Really, it's okay with Marvin Hamlisch that members of the inner circle who idolize Bernstein and Sondheim don't exactly have the greatest respect for Hamlisch -- composer, sometime performer, self-admitted ham, the man you probably know because he won an Oscar for scoring "The Sting," wrote the music for "A Chorus Line," and has been on every television talk show in between.
"Does it hurt my pride a little? Yes," said Hamlisch. "'Chorus 'Line is a serious piece of work. Does it matter? No."
It doesn't even bother him that Gilda Radner, playing Lisa Loopner, the nerd, exclaims in "Saturday Night" skits that Marvin "Ham-e-lish" is her favorite composer and then in her movie, "Gilda Live," bangs out on the piano his song "The Way We Were."
"I really think it's rather astonishing that I've never been on the show live," said Hamlisch, sitting in the coffee shop of the Washington Hilton one afternoon this week. "They're missing their shot at a natural laugh. "People have called them and said, 'Wouldn't it be great to have Hamlisch come out live and surprise Lisa Loopner?" I think my press agent called. I could walk out and say, 'Lisa, here I am, and I'm now ready to give you the lessons you really need -- here are the keys to my hotel room.' There are so many jokes that could come out of that. Whatever their problem is with me being live on the show, it's a shame."
Marvin Hamlisch at 35 is the consummate one-man extravaganza who could never settle just for composing the background music -- although he says what he really wants to do is keep writing. He definitely does that. He also performs a little, does some benefits -- he was in town to prepare for next Friday night's benefit for the National Jewish Hospital and Research Center/National Asthma Center in Denver. He will perform with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. He is ubiquitous. t
"People know me," he said in wonderment. "Irving Berlin could walk down the street and no one would know who he is."
All of the attention has netted Hamlisch gobs of money (a few million), lots of jobs -- 20 films, two shows, "A Chorus Line" and the current Broadway hit "They're Playing Our Song" -- and celebrityhood of the People magazine variety.
"Those people come looking for me to take my picture. I don't go out and look for them," he said, insisting his life is simple. He drove his own car (a blue BMW) down from Manhattan, where he lives. "Listen," he said, offering a slice of the simple things in his life, "today, I went into this waffle place after being on a TV interview and really got into having waffles."
His fame also seems to have given him a philosophical outlook on the trauma of not being the best-looking guy around.
With the exception of his perfectly cut hair -- which looks fresh from an expensive hair stylist -- he looks as ordinary as the suburban neighbor whose lawn mower you borrow. He is big -- 6 foot 2 -- with a rather sober face and black wire-rimmed glasses he never takes off, not even for photographs.
"I used to think the beautiful girls were attracted to the gorgeous guys," he said. "That's true up to a point. But I got out of college and I realized gorgeous girls were attracted to funny guys. All these years, I've been thinking, 'Marvin, what should you do to look better -- should you have a nose job?'"
He describes his girlfriend, an English actress named Emma Samms, as "gorgeous." They are engaged.
But all of this did not quite prepare him for working with Robert Redford.
"We were in Lake Forest, Ill., filming, and I was directing a high school choir for a scene," said Hamlisch, who is writing music for "Ordinary People," Redford's first directional effort. "I had their entire attention for about an hour and everything was going well, when this gorgeous guy named Robert Redford walks in and every head goes -- " he swivels his head 90 degrees to demonstrate. "I thought 'He's wearing a cashmere sweater and I'm wearing a cashmere sweater. So that couldn't be it . . .'" He straightened up. "If I had to choose between talent and looks, I'd choose talent."
In his benefit performance next Friday, he will play the piano, conduct and do something called "Hamlisch Rent a Composer." "Someone in the audience calls out a title and we write the song on the spot."
He even sings. "Well, occasionally," he said, with a rueful, low laugh. "Not a lot." Singing is not his major talent.
"I do my best. Well, it's okay for the composer to sing his own song because he has a certain way of doing it that no one else has. Oh, I'd never go out and sing 'Night and Day.'
"The show I do is the personification of me as an individual," he explained. "Part of it is the serious me part of it is the funny me. People say, 'You're going to get up there with an orchestra and be funny?' It would be a denial of me not to do it. What I have to offer people is what I am. I like to feel the audience is coming into my living room."
He has just written the title song to the movie "The Fan," starring Lauren Bacall. He's about to start writing music for a new play and he's written two songs for new Walt Disney film.
When he was in college, that amount of activity -- plus receiving his draft notice -- gave him an ulcer that put him in the hospital. (He recovered from the ulcer and was never drafted.) Now he works steadily, slowing down only for a few weeks of vacation here and there. He confidently waves off the notion that he will ever burn out.
"I guess it's my ego in me that says, 'keep going, keep going,'" said Hamlisch. "I gave you 10 days of me sitting around having fun and that's it. I'd go nuts after 10 days. On the 11th day, I would think, 'Marvin, why aren't you sitting at the piano writing something brilliant instead of watching soap operas?'" He loves them. "I'm a 'Young and the Restless' freak."
He is quite affable, spewing all this out less as if he were performing on stage and more as if he were talking to a friendly shrink.
He loves to perform. "The key is just not to do too much," he said. "I've seen it ruin some composers' careers. There are composers like Anthony Newley. Their chief career is performing. I want to be a composer who is also witty, funny, whatever. I do six to eight weeks tops in nightclub acts, plus no more than 30 one-night stands. That leaves nine months. You can either get pregnant or do projects in that time. To have any less time is denying me my major talent."
Basically, he just loves being himself. "On one hand there are the intelligentsia saying, 'That Hamlisch just writes that claptrap commercial stuff and thinks he's a comedian.' The some other people say, Hey, I really like his songs, and he's such a nice guy.'"
It's all in the packaging, he said. "If you want a serious composer, forget it. If you don't mind seeing a composer who's a breath of fresh air, that's me."