ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Remembering Marvin Hamlisch, and the Way He Was

By Seth Rudetsky
August 13, 2012

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.



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This past week began with the sad news about Marvin Hamlisch's death. He was an idol of mine because his music — both Broadway and pop — was such an important part of my childhood. Not only did I love his chord changes and melodies, but I especially loved his music because when it was at the height of popularity, I was a young pianist and his songs always seemed to feature the piano. A Chorus Line began with that famous piano line "da da, da dum dum dum — Again!" And the piano was prevalent throughout so many other songs in that show: the beginning of "Nothing," the famous "One" vamp and all throughout "At the Ballet," which was played on that incredibly cool 1970s electric keyboard, the Fender Rhodes. Then, pop-wise, there was that great piano intro to "The Spy Who Loved Me" and the beautiful vamp that starts "The Way We Were." When fellow SiriusXM host Christine Pedi interviewed Marvin, he said that vamp represented church bells chiming on the campus where the characters played by Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand went to college.

Speaking of SiriusXM, my regular Saturday show that I do with Christine ("The Dueling Divas") was expanded by adding some of Marvin's co-workers to share their memories: Don Pippin, (the original Chorus Line conductor and vocal arranger), Priscilla Lopez (the original Morales) and Donna McKechnie (the original Cassie). Before we played the song "Nothing" on the radio, Priscilla and Don talked about when the song was written. Priscilla remembered when Marvin and lyricist Ed Kleban first played it for her. She said she wept because they had taken one of the worst things that happened to her and turned it into one of the best things: a fantastic solo in an upcoming Broadway show! However, one day after rehearsal, the whole cast was sitting onstage getting notes and between mundane ones like, "Everyone make sure your kicks are the same height," and "Try to sing out throughout group numbers," Michael Bennett also said, "'Nothing' is cut."

Priscilla Lopez at the Chorus Line cast album recording session
Sony Music Entertainment

Priscilla was devastated! She knew it was a great song. What was wrong? Well, Don Pippin then took over telling the story because he played an important part in getting it reinstated. Turns out, "Nothing" was originally staged with all the dancers in back of Priscilla acting out what was happening throughout the song. Don told us that after the song was cut, he was in a meeting with the creative team and right before he left (he remembers his hand was on the doorknob) he said, "You know, 'Nothing' is a comedy number. There are so many people onstage that it's difficult to hear any of the lyrics." Michael Bennett asked him to repeat what he said. Don did, and left. Michael then cut everyone else from the number and suddenly the number worked! And Priscilla loved the fact that it's the first time in the show that someone is onstage by themselves. The only other time it happens is with Cassie and Paul.

As much as we were all lauding that show, we also talked about how disappointing the film was. Before A Chorus Line transferred to Broadway (it started at the Public Theater), the character of Cassie would turn up after the whole opening number. She entered in a fur coat, asking if anyone had change for a cab. Donna told us her line was "Does anyone have change for a ten?," but Priscilla reminded her it was a five. Remember, this was 1975! That entrance wound up turning the audience against Cassie because it made her look like a diva and separated her from the other dancers. It was opposite the whole point of the show, which is that dancers are all the same. They all need to dance because they love it. So, Cassie was added to the opening number. Well, cut to: Years later Donna went out to lunch with Cy Feuer who was producing the Chorus Line film and when she read the script, she was horrified to see they were using the old Cassie entrance! She and Priscilla told us it was as if the scriptwriters took all the moments that hadn't worked (and were cut) and put them in the film. They laughed and said it was like they took the original A Chorus Line script before any changes were made and used it as the film script.

Donna and Priscilla remembered that at one point Michael Bennett was going to direct the film. He wanted to keep the show's feeling of urgency and desperation for a job, so the film was going to be about a bunch of actors trying out for the Chorus Line film! It was going to take place on a soundstage and there'd be all different people trying out for each part. Sadly, it never happened. When the real film went into production, all the originals were given a chance to audition, but Priscilla felt it was only so Sir Richard Attenborough could say, "Well, I saw them all and they weren't right for the film." As a matter of fact, when Donna tried out, he asked her to do it again and condescendingly told her, "You know, this is film. You don't need to speak so loudly." Donna said, "But isn't Cassie onstage? Talking to a director all the way in the back of the audience?" Touche!

