Philly Pops celebrates Marvin Hamlisch

The wedding of Terre Blair and Marvin Hamlisch in 1989. At the time of his death, he was preparing to assume responsibilities as conductor of the Philly Pops. The songwriter/film composer/conductor is the subject of an evening-long tribute by the Philly Pops Friday through Sunday at the Kimmel Center.
The wedding of Terre Blair and Marvin Hamlisch in 1989. At the time of his death, he was preparing to assume responsibilities as conductor of the Philly Pops. The songwriter/film composer/conductor is the subject of an evening-long tribute by the Philly Pops Friday through Sunday at the Kimmel Center.
Posted: March 14, 2014

Marvin Hamlisch was such a singular sensation that at his unexpected death in 2012 at age 68, some Philadelphians couldn't quite believe he was no longer a candidate to take over the Philly Pops. No surprise, then, that the songwriter/film composer/conductor is the subject of an evening-long tribute by the Philly Pops Friday through Sunday at the Kimmel Center.

The show is a well-traveled package conducted by Larry Blank and featuring Donna McKechnie, the original 1975 star of Hamlisch's greatest Broadway hit, A Chorus Line. But the Kimmel engagement has special significance: Hamlisch had signed on to succeed Peter Nero at the Philly Pops only four days before he died.

"Every time Marvin came home from working in Saratoga [with the Philadelphia Orchestra] he was floating on clouds. That's how good they played and how excited he was," said Terre Blair Hamlisch, his widow.

He understood that the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philly Pops are separate groups, though they share some of the same players and take advantage of a talent pool that draws from the city's several esteemed music schools. (Michael Krajewski got the Pops job.)

Had he lived to come here, Hamlisch wouldn't have been an in-and-out presence. "When he went to a city, he just dug into it. We went to the new restaurants, the ball games, local concerts, the ballet," she said.

And he didn't resist fans on the street. When one proudly announced that her wedding had featured one of his songs, his snappy but good-natured reply: "Thanks, but you owe me five bucks [for royalties]."

Though Hamlisch remained busy as a composer - he scored HBO's Liberace film Behind the Candelabra just before he died - pops concerts dominated his schedule, most visibly at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, though he also held positions in Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle, Dallas, Buffalo, Pasadena, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

He had to have loved it; he was in a position to chose only what he most wanted to do, and that sometimes took the form of subordinate roles: Decades after he was a rehearsal pianist in Barbra Streisand's breakthrough Broadway show Funny Girl, he was the overqualified music director when she returned to concert touring in 1994. And when Streisand herself wasn't giving many interviews, he gave them in her place, though it meant talking about her, not himself.

Particularly remarkable is how all this looks alongside the rest of the creative team for A Chorus Line. While many of the original cast continue in varied careers, members of the original creative team experienced a kind of paralysis, perhaps out of a desire to top that huge success. By 1991, director Michael Bennett, lyricist Edward Kleban, and writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante had died, leaving limited legacies.

Hamlisch never stopped. Before A Chorus Line, he had had 13 film credits plus the hit title song from the film The Way We Were. After, he went on to write such songs as "The Girl Who Used to Be Me" and "Nobody Does it Better," though his early success wasn't repeated. After winning three Oscars in a single evening in 1973, he was nominated eight more times but never won again. Toughest of all was the medium he loved the most: musicals.

He followed up A Chorus Line with the popular 1978 They're Playing Our Song. Then came the disastrous 1983 Jean Seberg. Thereafter, his shows never had anything more than middling success. Some were victims of circumstance: His musical version of The Goodbye Girl in 1993 was better on its pre-Broadway tryout, where it had a change of director. Lyricist David Zippel is reportedly at work on a new version.

Terre Hamlisch believes that 2002's Sweet Smell of Success, an adaptation of the famous film noir, will have its day. "He knew what he had. And that part was confusing to him. It was right after 9/11. I used to say to him that it'll come back, but we may be dead by the time it does."

In the years-in-the-making world of Broadway, that track record really could change posthumously. When Hamlisch died, his stage adaptation of The Nutty Professor with lyricist-librettist Rupert Holmes was having a trial run in Nashville. His widow recalled, "Marvin was so excited about the show and working with Rupert. They would call themselves 'Hamlisch and Holmes.' "

She said it's headed for Broadway, though not immediately. Hamlisch's death definitely sapped the show's momentum: "We all went into this huge, deep grief. Anything that reminded us of Marvin at that point was so painful. I think everybody is getting back together."

Prophetically, one of the show's songs was titled "While I Still Have the Time." Though the lyrics are by Holmes, they describe the way Hamlisch was known to devour life - so much that, just on a musical level, the world hardly knows the whole of him.

As many as five songs written for A Chorus Line but never used have been dribbling out. One of them, "Inside the Music," is on the Philly Pops program. Some songs fashioned to the strengths of original cast members will be heard in unfashioned form, such as "At the Ballet." (The other singers are Jodi Benson and Doug LaBrecque.)

Then there was his symphony, Anatomy of Peace, and his children's book, Marvin Makes Music, which Terre Hamlisch will read at 1 p.m. Friday at the Ryan Seacrest Studio in Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"We all asked ourselves when he died why we were unable to find the words to describe him," she recalled. "We didn't realize that his warmth, love and unjudgemental nature affected us in a deep way. And this isn't just me . . . ."


MUSIC

The Philly Pops: Marvin Hamlisch, a Musical Tribute

8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets.

Tickets: $30-$134. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org


dstearns@phillynews.com

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