I'm don't think there's a problem with that.
PC: Speaking of "live", you, of course, worked on the most legendary and THE best concert in TV history conducting LIZA WITH A Z, directed by Bob Fosse. Did you feel the electricity in the room?
PC: Can you tell me about that night? Did you feel like you were a part of something really special with Fosse and Liza?
MH: Oh, absolutely. No doubt about it. You know, Liza Minnelli is an all-out, one-hundred - one-hundred-and-thirty - percent entertainer. You know, she just puts it out there. In those days, I think she was probably the most electric performer you could find. And, yeah, you just felt like, "This is gonna be a hell of a night!" And it really was. Plus, she had the - how should I say - arsenal of stuff to really do it. And that was a - I mean, there was no doubt that was her time and there was no doubt this was her great concert.
PC: Could you tell me about working on THE WAY WE WERE? Did you work directly with Arthur Laurents at any point?
MH: No, the film was done. You know, the composer comes in when the film is already done.
PC: Of course.
MH: So, the film is over. Then, at that point, I came in and started writing.
PC: Is there a moment or an image that particularly moved you or, perhaps, compelled you to write something?
MH: The whole film was exceedingly moving. What I was trying to do was to write a song that was, on one hand - it was all almost like a very yin-yang sort of movie. I wanted to write something that was uplifting and positive, on the other hand, there is a tremendous amount of bitter-sweetness to that film - and bittersweet romance - so, it's a real duality. And that's why I think the song - though it's in the major mode - is quite sad. And that's really something that I was trying to do. I was trying to write the major version - if you know what I‘m saying, by major version: major-sounding versus minor-sounding...
PC: Yes, I studied piano for 12 years.
MH: Right. Then you know. I was trying to write the major version of "My Funny Valentine".
PC: Oh, wow! What a beautiful story! What a song! What was it like winning 3 Oscars in one night?
MH: It was definitely mind-blowing. (Laughs.) I'll tell you right now.
PC: How old were you? Twenty-nine?
MH: Twenty-nine. Right. And it was... wow.
MH: Right. I mean, I was expecting to win one. I thought we were in good shape when it came to THE STING. But, THE WAY WE WERE... I had no thought of winning Best Score. At all. That was like absolutely the furthest thing from my mind. So, yes, it was absolutely mind-blowing. And it was fabulous.
PC: Everytime I hear someone's cell-phone ringer playing "The Entertainer" I want to say "Scott Joplin owes it to Marvin Hamlisch!" It's pre-programmed in!
MH: Yes, it's true. (Laughs.)
PC: Could you tell me about working with Fred Ebb? Didn't you consider doing half of THE ACT with him and John Kander? Then you worked on that great TV movie SAM FOUND OUT with Liza Minnelli.
MH: All I can remember is that working with Fred Ebb was a lot of fun. You know, John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote as a team. So, most of the songs that were written when we usually worked with Liza were written by them. However, when it came to doing arrangements and working on the act and putting things together, I loved working with Fred Ebb. We had the best time. He and I were really good friends. It was just delightful. He was a very, very smart man. And he was very funny. And he was very caustic. I think he probably wrote for her better than anyone in the world could have written for her. He just understood her so well.
PC: It's similar to your relationship with Barbra Streisand when you conduct for her - like in The Concert in 1994 - it's almost like a dance. Did you find you brought something out in her no one else ever did?
MH: I'm not sure if that's entirely true, but I will tell that what I enjoyed about Barbra was - well, of course, I would say she has the best voice there is.
PC: I agree.
MH: And I love her desire for perfection.
PC: Of course.
MH: And I also love trying to make her laugh. I think one of the joys of life is trying to make Barbra Streisand laugh. Because when she laughs she's like a little child and it's just wonderful to watch. We had a very, very good time. Then and now.
PC: What was it like working with Woody Allen on BANANAS and TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN? I'm a screenwriter so I just love him...
MH: Right. Well, when I started working with him - the truth of the matter is, he was Woody Allen at the time - and in those first two films he was finding his way. They were very, very funny. But, now, he's the director's director. I mean, now, I think he's one of America's great directors.
PC: Yeah, like an American Bergman.
MH: The truth is that, at the time, he was just a very funny guy making movies. From what I can tell - I don't know him very well - from what I can tell, I think he's much easier now to read - so to speak - and to get along with. You know?
MH: And I loved doing BANANAS. I loved doing his films.
PC: That movie holds up so great!
MH: It really does! I think it does. Actually, it's the reason I got the movie, THE INFORMANT! Steven Soderbergh loved the score for that.
PC: Oh, I was just going to ask. I loved the score for that! You need to write more movie scores, please!
PC: That's such a great show. How did you become involved?
MH: Steven asked me to do it. He kept telling me he wanted it to be very funny and I thought about it a lot and I realized that if the person is bi-polar then they see the world opposite from how it is. So, I really took on the music from the point-of-view of the protagonist.
PC: Congratulations on the fantastic concert last night at the White House. I know it will be on PBS in October...
MH: Yes it was great, and just to let you know I also hosted a television special - THE WAY WE WERE - that's coming out in August on PBS. It's with a lot of the stars of the seventies, looking back. You know, like Three Dog Night, BJ Thomas, that group. It's great.
PC: Speaking of what's coming up, I interviewed Jerry Mitchell last week...
MH: Oh, how wonderful!
PC: Totally! He mentioned the new production of BALLROOM that you are working on with Tyne Daly and Keith Carradine.
MH: I'm just happy that he and I are working on a new show which is called QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALL. So, we'll be working on that together and I'm very excited to work with him.
PC: So, there is going to be a lot of new material?
MH: Yeah. I've written six new songs.
PC: Thanks so much, Mr. Hamlisch. I really appreciate it.
MH: It's been my pleasure.
Marvin Hamlisch is host of "Marvin Hamlisch Presents: The ‘70s, The Way We Were," a PBS national television fundraising special focusing on the music and pop culture happenings of the decade of the 1970s that will be premiering nationally this summer. Check your local PBS listings for details!