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Marvin Hamlisch says 'A Chorus Line' has lessons for today

Composer Marvin Hamlisch has had a remarkably eclectic career, with hits ranging from Lesley Gore's Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows in 1965 to more than 40 film scores, including Oscar winners The Way We Were and The Sting. In musical theater, he made his mark with A Chorus Line, which, with 6,137 performances from 1975 to 1990, was the longest-running show in Broadway history until its record was broken by Cats and then The Phantom of the Opera.

These days, Hamlisch is a familiar figure in concert halls as the pops music director for five symphony orchestras. He has been a frequent guest conductor for pops programs with the Florida Orchestra.

Hamlisch, 64, returned to A Chorus Line a few years ago when it was revived on Broadway. Now that production is on tour and opens in Tampa on Tuesday. He spoke by phone from his New York office recently.

How did it feel to revisit A Chorus Line after so many years?

I returned to it with a lot of pride. I think it holds up. I think it speaks to everybody about the human condition. These days, when things are going so wrong in the United States, the whole need and desire for a job, and the need to understand one's self, is huge. I think the show has a lot of things to say in this time.

When it first came out, it was supposedly very revolutionary because of the way it treated the homosexual situation and all. Now that's no big deal, and in a way, because it isn't, other things that one didn't even realize were part of the show have become even more important.

Such as?

Certain songs that have become well known, One or What I Did for Love, take on a new prominence just because they are so familiar. That long montage Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love is much more powerful than it ever was.

In the original show, we used a drum in What I Did for Love to give it the feel of a rock song, and unfortunately it always felt a little out of place. Now we do it more as an anthem or a prayer and I'm much more satisfied with it.

Still, the revival is very close to the original.

This was not a rethinking of it in any way. I think the producer wanted to do it so that people who worked on the original — Bob Avian, Baayork Lee and myself — would be there to redo it. We were not looking to do it in a new, unique way. This was more or less a carbon copy.

Can you imagine a production that does reinterpret the material in an innovative way?

Yes, I think years from now, someone will do that, and I think it will be just as successful.

I saw an old photo of director Michael Bennett and the rest of the original creative team. You're the only one in a suit and tie.

Even though I work in show business, I still wear the suit and tie. I can tell you a funny story about that kind of a picture. Many years ago, I did an orchestration for Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra. It was for New Year's Eve, for a little medley they were going to do in Atlantic City. So I went to the rehearsal. Liza came in a tutu. Sinatra came in a black zip-up jacket. I was in a blue suit and a tie. So they took a picture of the three of us, and I asked Frank to sign it, and he wrote, "Guess which one's the lawyer.''

Has Chorus Line, with all the money it has made, basically been like an annuity for you?

To one degree, it has been a gold mine. But you have to remember that in the days Chorus Line was doing its big business, tickets were relatively cheap. Today, a show like Wicked can gross over $1 million a week. For Chorus Line, we could gross $360,000, $380,000. And I was the new guy in town, so I got the minimum amount. It was my first show. So yes, it's an annuity, but I'm not talking to you on my iPhone from my Bentley.

A musical of yours I wish I'd seen was Smile, based on the movie about a beauty show pageant, but it didn't last very long.

I think we weren't a hit because we tried to play it too safe. It should have been just like the movie, tough and sardonic. Somehow it lost all the rough edges and became a polite musical. Once that happened, it didn't have a chance. I liked the music I wrote, but it didn't matter.

In the world we live in now, the songs of a musical are not as important as the book of a musical. It's a wonderful thing if a musical comes out and the songs happen to be good. But if a musical comes out and the book is really solid, it almost doesn't matter what the music is. Most of the musicals running now are not exactly shows that have great scores. But they have good enough scores. They have serviceable scores, and they do just fine. But no amount of good music or lyrics is going to save a weak book.

If I were to say Marvin Hamlisch, people know who you are. But if I were to say James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante (book writers of A Chorus Line), very few people have heard of them.

That may be true. But when people go to the show, what's keeping them in their seats is the story.

Do you include music from A Chorus Line in your pops concerts?

No. I don't know why. Probably because I don't want people to look at me as the guy who only does his own music. Also, there are no strings in it, so you'd have to reorchestrate it. It's all brass, woodwinds, rock band, synthesizer.

What do you think of the increasing dominance of synthesizers in Broadway orchestras?

I think it's terrible. In the old days, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman could sing above a 28-piece orchestra without a microphone, and everybody heard them. Now you go into a theater, there are 15 musicians playing, every actor is miked, and I still don't understand what they're saying.

It shows you that on the totem pole, the least important thing is the music. You'll get a musical that opens in New York for $10 million, with 15 musicians in the pit, and if you beg them for another musician, they'll say, go screw yourself. It's the same thing in music education these days. They'll spend $50 million on a new football field, but God forbid that you need two more pianos for the music school, you're asking for the impossible.

The audiences who go to these shows are not bitching about it. That's the reason producers can get away with it. I predict that in the next 15 or 20 years, shows will go out with four people in the pit, and three will be playing synthesizers. That'll basically be the sound of the show.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com.

. IF YOU GO

A Chorus Line

The musical opens Tuesday and has eight performances through Feb. 8 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $38.50-$67.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; tbpac.org.

Marvin Hamlisch says 'A Chorus Line' has lessons for today 01/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 3:30am]

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