Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Dance Party: We're Playing His Song

Lesley Gore's role as protegee to Batman's
Catwoman required a song. Hamlisch provided
"California Nights".
Everybody already knows this award-winning composer, arranger, and conductor died this week.

Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin's first stage gig was as accompanist/straight man
for Groucho's one-man show.

He seemed at home on the classical stage (he entered the Julliard school of music at the ripe age of 7) but made his lasting contributions in the world of pop, and of course, that monster contribution A Chorus Line
The night I saw A Chorus Line's original production on Broadway remains one of the most thrilling I've spent in the theatre.  A fuzzy but powerful clip from the night they swept the Tony Awards appeared on the Dance Party here.
He is one of fewer than a dozen people to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards, and his Pulitzer Prize (for A Chorus Line) partners him with Richard Rodgers as the only two people to win that quintet. 

Marvin's first pop hit, "Sunshine, Lollipops, and
Rainbows," provided Lesley Gore a song for the
bus ride to a Ski Party.

Hamlisch had a stage charisma which most composers do not share, though he was willing to fade into the background when necessary. 
This recording has become so iconically
connected to its singer, you can't really enjoy
anyone else's version. It's one of those songs
which immediately brings to mind
the original.

He conducted high-profile concerts and tours with the likes of Johnny Mathis and Linda Ronstadt;  his friendship with Barbra Streisand dated back to her Funny Girl days, when he was the rehearsal pianist for the Broadway production.  Decades later, she trusted him to conduct and arrange her hugely successful comeback tour, which broke records all over the country.  He rescued the legacy of little-known ragtime composer Scott Joplin by adapting his music to the score of The Sting, as a result of which that long-forgotten musician landed at the top of the Billboard charts (with "The Entertainer"). 
Marvin had a big night at the Oscars in 1973.

Marvin won an Oscar in that bargain, and the same night in 1973, became a triple winner when his work on the film The Way We Were was also recognized. 

Marvin adapted "Pachelbel's Canon"
for his hauntingly lonesome score
to Ordinary People.
His film scores include Ordinary People, Sophie's Choice, Three Men And A Baby, and The Swimmer, and he provided one of the smash hits to come out of the James Bond franchise when he co-wrote "Nobody Does It Better" for The Spy Who Loved Me. 
This smash was the first James Bond theme
song which differed from the actual film's title.
His writing partner on that hit was Carole Bayer Sager, with whom he had a long personal relationship.  It is that relationship which formed the inspiration for Hamlisch's other hit Broadway musical, They're Playing Our Song.
Original stars Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein attended the concert staging of They're Playing Our Song, starring Sutton Foster and Seth Rudetsky, in 2010. The show remains under most people's radar, though its small cast, minimal technical requirements, and accessible pop score would seem very desirable to regional musical theaters.
The show was Marvin's stage follow-up to the massive hit A Chorus Line, and concerned the ups-and-downs in the romance of a composer and lyricist. 
The score is filled with pop-sounding niceties, none very memorable but all quite presentable.  The presence onstage of "the voices," three men and three women expressing the characters' inner thoughts and acting as a Greek chorus of sorts, is the only thing keeping this little musical from being a two-person show. 
The Goodbye Girl provided another star turn for
another gent known primarily for comedy,
Martin Short. Despite Bernadette Peters in the cast,
the show had a very short life.

But the focus most assuredly is on the two leads (there are no big production numbers), and with a book by Neil Simon, the show had a lengthy run of over 1000 performances. 
A recent reunion of our stars. Marvin's pop
musical provided Robert Klein with a Tony nod, but
Lucie Arnaz was ignored for her Broadway debut.

It's original cast, seen in this week's Dance Party clip, included Robert Klein, who was primarily known at the time as a stand-up comic, and Lucie Arnaz, who was primarily known at the time as the daughter of famous people.  Klein was nominated for a Tony for this performance, Arnaz was not.  The clip, presented on the 1979 Tony Awards, is a bit blurry, but is a good reflection of the style of the show.  Before ever seeing clips of They're Playing Our Song (and I've NEVER seen a full production), I owned the Broadway Cast Album, and could swear Lucie was being dubbed by Helen Reddy, their sound is so similar. 
An attempt to turn the indie flick Smile into a musical

Marvin Hamlisch's score, by the way, must have been catnip to various producers and recording execs at the time, as there are cast albums from the London, Australian, and Argentinian productions available as well as the original.

Hamlisch had more than a few misfires on stage, including Jean Seberg, a musical about you know who, The Goodbye Girl, an adaptation of the hit film, and The Sweet Smell of Success, which provided John Lithgow a Tony in 2002 but which failed at the box office.  At the time of his death last week, his latest project was opening in Tennessee, a musical adaptation of The Nutty Professor, directed by the original film's star, Jerry Lewis. 
The Nutty Professor, the Musical, opened last week in Tennessee.  There was a strong review from the local paper, but Marvin Hamlisch's unexpected death puts the show's professional future in some doubt.
Despite his occasional failures, Marvin knew a little something about the musical theatre.  The marquee lights on Broadway would have been dimmed for him, as they were last week, even if his only contribution had been the landmark A Chorus Line. 
Marvin's determination that "What I Did
For Love" remain in A Chorus Line
was spot on.
The show's mastermind, Michael Bennett, always maintained that the soaring melody of Marvin's "At The Ballet" was the true soul of the musical.  When all the creative powers, including Bennett, wanted to cut the 11:00 number, Hamlisch stood his ground and the song stayed in the show.  "What I Did For Love" went on to become an anthem to the sacrifices made when following one's dream.

This week's Dance Party, the title song from They're Playing Our Song, does not carry such a universal message.  It's really about the egotism of the artist, which Hamlisch also knew a little something about.