New York's Finest: Marvin Hamlisch

Classic Arts Features   New York's Finest: Marvin Hamlisch
Marvin Hamlisch returned to the podium April 20 with New York Moments, a musical portrait of his beloved hometown. The sold-out concert headlined the Orchestra's Spring Gala. The composer-conductor discusses his storied career.

Hamlisch's name is a byword attached to every tangible entertainment honor; the music he has composed has earned him three Oscars, four Grammys, four Emmys, a Tony, three Golden Globes, and the Pulitzer Prize. In recent decades he has made a reputation for himself on the podium as well, and he is chief pops conductor for the National, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and San Diego symphony orchestras.

"I originally told my manager I wasn't interested in conducting," he recalls. "Then he said the three magic words: 'Gershwin did it.' That was all I needed." Even for a man as celebrated as Mr. Hamlisch, his New York Philharmonic debut in May 2008 (in Broadway's Greatest Showstoppers) was a dream come true. "Any time you get a chance to work with the New York Philharmonic, you say a prayer of thanks," he says. "I had a wonderful rapport with the musicians and I'm thrilled to be back."

This Orchestra also evokes fond memories of his childhood discovery of music at the inspirational hands of then-Music Director Leonard Bernstein. "I was born at the beginning of the Bernstein Era and he was my god. I loved watching him, listening to him, and learning from his Young People's Concerts. And for me, West Side Story remains the pinnacle of musical theater; I cry every time I hear it."

The concert on April 20 : the centerpiece of the Orchestra's evening-long Spring Gala : is particularly dear to the composer-conductor, who has crafted for the occasion a program titled New York Moments, a musical portrait of his beloved hometown. Born in 1944 in Manhattan, Marvin Hamlisch attended the Professional Children's School, The Juilliard School's Pre-College Division, and Queens College, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree. In fact, his Juilliard studies began at age six (he was the youngest musician accepted at that time) and continued for nearly 15 years; he credits his rigorous classical training in large part for the skills that made his diverse, prolific career possible.

A defining moment occurred in 1974 when he received three Oscars in one evening (Best Song and Best Original Score for The Way We Were, and Best Score Adaptation for The Sting), an achievement that paved the way for his triumphant Broadway hit, A Chorus Line. Today, his widely acclaimed body of work includes scores for more than 40 motion pictures, a string of Broadway shows, and the symphonic work Anatomy of Peace.

Still, for Mr. Hamlisch the compositional process, not the resultant honors, defines his success; he cannot remember when A Chorus Line won the Pulitzer Prize (1976), but easily recalls why that musical remains his dearest accomplishment: "It's the actual composition of each song, putting something on the earth that wasn't there yesterday, that's thrilling. And for me, A Chorus Line had the most such moments."

Musically, he has resisted the trend toward melding classical and popular idioms: his songs are pure music theater, which, like the best of that genre, are singular, "singable," and timeless. "I always try to ground my listener in a good melody," he says simply. "Nowadays that's considered old fashioned, but for me it remains the most important thing."

On the podium, the secret of Mr. Hamlisch's appeal lies in his gift for communication, something he learned from Bernstein, his early idol. "From the very beginning of my career as a pops conductor I've talked to the audience the way Bernstein did," he says. "It's so important to bring them in. Let's face it, you want the audience to go nuts! Having a lot of people applaud is as good a tonic as you can get!"

Despite his accolades, Marvin Hamlisch remains a friendly, easy-going gent who is plagued only by the oft-repeated mistake that he is not a New Yorker. "My success in film makes people think that I'm Mr. California, but I'm a born, bred, livinghere- currently New York composer!" he exclaims. "I'm a native who never left, so it's nice to be associated with New York Moments, an event with an orchestra that is all New York."

The program is, at heart, an expression of Mr. Hamlisch's love of his hometown. "This concert is based on the notion that there are iconic New York moments in the theater," he explains. "We're going to recreate them, and create new ones using both original singers and some whom you've never heard before, but who are so wonderful that they deserve to be 'discovered' in New York. The repertoire includes Bernstein, Kern, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Cole Porter : and maybe a little Hamlisch," he winks. "You'll hear songs that you know and are thrilled to hear again, and songs that these people do so brilliantly I felt they must be shared with everyone.

"Everything will be linked thematically," he continues. Having learned the art of showmanship early on as rehearsal pianist for the famed Bell Telephone Hour, he explains, "I insist on giving the concert a 'frame' that turns it into a show. "And of course," he smiles, "we've got the fantastic New York Philharmonic playing some medleys that will show them off, making it a very special evening."


For further information on upcoming Philharmonic events visit

Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.

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