ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hello Marvin, Goodbye Love

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hello Marvin, Goodbye Love A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Marvin Hamlisch
Marvin Hamlisch Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Greetings from Philadephia! I'm doing a benefit to support the Andalusia House, which is a beautiful, enormous house that was built in the 1700's. And, by the way, built by the same architect that built the White House!

I'm not saying I'm the first Jew that ever set foot inside here, but suffice it to say I'm not in my comfort zone. Speaking of comfort, I planted it in the gorgeous living room and was immediately kindly told to take my shoes off the furniture. Busted! But, then I thought to myself, my feet were on a settee. Isn't that was it's for? Of course, it probably was for that…when it was originally upholstered by Betsy Ross. The good news is, everyone is super nice, and the place is gorgeous and literally overlooks the Delaware River. The bad news, there was just a tornado warning. Excellent. Anyhoo, I'll write while Andrea McArdle gets ready.

I got to be on NY-1's "Onstage" last weekend as part of a roundtable discussion on the upcoming theatre season. They had asked me last year to do it, but we were in the middle of tech for The Ritz. Since this year I'm not in any Broadway show, I'm completely free. Wow. That was devastating to write. Regardless, filming it was super fun, except they didn't have a make-up person, so, by the end of the segment, my forehead could have been Tony-nominated for the revival of Grease.

Also, this week school started for Juli, so I'm back at my early morning wake-up schedule. It's a tad devastating, but nothing has been worse than when I worked on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." I had to be at work by 7:30. In the morning. I know some of you people who work are thinking, "That's nothing! I have to be at my desk by 7!" But, when I first got the gig, I was still playing piano for Grease! So, I'd work during the day and then play the show at night. Every night I got about as much sleep as I get when I go watch an opera (Three hours. Four, if there's a long intermission). We had to have three jokes ready every morning by 8 AM to "pitch" to Rosie. a. Is it fun to try to get a laugh from someone at 8 AM?
b. Did Rosie ever use any of our jokes?
ANSWERS
a. No
b. No

The most amazing thing about working on that show was doing "stings." There were six writers and not that much to write on the show, so we'd occupy ourselves by pulling pranks on each other, AKA stings. One day, everyone was throwing a small ball around the office and, by accident, one of the writers named Linda dropped it out the window. We were located in 30 Rock (down the hall from "SNL") on the 16th floor. Well, Alan (one of the other writers) left the room and gave a security guard his scheme. Twenty minutes later, the security guard comes in the room and asked if anyone dropped a ball out of the window. Of course, Linda avoided eye contact. He then went on to say that the ball picked up velocity as it fell, hit a pedestrian and caused a serious injury. He kept up his terrifying ruse for a while before admitting it was a joke. We all loved it, but I think it caused Linda early onset of menopause.

This week I interviewed the unbelievably talented Marvin Hamlisch at the Chatterbox. He was on a path to become a classical pianist (he was a child taking lessons at Juilliard) until he saw The Pajama Game on Broadway. After that, bye-bye classical, he was obsessed with popular music. When he was a teenager, not only did he get his first hit on the pop charts ("Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows") but he became good friends with Liza Minnelli! She invited him to a Christmas party at her mother's house. If any of Juli's classmates are reading, Liza's mother was Judy Garland. If you're older than seven and don't know that, why are you reading this column? He went and accompanied Liza on some songs he had written for her. Then Judy asked him to play for her! He literally got to play piano for Judy Garland when he was a teenager! When I was a teenager, I was singing baritone in my high school chorus' medley from "Fame." Comparable? You decide.

A few years later, he got a job as a rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl. Yes! He played for Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand! I guess the next part of his story should read, "He then went back in time and had coffee with Mozart." He recalled that Barbra would change the melodies of songs, but Jule Styne thought that she made them better. For instance, Marvin said that Barbra probably came up with the high note in the last verse of people that goes, "But first be a person who needs people…..PEEEOOO-ple who need people…" At one point, Barbra's melody change in "Sadie, Sadie" didn't work with the harmony that Marvin wrote for the ensemble. He went to her dressing room and told her that her new melody clashed with his vocal arrangement. She asked him, quite clearly, "Marvin. Are people coming to hear your harmony or to hear me sing?" He promptly changed the harmony.