Kelly Bishop in A Chorus Line.
Don and Priscilla were reminiscing about doing the show all the way downtown and remembered one particular rainy night spent with Kelly Bishop (Sheila) and Thommie Walsh (Bobby). Kelly lived on the Upper West Side and didn't have time between shows to walk her dog (Venus) so she'd bring him to the Public Theater and they'd take a cab home. Well, because it was raining that night, they couldn't get a cab so they decided to take a subway. But how? Dogs aren't allowed. Well, most dogs aren't allowed. That's right, they decided to pretend that Venus was a seeing eye dog! Because of Priscilla's fondness for character acting, she volunteered to pretend she was blind. First, she took off her rainbow poncho (it was the '70s) and put it over Venus so people couldn't see there wasn't a harness. Then she put on her sunglasses and they all went down the subway. No one stopped them and they got on the train. After a while, Priscilla began to have an anxiety attack because she saw a cop get on the train! Finally, at 59th, she told them they had to get off and walk the rest of the way before they got busted. As soon as they stepped onto the platform, Venus was so happy that he went bounding towards the exit. Of course, everyone in the train station was horrified watching that poor blind lady being dragged up the stairs by her guide dog.

Speaking of the run at the Public, they remembered that A Chorus Line used to have a different ending each night! Michael Bennett wanted the actors to really feel like they were auditioning for a show, so Robert LuPone (Zach, the director) would pick a different cast each night. Eventually, the script changed and the ending became set: who would make it and who wouldn't. In the Public run, Cassie wasn't cast in the show. A Chorus Line got applause, but no standing ovations. One night, Neil Simon's wife Marsha Mason came (Neil was doctoring the show) and told Michael Bennett that Cassie had to make the show because it was too devastating for the audience to see her be rejected. He changed the ending, Cassie got the job and the show finally started getting standing ovations. Donna said she'd get letters from fans who loved the show because her character represented second chances. She'd hear from businessmen who'd been fired and were so moved to see her able to start again. We asked Donna what Cassie would have done if she hadn't been cast and she said, "Well, first, hopefully get some therapy."

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Barbra Streisand

I thought I'd end the column with an excerpt from an older column I wrote after I interviewed Marvin at Seth's Broadway Chatterbox. Besides being a musical genius, he was so warm, supportive and extremely funny. This is from a few years ago:

Marvin works with Barbra Streisand a lot and, turns out, they're both very similar. They both want things to be perfect and 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! P.S., if he wanted so badly to hear crying in the mid-'70s, 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! Speaking of "The Sting," for those of us who 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.

Seth with Marvin Hamlisch

Michael Bennett and Joe Papp
Sony Music Entertainment
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 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 thought that one of the reasons Bennett hired him, and not of the Broadway reigning greats of the time, is because he 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 8x10's 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. He and Ed Kleban wrote all of A Chorus Line and then went back and wrote the opening.

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OK, I wrote more about Marvin in an appreciation that will run in the September issue of Playbill magazine. Check it out when you see a Broadway show.

I'll conclude by saying that I knew I was such a fan of his, but I didn't realize in how many different ways he influenced me. As most of you know, I've been desperately trying to finish my sequel to my first young adult novel, "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan." I wrote around half of it and even though I knew what was happening plot-wise, it took me that long to finally start to understand the themes. So, I went back to the beginning and started re-writing it now that I understood more about the book. I realize now that I felt so comfortable doing that because I remembered what Marvin had told me about writing a show and then going back and writing the opening. I internally knew that going back to the beginning was the right thing to do. So, thank you, Marvin, for everything you brought to the world. And, thank for helping me finish my sequel. Last Wednesday night at 10 PM, I sent it into Random House!

For those of you as obsessed as I with Marvin's music, here are some videos: This is "At The Ballet" from the special performance when A Chorus Line became the longest running musical; here's Playbill Obsessed video I did when I was playing Vernon in They're Playing Our Song with Sutton Foster; and here's Barbra singing one of his most gorgeous songs!

 

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

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Hamlisch in rehearsal for Smile with Anne Bobby, Tia Riebling, Nikki Rene, Donna Marie Elio, Veanne Cox, Lauren Goler, Cheryl-Ann Rossi, Julie Tussey, Cindy Oakes and Jodi Benson, Sept. 1986