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Meet Marvin Hamlisch
Tuesday, October 10, 2000

HamlischMarvin Hamlisch has just come to Washington as Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, the first person ever to hold such a position with this orchestra. Mr. Hamlisch discussed his plans for the upcoming concert season as well as his celebrated career.

Hamlisch's life in music is notable for its great versatility as well as substance. Best known as a composer, he has written major works for film, stage, recordings and the concert hall. As conductor, he has led the great orchestras of the world, and as pianist and entertainer, he has performed both with ensembles and in solo capacity.

As a composer, he has won three Oscars, four Grammys, three Emmys, a Tony and three Golden Globe awards. His ground breaking show, "A Chorus Line," received the Pulitzer Prize. Some of his best-known works include his scores for "The Way We Were" and "Sophie's Choice," and his adaptation of Scott Joplin's music for "The Sting." On Broadway, he composed music for "They're Playing Our Song" and "The Goodbye Girl." He is currently writing a new musical, "Sweet Smell of Success." Hamlisch was musical director and arranger of Barbra Streisand's 1994 concert tour and the television special, "Barbra Streisand: The Concert." He served in the same capacities for her Millennium concerts.


Moderator: Welcome to Viewpoint with our guest, Marvin Hamlisch. Marvin, thank you for joining us, and please get us started by talking about what you're trying to do with the NSO Pops series. What do you want to give to the audiences and the orchestra players?

Marvin Hamlisch: Danishes!

No, seriously, I think a "pops" evening should feature good music coupled with having a good time. I always remember when I first heard a "pops" concert. I was about 12 years old, and I was on the lawn of Tanglewood. (That's a nice way of saying "the cheap seats"!) The music seemed to be coming from the sky, and I remember the experience as musically satisfying as well as emotionally satisfying.

Well, I want to create that feeling indoors at the Kennedy Center.

Baltimore, MD: Hi Mr. Hamlisch,
When will you begin your season with the NSO? Thanks!

Marvin Hamlisch: Next week.

My first concerts will be October 20 (1:30 pm and 8:30 pm) and October 21 (8:30 pm) with Barbara Cook, truly one of the best voices we've ever had. It's an evening of Broadway standards and you'll be hearing the music of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Hamlisch.

I also have a surprise or two up my sleeve for these opening concerts.

I'm very excited about the Friday afternoon show since the evening shows are just about sold out. The matinee gives people a very good chance to see our show at a time that is more convenient for them. And, because we're building on a new audience, tickets are still available for the matinee.

Baltimore, MD: How and when did you began studying music?

Marvin Hamlisch: I started studying music at the age of five and a half. My older sister was taking piano lessons. When her teacher left our apartment, I would get up on the piano bench and start picking out the notes that were part of my sister's lessons. It was discovered that I had a very good ear for music, and I auditioned and was accepted to the Juilliard School of Music Preparatory Division at the age of six and a half.

Washington, DC: What made you decide on Washington as a place to work as opposed to New York or Los Angeles?

Marvin Hamlisch: Since neither Los Angeles nor New York asked me to be their pops conductor....and since the National Symphony did offer me the job, my choice was rather simple to make. And, having worked with the NSO I was thrilled and excited to accept their invitation.

Richmond, VA: Who were your role models as a youth? Whose work impressed and inspired you and why? Thanks in advance.

Marvin Hamlisch: I was always drawn to Broadway musicals, and obviously composers like Gershwin, Rodgers, Berlin and Porter were writing music that I found wildly impressive. However, when I saw "Gypsy," with music by Jule Styne, and then saw "West Side Story," by Leonard Bernstein, I was hooked.
Their music transcended the typical Broadway show score, and it proved to me that one could in fact write serious music that was still entertaining and that could work in the theater. Thankfully, I was able to meet both of these composers. In fact, I worked with Jule Styne as the assistant vocal arranger for "Funny Girl," starring Barbra Streisand, and "Fade Out, Fade In," starring Carol Burnett.

