PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 13, 2007

Melody Man

by Jim Newsom

Marvin Hamlisch entered the popular consciousness in 1973 when he wrote the musical scores for back-to-back hit movies, The Sting and The Way We Were. He won all three music Oscars the following spring—Best Original Song, Best Original Score and Best Adaptation. He was everywhere; you couldn’t turn on a TV without seeing him performing and being chatted up on some talk show. The whole world suddenly discovered Marvin Hamlisch at the age of 29.

But he’d already written the music for two Woody Allen films—Take the Money and Run and Bananas—as well as The Swimmer, Kotch and an episode of Batman. And he’d gotten his first hit single in 1965 when Leslie Gore rode his “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” to the top of the charts.

“I wrote that when I was in college,” he told me recently. “I was going to school and I had a song that went Top Five. I couldn’t believe it! I knew I was going to be a songwriter from an early age, but I was just beginning, that was really my first success. Then I had another song which became a hit for Leslie Gore called ‘California Nights.’ And then, what was really instrumental in my career was that I came with a third song for her and the man who was the producer had me wait in his office for an hour and a half. So when I walked in to see him, I said, ‘You know, I brought you two songs that both were Top Ten hits and if the best I can do is still wait an hour and a half, I’ve got to find another profession.’

“I walked out and decided that from then on, I wasn’t going to be trying to write chart hits as much as I was going to be trying to get work where I was a gun for hire. Meaning that anything you wrote they would use, whether it was for a movie or a show, you know what I mean? So in a way, that made me change gears.”

It was a fortuitous decision. Hamlisch, who co-headlines a concert Saturday night at the Ferguson with legendary actor and singer Joel Grey, went on to a remarkable career in films and the theatre.

“I started out as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway,” he said, “Funny Girl and a couple of other shows. But the real thing was when I went out to Hollywood and did a lot of movies. I had this incredible moment where I had written the music for The Way We Were and also had adapted the music from Scott Joplin for The Sting. So there I had three Oscars and then a fellow who I knew from New York called me and basically said, ‘Give all that up and come to New York; I have an idea for a show.’

“That was really my first love so I stopped everything. My agent got very upset but I said ‘bye bye’ and went to New York. The fellow’s name was Michael Bennett and he had an idea about writing a show about chorus kids. That turned out to be A Chorus Line.”

That musical won nine Tony awards, set all-time records and made Hamlisch the darling of Broadway. So I had to ask how writing for films differed from writing for the stage.

“There are two things about it,” he replied. “From an ego point of view, it is background music. So it’s not like if you go to the theatre and you say, ‘I’m seeing a Sondheim show or I’m seeing a Rodgers & Hammerstein show.’ When you go to a movie, you’re seeing a Tom Cruise movie and the music happens to be by blah-blah-blah. So from that point of view, it’s more exciting to do a show.

“On the other hand, there are a lot of plusses when you do a movie. The biggest plus is that whether the movie is a hit or a miss, you get paid. With a Broadway show, if you work on it for two years and it’s a bomb, you don’t get a penny. It’s like everything else: the bigger the risk, the greater the rewards.”

He has certainly had his share of rewards. He won a Pulitzer Prize for A Chorus Line, and is only the second person (Richard Rodgers was the first) to win the big four awards—Grammy, Tony, Emmy, Oscar—as well as a Pulitzer. These days he’s busy conducting symphony orchestras and doing concerts like the one here Saturday night. He hasn’t ruled out a return to Broadway, but he’s less than impressed with the current state of the theatre:

“It’s, for me, a little bit old fashioned right now. It seems after 9/11 that people really want to have, quote, a good time, and there’s a lot of what I call old fashioned shows. Meaning that if you didn’t know you were in 2007, you could be in 1962—there’s not that much new and original. I guess the only new and original one for a long time has been Spring Awakening. And there are so many shows that have been held over for fifteen or sixteen years. So it’s getting a little boring there. On the other hand, it is still the place where most people come to New York for entertainment and Broadway’s doing very well in terms of dollars and cents.”

Does the man who has contributed several timeless songs to the Great American Songbook pay attention to current trends in popular music?

“To be honest with you,” he said, “I hardly listen to popular music. I think it’s because of my age—I can’t understand any more why one song is a big hit and another one isn’t. It’s beginning to sound the same to me. I’m a person that really relates to melodies. I’m having trouble relating to this new stuff. I don’t think there’s anything out there right now that’s going to make the time capsule.

“My parents were from Vienna; my father was a wonderful musician. Melody is the most important part of the structure as far as I’m concerned. I have no problem with kids listening to hip-hop or whatever they want to listen to. But not where they don’t hear other things; I want them to know that there was a Cole Porter. That’s the real key to me.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.