An Intimate Evening with Marvin Hamlisch: Reprise, 3/22/10

31 03 2010

Performance is by definition ephemeral, something that cannot be replicated.  Even megamusicals like Phantom of the Opera – relying on (almost eerie) duplication night after night, Phantom after Phantom, and country after country – can still leave the audience with an undeniable excitement of the here and the now: LIVE performance.  For those of us at Reprise’s one-night-only Intimate Evening with Marvin Hamlisch, this excitement was amplified and palpable.  Sure, Hamlisch tours this show around the country; his stories and musical performances are well-rehearsed.  But Hamlisch’s performance invites the audience into a deeper engagement with his personal and professional life in an evening that is truly something special.

Following an impressive biographical intro by Jason Alexander, Marvin Hamlisch took his place at the (rather dirty) grand piano for a jazzy overture of Cole Porter classics, from “Night and Day” to “I Get a Kick Out of You.”  Although I missed watching Hamlisch’s hands fly across the keys, Goldstar seated me on the front row with a prime view of the composer’s intensely focused engagement with the music. Throughout the evening, Juilliard-trained Hamlisch continually downplayed his remarkable and versatile musicianship skills: playing piano, arranging, and composing.  Growing up with Cole Porter, wishing he had written the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Bernstein and Sondheim’s “Somewhere,” and Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” (all of which he incorporated into another stunning piano medley), Hamlisch found inspiration in the American songbook rather than in classical music.  This was a familiar and rather comforting story for me.  Flashback to NC School of the Arts’ summer program in piano during high school: I felt rather strange admitting that my favorite part of playing piano was not mastering Chopin or Beethoven, but playing by ear the songs I heard at dance class (showtunes), in movies, and on the radio.

In an ongoing playful banter with the audience, Hamlisch interspersed personal anecdotes of his compositional work with themes from his famous movie scores (including The Swimmer, The Sting, and The Way We Were). With the lyrics absented from pieces like “The Way We Were,” Hamlisch’s particular contribution of the music – the composition, as well as the arrangement and performance on this evening – truly shone.  The audiences’ memories, rather appropriately, filled in the missing words. The audience perked up and whispers went ’round in recognition and admiration of each familiar tune.

Midway through the night, Jason Alexander pulled up a chair to engage Hamlisch in a fun Q&A; a simple question can send Hamlisch spinning off into a hundred fascinating stories. From my front row seat, I even had the chance to ask a question! Given the economic challenges of putting up a show on Broadway today, I wanted to know what Hamlisch sees as the future of Broadway and if he had any advice for young composers. He was very clear that Broadway is not in an economic crisis to his view; families are visiting NYC and seeing several shows instead of traveling abroad right now. The real crisis is the material on Broadway – a distinct lack of originality and new work. No matter how many times they have to replace the chandelier, Hamlisch is convinced that Phantom of the Opera will never close. This is, obviously, an incredibly frightening thought for new composers.

My own thoughts on the subject?  Within the past few days, the news that Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal recently recouped its investment has been inspiring.  N2N is a provocative, original show without a branded star at the helm. We need more of this daring on the Great White Way. If I were the King of Broadway, there would be a mandatory turnaround: no show’s run could exceed 5 years. (Goodbye, Phantom!  Goodbye, Mamma Mia! Goodbye, The Lion King! Goodbye, Chicago!)  This turnaround could pave the way for more new, original shows and would force tourists to sometimes take a chance, rather than go with a long-running standard.  Just a thought.

Of course, Reprise Theatre Company is dedicated to musical theater – so the evening culminated in a discussion of Hamlisch’s contribution to A Chorus Line, which was itself a highly experimental musical in 1975.  Having just established himself as a successful film composer in LA, Hamlisch took a huge risk when Michael Bennett whisked him away to NYC to hear hours of tapes: Broadway gypsies telling their life stories.  But he knew a musical was in there, somewhere.  An extensive workshopping process later, Hamlisch had composed a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning hit.  The evening concluded with a shimmering piano rendition of the never-used overture to A Chorus Line, which Hamlisch had always intended to compete with his mentor Jule Styne’s iconic overture to Gypsy.

As the strains of “I Hope I Get It” and “At the Ballet” intermingle, though, it is very clear that Marvin Hamlisch has no need to compete: his music has a distinctive character of its own, accompanied by a beautiful collection of memories made to share.  An Intimate Evening with Marvin Hamlisch certainly lived up to its title. Although knowing that my review would serve no function in urging potential audience members to attend, I nonetheless left the theater eager as ever to jot down my thoughts on the evening – to document the performance and share a few nuggets of wisdom and insight with you all.  Hope it’s been worth the read!

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