Speaking of Barbra, turns out, she and Marvin are both very similar. They both want things to be perfect, and then once they're done, they're done. He said that he would be the worst pit piano player because he'd have a breakdown having to play the same thing every night. I actually enjoy doing the same things over and over again (see my stand-up act for the last ten years. Perhaps it's time to retire those Janet Reno jokes?). Anyhoo, he wrote the theme to "The Way We Were" and was watching a run of the film with a test audience and was mortified to see that there was no crying from the audience in the last scene. He, being Jewish, blamed himself. He knew if the music was right, the tears would flow. Marvin had underscored the moment when Barbra brushes away the hair on the forehead of Robert Redford with the secondary music theme of the movie, not the title song. Perhaps, he thought to himself, he was wrong? He discussed it with his orchestrator. Marvin said he didn't want the audience to hear the same theme 30 times in the same movie because it could seem tacky. The orchestrator explained that it may play 30 times, but the audience would hear it around three times. Only the composer is that honed into the music in the background throughout the whole film to really notice. Marvin decided to re-record that moment and bring in the main theme from "The Way We Were." However, the movie studio said, "No way!" They weren't going to pay for more musicians to come in and do any more playing. So…Marvin paid for it himself! That's a lot of cash-ola…it was a 55-piece orchestra! He re-recorded it, got it put in the movie and went back to another screening. He watched Barbra touch Redford's forehead…he heard the music play...and one woman sniffled. Then another. Then a bunch. Finally, Marvin heard the crying he was looking for! PS, if he wanted so badly to hear crying in the mid-seventies, he needed only to visit my house every afternoon when I returned home from school.

That same year Marvin became an international celebrity because of the Oscars. He won Best Musical Adaptation for "The Sting," Best Score for "The Way We Were" and Best Song for "The Way We Were." That's right, he won three Oscars in one night! PS, speaking of "The Sting," for those of us that grew up as pianists, that was Marvin actually playing "The Entertainer" that we all listened to on that recording and tried to emulate. I asked him if he cheated and recorded each hand separately to make it easier...and he said he did! Aha! But not on "The Entertainer" — only on one of the rags because, he said, it was a really hard stride left hand and busy right hand and there were other musicians playing with him. Marvin knew that if he made even one mistake, everyone would have to start the whole piece over from the top, and he wanted to save them all the annoyance of having to do that.

Right after he won the three Oscars, Michael Bennett contacted him. Marvin was an incredible fan of his. When he met Michael years earlier, he told him that he wasn't going to file Michael's phone number in his address book under B for Bennett, but under G for Genius. Michael called and asked him to fly to New York because he had an idea for a show. Of course, Marvin's agents were completely irritated. He was the only composer that was being booked on national talk shows…he could have any high-paying gig he wanted. But instead, Marvin wanted to work in theatre. He went to Michael's apartment and saw that it was all black. Marvin realized it was because Michael had special lights on all of his awards, and the black really made them stand out and glimmer! He met with Michael and was incredibly excited to hear the idea. Michael sat him down and told him: (pause)… "It's about chorus kids." Marvin sat and waited for the beginning, middle and end. Silence. Marvin went home, and even though it was not the way he was used to working, he knew he had to say yes. Marvin thinks that one of the reasons Bennett hired him, and not of the Broadway reining greats of the time, is Marvin was a Broadway newcomer, and Michael knew that he could have more control that way. Tricky! And it worked!

When they first workshopped it, the show was five hours long! After they did a run-through, Michael asked Marvin his opinion, and Marvin said he could only comment on the first two hours. Brava. Marvin said that he really didn't get the show for a long time as he was working on it…until Michael drew the line on the floor and said it was about people "on the line." Then it became clear to him. Marvin also said that if you're composing a show, you shouldn't work very hard on the opening number. The original opening number for A Chorus Line was called "Resume." The only thing that remains in the opening we all know now is the melody of "I really need this job" and the cast holding their 8x10s in front of their faces. Marvin advised that composer/lyricists should essentially just write a dummy version of an opening because it's going to change later on. He said that you have to write the bulk of the show, and then you'll be able to really see what the show is about. That's when you write the opening. He said that both "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof and "Comedy Tonight" from Forum were both written after the bulk of the show was done. He and Ed Kleban wrote all of A Chorus Line and then went back and wrote the opening.

In the late seventies, he was living in California with the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. Their next-door neighbor was Neil Simon (how amazing is that?), and Marvin was working with him on turning "The Gingerbread Lady" into a musical. While they would work, Marvin would chitty chat with him about the ups and downs of living with a woman who was also in the songwriting business. One day, Marvin opened his front door and saw a package. It was a script from Neil Simon that he wanted to turn into a musical. Neil had taken the conversations with Marvin about living with Carole and turned them into the characters Vernon and Sonia in They're Playing Our Song. Hopefully, Neil won't take my private conversations with him and turn them into "The Man Who Was Co-dependant With His Mother." Marvin said that one day Neil wrote a scene where Vernon and Sonia are dancing at a discotheque (old-school seventies word). Marvin complained that the scene wasn't realistic because a. he doesn't dance well and b. he'd feel annoyed dancing to someone else's music! However, Marvin said, if one of his songs started playing he'd be like (and then he ran to the piano): "Oh ho they're playing my song/ Oh, yeah, they're playing my song!" And that's how the song was written!

