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

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13 Aug 2012

Marvin Hamlisch
Marvin Hamlisch

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


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!


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