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

By Seth Rudetsky
13 Aug 2012

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."


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