Seth and Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin told us that he adores Broadway, and that's why he lives in New York. And the reason he does what he does has two answers. One day he was going to rehearse for a Pittsburgh Symphony date with Bernadette Peters. The limo driver asked him, if Marvin originally trained at Juilliard, why did he leave classical music for popular music? Marvin gave him what he thought was a very thorough and proper answer. He talked about the freedom popular music has in form and style and how it can reach so many people etc… He arrived at the concert and met Bernadette Peters onstage. He said that she was in a pair of tight jeans and she had just showered so her hair was still wet, or as he described it, "Everything I've ever wanted…and more." As he gave her a hug, saw her stunning face and felt her wet hair, he told us that he realized, "This is why I'm popular music." Or as I translate it, no one wants to hug a soprano in a Valkyrie helmut. I'm now back in New York, and the last thing I want to write about is seeing the final performance of Rent. The producers, Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, invited me. First of all, you had to pick up your tickets in advance. That was the first headache. I'm used to showing up at 8 PM, running to the box-office window and planting it ASAP. I, of course, thought I could beg one of my interns to pick it up for me, but I received an email that we'd have to show ID. And, they said not to show up before or after the matinees because the crowd would be crazy. So, I hauled it down mid-afternoon and got our tickets/party passes. I was told to be there by 6 for a 6:30 show. James and I planned to leave the apartment at 5:30. Of course, we wound up leaving at 6 and rushed down. James had a splitting headache because he didn't have any coffee, so I demanded that he get some caffeine at the Starbucks on 42nd Street (secretly wanting to get an iced latte for myself). James was panicking that we'd be shut out of seeing the show because it was getting so late. The first sign that things weren't so fast-moving was me seeing Randy Graff at the Starbucks, slowly sipping her coffee. "Are you going to Rent?" I asked her. She said she was. "Uh…are we going to be late?" She looked at her watch. "It's 6:20…the show's at 6:30." I glared at James. She sauntered out, and, after we waited breathlessly for five minutes, we got our coffees and ran like lunatics to 41st Street. We ran right into the theatre, waving our tickets at the usher like crazy people. We were told to join the ticket holder line. We walked outside and saw the line. It went down 41st Street…across Broadway…and down 40th Street! Son of a-! I could have gotten a Venti instead of a Grande. The good news is, the cast was amazing.

Special shout-outs to my friend Michael McElroy, who played Collins and sounded gorgeous on the reprise of "I'll Cover You." And Will Chase, who went to my alma mater Oberlin (as a percussion major!), had great star quality…and vibratoed all the top notes! And brava Eden Espinosa and Tracie Thoms for it being the eighth show of the week, yet adding ca-razy high notes to "Take Me Or Leave Me." And, I'm obsessed with Renée Elise Goldsberry! I saw her in Two Gentlemen of Verona and thought she was fantastic. She not only sounded great as Mimi, but she's beautiful and fun-nee! Get that lady a brilliant comedic lead ASAP!

I ran into Lin-Manuel Miranda at the after party at Chelsea Piers and I praised him on the hilarious trailer for his parody "Legally Brown: The Search for the Next Piragua Guy." Hi-la-ri-ous. I have a link at my website (www.SethRudetsky.com). I also hung out with David Saint (artistic director of The George Street Playhouse) who was great friends with Jonathan Larson. He said that he and Jonathan would drive around with Roger Bart (whom the character Roger was named after!) and Jonathan would sing songs from the show and teach them different vocal parts so he could hear how it sounded with three parts. It was very bittersweet for David and for so many others who knew Jonathan to see this performance. It was such a triumph to Jonathan's genius, but also marked the end of this show that was his legacy. However, for any of you that are dying to see this brilliant cast and performance, just remember it's going to be released as a film.

On a shallow note, I'm incredibly proud of the fact that James and I are both on diets and we didn't eat any dessert at the after party! I still got it! (and by "it," I mean love handles…therefore no dessert). Enjoy the end-of-summer weather and peace out 'til next week!

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(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethrudetsky.com.)

Seth Rudetsky, Jesse L. Martin and James
Seth Rudetsky, Jesse L. Martin and James