Marvin Hamlisch on ‘A Chorus Line’

Marvin Hamlisch discusses how his father introduced him to music, encouraged him to become one of the greatest composers of the generation.

A chorus line 521 (photo credit: Phil Martin)
A chorus line 521
(photo credit: Phil Martin)
‘Most people don’t really notice the name of the film composer’ says Marvin Hamlisch, who has composed some of the most noticeable film scores and musicals over the past 40 years.
With an almost overwhelming scope of style, Hamlisch, 67, made his mark with such unforgettables as the glamorously nostalgic theme from The Way We Were and the playfully ironic score of Woody Allen’s Bananas. His career is adorned with almost every prestigious award for entertainment, from Oscar to Grammy.
This month a Broadway revival of Hamlisch’s bestknown musical, A Chorus Line, is due to be performed in Tel Aviv. The show, which premiered in 1975, is a tapestry of stories about fledgling stage performers as they anxiously audition for the chance to be part of a Broadway chorus line. The show received multiple awards (including a dozen Tonys) and garnered Hamlisch his own Tony and Pulitzer.
How did you get into music?
We always had music in the house. I started playing the piano around five years old. I always knew, even as a youngster, that I wanted to write. For some reason I didn’t really want to be Vladimir Horowitz, I wanted to become Richard Rodgers. But it was always music for me.
There was no question mark in my head, no plan B.
You got accepted to Juilliard at age six-and-a-half. How did that go?
My father, who was a musician, came from Vienna. As a newcomer in America, he didn’t know how to do things, but he resolved to find the best school for me. So he walked around and simply asked people: What’s the best music school? And everyone was saying Juilliard. I can’t even say it’s something I wanted. Juilliard wasn’t ever easy for me. But with people constantly telling me how talented I was, it seemed to be the right thing to do.
And then, at the age of 24, you were already writing your first feature film score.
The whole thing came about by accident. I had a good job as a rehearsal pianist for a show called Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand. One night I got a phone call from a woman who needed someone to play a party. I said, you know, I don’t really do parties, because, well, I work for Barbara Streisand. She said, well it’s for Sam Spiegel [producer of Lawrence of Arabia]. I was over there in 10 minutes. After the party, Sam Spiegel came to me and mentioned he was looking for a fresh composer to work on a new film. I promptly wrote a theme, and he loved it so much that he hired me.
Quite an accident. But you always had your eyes set on Broadway, right?
For sure. I lived in New York, always watching shows, seeing my friends work on shows. That was the normal place to be. I started doing many peripheral jobs, slowly and calmly climbing up. There was some pressure, but not too much. Things were having a way of happening.
So when did you get your real break?
Eventually, after winning my three Oscars.
Yeah, that helps.
I had already worked with Michael Bennett on several occasions and we became friends. After winning the Oscars my name was running high and up. So when Michael started to work on a new show he called me.
And that’s the beginning of A Chorus Line?
Yes. All we had at the beginning was tapes of chorus performers talking about their lives. This gave us the idea to try and put together a show in which a big audition takes place. Developing A Chorus Line was an extraordinary experience and extremely intense.
Always two steps forward, one step backwards. Progressing slowly, we would write a song at a time, stage it and try it out, and often harshly drop it and start over.
When did you feel things were finally coming together?
When we finished writing the song “At the Ballet.” I was thrilled. I was beginning to see where the show was going. But there were still months of laborious work ahead of us and we were constantly changing things.

Down to the very last minute?
Yeah, we actually froze the show just five days before opening night.
Sounds like quite a strenuous process. Did you ever worry the show might not live up to your expectations?
It’s a gamble. You work on something for two years, put your heart out, but you can never be certain it would have the impact you’re looking for. You just got to do the best you can. But I had great faith in the director. I felt that if he liked something, people would like it too. I wasn’t sweating bullets. I actually felt for the first time that I was where I’m supposed to be.
What generally hooks you in a project?
Really good characters.
How do you fit music to a story?
Let’s say we go and watch a movie together. We talk about it afterward, you say this made you feel good, that made you feel bad. That’s basically it, only with music being the language instead of English. I automatically translate what the film, or show, makes me feel into music. If I feel romantic, I write romantic, if it’s funny, I write funny.
It’s almost a second language.
Probably a first.
There will be 16 performances of A Chorus Line from between October 18 to 30 at the Israeli Opera – Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.