Marvin Hamlisch, who died this week, always had the persona of a nerdy little boy, energetically eager to please. You can hear it in his tunes, how delighted he’d be if you enjoyed them.
And the more I think about it, the more I think this is an essential quality of Broadway songs. The best scores are written with the hope that the audience will instantly embrace them. Of course, there are those who fashion complex works that seem to defy the principle of like-me-on-first-hearing: Michael John LaChiusa, Elizabeth Swados, Stephen Sondheim. In this important area, Marvin Hamlisch was the opposite.
How well I remember playing the album of A Chorus Line (pre-release, “FOR PROMOTIONAL PURPOSES ONLY“) for the first time. Hamlisch’s name was the one I recognized. I hadn’t heard of Kleban, Kirkwood, Dante, or Michael Bennett. How thrillingly contemporary it sounded, and it’s full of clever ideas, such as the way the rehearsal of One “cuts” between the actual song and things the dancers are saying to themselves. And in the show’s first crescendo, there’s an insider joke: the assistant choreographer yells “5-6-7-8” and we hear a theme in six-four time (in other words, he’s counted in as no dancer would). And the theme that follows has (on beat five) unexpected notes that sound like mistakes. Were these inspired by the out-of-tune pianos in audition halls? The sequence culminates in a thick chord that adds the flatted fifth along with the perfect fifth: I’d never heard anything like that before, and how I loved it. Instantly. Just like Hamlisch wanted me to.
But then, I’d been a fan of Hamlisch for years before that, years before he became famous. I love Woody Allen, and a couple of his “earlier funny films” boasted Hamlisch scores. Hard to believe, but Take the Money and Run has a love theme. It runs up four notes of the scale quickly and then repeats, very much like that awful zither theme from The Third Man. But this is lush and pretty. The theme for Bananas, a raucous romp through a Central American revolution, goes down the scale, and is scored for – what else? – gunshots! It sounds like this:
and goes on to sound very much like one of those ditties mariachi bands play. Just hysterical – perhaps the funniest movie theme I can think of.
I’m sure Marvin Hamlisch will be called the last of a certain breed, and that’s celebrity songwriters. Here was a personality engaging enough to sit down with Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin, in the grand tradition of Johnny Mercer and Sammy Cahn. I’ve another distinct memory of him coming on a talk show to play a song from the new Broadway musical he was working on, Smile, about a beauty pageant. He explained that during the talent competition, one contestant plays classical piano while we hear the thoughts of another:
I know that I should like classical music
Play on, little girl, play on.
This wonderfully witty piece was right up Hamlisch’s alley. It was easy for him to write faux Mozart, and also to play up the inherent comedy of the situation. The lyric was by Carolyn Leigh, who died before she could complete the project. “Classical Music” died with her. The replacement lyricist, Howard Ashman, insisted on starting from scratch, as was his right. The trouble was that, after coming off a huge hit, Little Shop of Horrors, Ashman wanted to show he could write more serious fare, and his lyrics for Smile lack the playfulness Leigh brought to it. The show bombed, and is best known today as the source of a wonderfully lush power ballad of teen angst called Disneyland. This serious number contained nothing to offend the Disney studio, which soon after hired Ashman to write The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. While completing the latter, Ashman died. But I seem to have gotten off the subject of Hamlisch’s death.
Well, while I’m here, I should also note the death of librettist Mark O’Donnell, who co-wrote two musicals based on John Waters films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. I’ve always disliked the score of Hairspray, but the book’s admirably full of solid jokes. And there’s about an hour-long stretch of Cry-Baby that’s very good, better than any of Hairspray; but just that hour, not the whole thing.
Did you know that Marvin Hamlisch not only wrote musicals, he’s a character in one of my favorite musicals (A Class Act) and actually inspired another one? He’d gotten together with Neil Simon to collaborate on an adaptation of Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady. Hamlisch would tell Simon about his romance with a ditzy lyricist, Carol Bayer Sager. The Gingerbread project no longer seemed as good an idea as making a musical about the couple’s lives. And so, They’re Playing Our Song was born. I saw it and enjoyed it before it arrived on Broadway; it had a very long run.
The other musicals were less fortunate: Smile, The Goodbye Girl and The Sweet Smell of Success. All had different lyricists, top-tier ones. I was very disappointed by Sweet Smell, because the book gave all sorts of back-story meant to build up sympathy for the unlovable heel at its center. But there’s some wonderful music in it, reminiscent of Gershwin. The Goodbye Girl, with another book by Neil Simon, has a rather familiar moment for me: it’s called Paula (An Improvised Love Song). For many years, I’ve taught song improvisation, so I’m bemused to take in the composition that’s supposed to feel like it’s off the cuff. Which reminds me that the first improv group I ever worked with, Off the Wall, appears as the improv group Richard Dreyfus is part of in the original, song-free film. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen in a foreign country, where it was called La chica del adiós.
In my oeuvre, you can find all sorts of Hamlisch influences. It amazes me that Smile, before it opened, was famous enough for us to make a reference to it in On the Brink. Amanda Green, on her way to audition for the new Hamlisch musical, doesn’t name Smile, she merely says “My teeth will be the star of his new show.” My song Working Out, which first went in front of a paying audience last year, ends with some pulsating eighth note chords that are right out of A Chorus Line. And now I’m reminded that the first time a large group of people heard anything I’d done, it was a choral arrangement of a Hamlisch tune. In high school, our choir started rehearsing a medley of songs from A Chorus Line. I thought it faintly ridiculous that two dozen singers would harmonize I Can Do That and said so. The choral director said “Think you can do better, Katz?” and, without really knowing what I was doing, I came up with a tight version of The Music and the Mirror. We performed it all over Southern California and even all over Mexico, where, one night off, we all went to see a film. Now what was the name of that film?
So, it’s the laughter we will remember, whenever we remember Marvin Hamlisch.