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Marvin Hamlisch Visits UM

September 17, 2009

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The key to success is not talent, award winning musician Marvin Hamlisch told a group of theater students when visiting the campus last week.

The key is to be funny.

Being funny is something Hamlisch has down. Part of his performance always involve story telling, often leaving the audience roaring with laughter before quieting them with his more haunting and somber music. As the kickoff to the Ford Center’s new season, Hamlisch performed from some of the highlights of his musical career in theater and film.

Ironically for funny man Hamlisch, the first real gig he ever got was playing rehearsal piano for Barbara Streisand’s “Funny Girl,” which more often involved him being her errand boy than playing much music.

Since then his career has consisted of winning Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Tonys and Golden Globes. Theatrically his biggest hit was “A Chorus Line” which received a Pulitzer prize. But what fascinates this film freak is his forty some film scores including the song “The Way We Were” and the amazing adaptation of Scott Joplin’s music for The Sting, both of which he performed last Friday.

His prolific output of scores for films include original compositions and musical adaptations for Sophie’s Choice, Ordinary People, D.A.R.Y.L., The Swimmer, Three Men and a Baby, Ice Castles, Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Save the Tiger.

But unbeknownst to me, Hamlisch often does not perform the music he scores for film, other than “The Sting” which he said just spoke to him. Hamlisch sees himself more as a composer or creator than a performer and often does the arrangement for others performances.

Seeing Hamlisch perform an array of his greatest film hits was quite the treat for anyone, including those, like my son, who had never heard of him or most of his films. But the promise to hear a James Bond song was enough. The crowd was a mix of Oxford community and students that gave a five-minute standing ovation at the end of the performance. A few teary eyes, including my own, listened as Hamlisch performed “The Way We Were,” a song that is one of the perfect examples of how music can compliment or bring out the emotion of a film. Who has ever seen that film and not hummed the song for days after?
As much as Hamlisch loves theater, it took Hollywood to make him a star. In one night he won three Oscars which led him to the TV talk show circuit. When a taxi driver recognized him from TV, he knew he made it, Hamlisch joked.

“They kept bringing me back because I’m funny,” Hamlisch said. “I didn’t talk in music language, I just made up songs on the spot and told funny stories.”
Since Hamlisch was talking to prospective Broadway stars on Friday before his performance, he focused on the audition process for actors when talking with the students.

“A composers ears can hear four bars and know if you are good or not,” Hamlisch said. “If we cut you off it could mean you are so good we don’t need to hear more.”

He recommended auditioning for everything in order to get to know casting directors, the most important people in the business. Even if rejected for one show, they may remember you in the future.

Hamlisch recommended students see the documentary “A Real Step” about the “Chorus Line’s” revival show that examines the audition process in depth.
Despite his fame, it is his lifelong friendship with Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand that struck the theater students.

Tell us a funny story about Liza, a student asked.

Hamlisch shared with students that his friend Liza wanted to prove to her mom that she could be a singer. She and Hamlisch wrote music and then performed it for her mom, Judy Garland, at Christmas. Garland asked Hamlisch if he could perform any of her songs and he spent the night playing music for Garland. But what struck the young Hamlisch was not so much getting to perform for Garland, but getting to ride in the limo on the way home, something he used to his full advantage by stopping at all his friend’s houses to show them his ride.

While Hamlisch graduated from Julliard and Queens College, he told students that education is not what will get them into show business.

“Getting your degree is for you. It doesn’t help the casting director one bit. If someone comes in and says they have a PhD from Harvard, they just say, good for you,” Hamlisch said.

When asked what he sees as the future for musical theater he answered that there is nothing to worry about even as he yearns for the past when art was more the focus than commerce.

“It is in the hands of corporate America. As long as they are making money, we will have Broadway,” Hamlisch said. “Same for Hollywood. No one in Hollywood says on Monday mornings did you like that film. They check Variety to see what it grossed. No one is interested in what it is about, just if it makes money.”

As Published in the Oxford Eagle by Melanie Addington.

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