Arlington, VA: Any thoughts on Barbra Streisand's "retirement"? Were you involved in the final concerts?

Marvin Hamlisch: Barbra Streisand is without a doubt one of the most honest people I have ever known. There is no doubt in my mind that she will not be doing any more concerts. Of course, she still will be making records and starring and directing in movies.

Though I was involved in the creation of her "Millennium Concert" and in fact I conducted it in Las Vegas and Australia, I was not able to conduct her last four concerts, two in Los Angeles and two in New York. However, I attended her next to last concert, and she was, to say the least, thrilling.

Greenbelt, MD: Whispers have been circulating around Broadway on two Hamlisch items: A Broadway revival of "They're Playing Our Song" with Kristen Chenowith and Chuck Wagner as the principals, and a very close collaboration on a Frank Wildhorn-started project.
Your comments?

Marvin Hamlisch: These "whispers" have not gotten to my ears. I know nothing about a possible "They're Playing Our Song" revival, and I cannot fathom what possible collaboration I could have with Mr. Wildhorn since he writes music. (Perhaps because the NSO and I will be working with his wife, Linda Eder, in February, maybe that's the collaboration that some people are talking about.)

St. Louis, MO: Mr. Hamlisch,
Thank you for the opportunity. I'd like to know what it's been like for you working with Barbra Streisand.

Marvin Hamlisch: I think that when NASA works on a moon shot, they know too well that all of the people working on it must do their job at 110 percent. Sometimes they probably put in 18 hour days, but they're aiming for the moon, and that's what counts.

Well, with Barbra Streisand we have the vocal vehicle to get to the moon. Therefore the people who work for her must be ready to give it 110 percent. Barbra wants her work to be A++. In a movie, she has the luxury of doing many "takes" to get a scene just right. On a record, again, she has the ability to do a song over and over until she comes as close to perfection as she can. But, in her concerts, each evening was in fact, "Take one." She got one chance, per night, to come close to perfection. And that took months of preparation and hard work. The joy I have of working with Barbra is that I guess we're both perfectionists. I find just the thought of going to the moon exhilarating and inspirational. All in all, it has been a great ride to know and work with her.

Baltimore, MD: Mr. Hamlisch,
How did you first began your music studies and what instrument/vocal training did you start off with?

Marvin Hamlisch: A little earlier I outlined my early piano training. I never took any vocal training.

Moderator: Marvin,
What are you working on right now besides the National Symphony?

Marvin Hamlisch: I'm working on a new Broadway show that hopefully will be out by February 2002. It is called "Sweet Smell of Success" based on the movie of the same name. The show is directed by Nicholas Hytner, with book by John Guare, and lyrics by Craig Carnelia. It stars John Lithgow. A few months ago we finished our workshop production in New York, and we're all looking forward to going ahead. In the meantime, Craig and I are now working on a musicalization of Woody Allen's "Bullets over Broadway."

I have often been asked what my "favorite" part of my musical career is: Is it playing the piano? or conducting? or composing?

Pushed against the wall, I'd have to say it's composing, and that's why I'm exceedingly happy right now, to be working on two shows.

District of Columbia: I'm sure you're as distressed as I am with the cutting back of music education programs in our nation's schools. Please speak to this, and do you have thoughts on how this unfortunate situation can be corrected?

Marvin Hamlisch: A few years ago, I gave a speech at the National Press Club. The topic was "Arts Education in the Public Schools." Why arts education is so low on the totem pole of priorities baffles me. There have been studies that clearly state that children who are exposed to arts education at a young age will in fact do markedly better in their SAT tests. Also, as you probably have noticed, neither of the candidates have mentioned this need. Yet, when candidates put on fund-raisers, the first people they call are the artists to make guest appearances. The way things are going, there won't be too many artists left over, in years to come, since we are shortchanging the world of would be Barbra Streisands and George Shearings.

McLean, VA: I saw you perform at Nissan Pavilion with James Taylor a couple of years ago and enjoyed it immensely. Are there other pop stars you'd like to or plan to team up with for a concert series? Thank you.

