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Marvin Hamlisch: the last interview

Published in the Sun-Herald on June 30, 2012.

Marvin Hamlisch died of a respiratory arrest on August 6. This was one of the last interviews he granted.

Marvin Hamlisch cannot stand auditions. As the youngest ever student admitted to the Juilliard School in Manhattan, aged six, he had to play for his scholarship each year – a recital so fraught with pressure that he inevitably prepared for it hunched over a toilet bowl, studying the back of his hands as he threw up: “the vivid blue of my bulging veins like a road map to terror.”

One year, he wore a prickly new suit, with pyjamas underneath, only to get locked out on the school roof during a pep talk from his dad. By the time they found him, he was shaking so badly he could barely hold a chord, much less perform Kabalevsky. He always passed, though, despite playing Tears On My Pillow in the rehearsal rooms when he was meant to be practicing scales. Three Oscars, Four Grammys, Four Emmys, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize later, that youth doesn’t seem misspent.

Hamlisch hasn’t auditioned much as an adult. As musical director his role is to put singers through their paces, cut the wannabes and not-quite-rights, and send talented performers home without a job. “When I used to play at auditions, I felt terrible for people, particularly if they were pretty damn good,” he says. “I wished some of them would quit, because they were never gonna be picked and were deceiving themselves, but for the people who are good, it’s tough.”

His most famous musical, A Chorus Line, dramatised the audition process, turning the dreams and neuroses of Broadway veterans into an competitive psychodrama with no star. In the Pop Idol era, in which every hopeful comes with a pre-polished back story of triumph over adversity and no tear is unscripted, it’s easy to forget how radical the concept was.

A Chorus Line was born at the Nikolaus Exercise Centre in Manhattan, on January 26, 1974, during an all night confessional organised by dancers Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens. The project didn’t have a name, or a plot. The dancers present would supply the characters, putting their faith in choreographer Michael Bennett’s conviction that “all of you are pretty interesting and maybe there’s a show somewhere.” A tape player was running. Looking back, it’s astonishing how many lines were lifted word for word.

The musical was developed in two workshop sessions, an innovation at the time that is now standard practice. Dancers signed over their life stories for $1 each to the brilliant but manipulative Bennett, a decision that caused much bad feeling when A Chorus Line became a cash cow. Some, including Peacock and Stevens, dropped out, only to see other actors portray them on stage.

The production was an instant smash. “The previews were as exciting as any opening night could hope to be,” wrote New York Times critic Walter Kerr. “Ticket buyers were lining up at the Lafayette Street box office terrified that they might not be able to see the show before they were told to.” Ingrid Bergman, Paul Newman, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Jackie Kennedy and Mikhail Baryshnikov all attended in the first few weeks at the Public Theatre, before the transfer uptown.

The set, a bare stage with mirrors and a single white line, emphasised the vulnerability of the dancers. Hamlisch’s songs were conversational, Ed Kleban’s lyrics spoken as much as sung, but the refrains have become standards. A Chorus Line’s run of 6,137 performances is still the fifth longest ever on Broadway.

The production that opens at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre on July 20 is a revival conceived by veterans from the original – Hamlisch, choreographer Bob Avian, designer Robin Wagner and dancer Baayork Lee. “It took a while for the kids to get a hold of the real desperation,” says Hamlisch. “One of the things I always tell companies is ‘when you go out on the stage, think about what’s happened to get you there: you’ve been denied a job twelve times in a row, your mother called you fat.’ Auditions are a vicious thing, particularly if you’re desperate for money. If that’s what you can channel just as you go out, the show’s going to be great.”

This is one reason everyone involved with the original hates Richard Attenborough’s movie adaptation, which features too many youngsters hoping for a break and too few ‘gypsies’ – experienced dancers who know their time on Broadway is running out, grasping at one last chance. Hamlisch prefers Every Little Step, a documentary that follows auditions for the revival, from the first crush to the final cut.

The Book Of Mormon, the profane creation of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is an exception on today’s Broadway, which is dominated by revivals, movie adaptations and Disney franchises. “We’re not really creating much, we’re re-creating,” Hamlisch says. “That’s a shame, but if that’s the way it is, A Chorus Line deserves to be there. Producers short change the audience. They don’t realise that if you gave them something meaty, they’d eat it up. But no-one wants to take a chance on $14 million.”

A remake of The Nutty Professor directed by Jerry Lewis, with songs by Hamlisch, is due to open in July, in Nashville, but he’s much more excited about his next project, a musical commissioned by Dreamworks called Gotta Dance. The plot, about a basketball team that starts a middle-aged cheerleading squad, sounds like a cross between Glee and The Full Monty. “It could be a bomb, it could be a hit, but at least I’m enjoying the fact that it’s original,” Hamlisch says.

Every few pages in his autobiography, Hamlisch can be found shovelling Maalox down his throat to calm a chronic nervous stomach. During the worst period, a string of flops that followed A Chorus Line, he wondered if he would ever write another hit. “I’m perfectly at peace with it now,” he says. “I realised finally that you’ve just got to keep going and whether it’s as good or better or worse is not the issue. Working is good, for your brain and for your soul.”

There have been ebbs and flows in his movie career, too, following his spectacular debut, when he won three Academy awards in the same year for The Way We Were and his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes in The Sting. He was only 28 years old at the time and struggled for a long while to replicate that success, but in recent years he has become Stephen Soderbergh’s composer of choice, supplying a well-received score for The Informant, starring Matt Damon.

Damon and Soderbergh have paired up again, for a film about Liberace. It stars Michael Douglas as the camp entertainer, famously described as “a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love,” in an article that led him to sue for libel, claiming that it falsely accused him of being homosexual. Damon plays a lover who, feeling wronged, sells Liberace out, telling the press he is indeed gay. Hamlisch, the piano man, was the obvious choice to write the score.

“I’m not sure people knew how brilliant a pianist Liberace was,” he says. “All the costumes that made him a star stopped people from listening to his playing. You can’t take away that incredible talent. We have to redo some of his arrangements for the orchestra, when we record, and some of his parts, I wrote down ‘this might have to be played by two pianists, I’m not sure one guy can do it.’”

His phone rings, a suitably chiming tone. “Will they all have headphones? Will the soloist be in a separate booth? Are all the sound effects ready?” Hamlisch doesn’t have kids of his own – he married too late, he says – but he’s just finished his first children’s book, and this afternoon he’s recording a choir singing the theme song. It’s called The Music Of My Mind and it’s about a ten-year-old boy, trapped on the roof of the Juilliard School, waiting to audition.