Marvin Hamlisch: I would love to find other pop stars who would be willing to tour with our orchestra. One of the benefits of James Taylor was that he had orchestrations. Many stars do not. My wish list would be exceedingly long, and at the top of it would be Kenny G and Carly Simon. Of course, the cost of some of these artists might be prohibitive.

Annapolis, Md: Marvin,
I am a tremendous Barbara Cook fan, and am excited about seeing her with you later this month. Your thoughts about her?

Marvin Hamlisch: In thinking of how I wanted to open the season, I knew that I wanted to feature the music of Broadway, probably because it is so American, and whenever I can, I want to feature American music at the Kennedy Center.

It did not take long for me to think of Barbara Cook for opening night. Her voice continues to be one of the Eight Wonders of the World. She's singing as well, if not even better, than when I first saw her in "The Music Man." What also excites me is that she will be singing Gershwin, along with some other standards from the Broadway repertoire. And, believe it or not, she has learned a new song from my show "Sweet Smell of Success," which she will also do. If someone's going to hear a song for the first time, let the singer of that song be Barbara Cook.

Webster City, Iowa: Thank you, Marvin, for your marvelous arrangements in motion pictures through the years! Now with this new assignment with NSO Pops, will we still be able to hear your music in the movies? Keep up the great work!!

Marvin Hamlisch: About five years ago, I realized that as I was getting older, I had to prioritize what I really wanted to do in the world of music. I concluded that I wanted to use my time to write shows for Broadway. Since I already have a very extensive conducting career that takes me away from New York for most weekends, I decided that I would not pursue film scores any more. When you compose music for films, one has nothing to do with the original concept for the film. I decided I wanted to be in from the get-go, and that meant writing a show. I would be an equal participant and collaborator on that kind of project.

Washington, DC: How much of a surprise was the phenomenal success of "A Chorus Line" to you?

Marvin Hamlisch: As we were in rehearsal with "A Chorus Line," I knew that we had something boldly different, but I had no idea whether it would be successful or not. By the time we were in previews with an audience, I could sense that we had something very special and that the audience was empathizing with the characters on stage. But I don't think anyone expected the phenomenal success that followed us after opening night, and I learned from that experience that one should really just try to do good work, and hope that everything else that usually accompanies a hit show would follow.

Bethesda, Md: Marvin - Thanks so much for being online with us! I'm a Woody Allen fan, and remember your score for "Bananas." What was it like working on that film and with him?

Marvin Hamlisch: Comedies are probably the most difficult type of films to score. The music cannot get in the way of the laughs, and yet it must support all of the different kind of scenes in the film. When I came up with the whole idea of perforating the title sequence of "Bananas" with bullet holes, I brought the idea to Woody. He was very receptive and it really worked out. He was new at doing movies and his raw talent was undeniable. I am very proud that I got to work with this truly major American film director. I have watched him mature into one of our country's most imaginative film-makers.

Annandale, VA: Just a comment, really. I always enjoyed seeing you on the Tonight Show with Johnny. You were a hoot!

Marvin Hamlisch: I enjoyed my appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I wanted people to know that a composer didn't necessarily have to live in a garret with a wine bottle in his hand. So I used to have a lot of fun doing talk shows. The only down side has been that some people might think that I'm not serious about my work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Marvin Hamlisch: Music can be a great ambassador. It can bring people together. For instance, a C major chord in New York is the same chord in Italy, China, all over the world. Therefore, I feel a great sense of responsibility in whatever I do concerning music. If I'm writing a show, I want it to educate and entertain. If we're doing a pops show with the National Symphony, I want people to have had a truly entertaining experience. For indeed music is emotional, and it can be therapeutic. I'm looking forward to an exciting season with the National Symphony, and I'm looking forward to meeting new audience members. See you next Friday, and thank you for taking the time to join me on line.

Moderator: Our thanks to Marvin Hamlisch, the Kennedy Center, the NSO and all who participated.

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