The secret of Marvin Hamlisch's success? The 'mazel factor'

By Anne Joseph, September 27, 2011
Hamlisch: conductor of six orchestras

Hamlisch: conductor of six orchestras

The lyrics from his 1978 musical They're Playing Our Song - "Oh ho, they're playing my song, oh yeah, they're playing my song" - seem to be an apt way to describe Marvin Hamlisch. The legendary, multi-award-winning composer/conductor is the creator of some of the best-known American show tunes. He has written compositions and musical adaptations for approximately 45 film scores, including The Way We Were, an adaptation of Scott Joplin's ragtime music for The Sting - famously winning a combination of three Oscars in one night for both films - and Nobody Does It Better (the theme from the Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me). He is one of 13 people to have received all four of the major entertainment awards - Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys, as well as Golden Globes and a Pulitzer Prize. Given his prodigious output, it is a fair assumption that somebody, somewhere is playing his song.

Sitting in a quiet, discreet room at the Ivy Club in Soho, close to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane where the London production of his musical, A Chorus Line, was first performed in 1976, Hamlisch explains that he is in town for just 24 hours. He will be returning in early October for a couple of concerts; firstly conducting Idina Menzel at the Royal Albert Hall and then performing for one evening with the singer Maria Friedman.

Hamlisch came from a very musical family. His parents moved to New York from Vienna and he says he was "thrown into music because my father was a musician; [he was an accordion player and a bandleader]. There was the piano, and that's how it began".

From an early age it was obvious he had talent. "I had a good ear for music and took to it very quickly." He could imitate what he heard, from his sister's piano lessons to songs on the radio. Just before he was seven he auditioned for the famed Juilliard School of Music, in New York, showing that he could play a contemporary hit song in any key.

He has been described as a child prodigy but says that "being gifted doesn't mean to say you are going to make it - it just means you are gifted. There's a mazel factor to all this. There are people who are not that gifted but are huge stars and people who are more gifted than I am who are in trouble."

Performance partner Maria Friedman

Performance partner Maria Friedman

In case he was unsuccessful his mother advised him to have a plan B, so he obtained a teacher's degree. He says: "I can play, I can conduct, I can arrange and I can write. I think of music in my life as a kind of three- or four-lane highway that I can go from one lane to another. That way you don't collapse if it doesn't work."

He believes that: "There's an advantage to knowing what you are going to do at the age of six. Some people might think it's not good but it can be very helpful. You don't have to worry about it; you know what you're going to do." Although at Juilliard they wanted him to become a concert pianist, he prefered composition. "I was very nervous about performing, particularly when it was a piece that everyone knew."

The family home was a Jewish one, "in the sense that we went to Temple every Friday night and my mother always circled Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach on the calendar. To this day, when I buy a calendar I do the same".

His perception of Jewish music is that "the lyrics are simple but direct, which is one of the things I like about Country and Western music. The difference is that instead of being happy-go-lucky, Jewish music always comes with a little bit of a haunting element". He cites the songs in Fiddler on the Roof as a good example, especially "the melody in If I Were a Rich Man. Some of the songs are said with a twinkle in the eye, like 'do you love me? Do I what…?' That's also very Jewish."

But musical theatre is not what it used to be, he says. There has been a shift in what directors want out of a musical. "Up until 20 years ago the music and lyrics were expected." Not so now. A successful show depends on it being based on a great book. And while accepting that they are here to stay, Hamlisch says that he is not a fan of musical revivals. "When I was growing up, the joy of going to Broadway was to see something new." However, he is quick to add that, "it doesn't mean the shows are no good".

He says that he is envious of singers such as Elton John as "they just sing; they don't have to audition. I'm always in the state of auditioning for someone. The combination of getting a song to an artist who wants to do it, who then does and it becomes a hit is a process that has to come in the right form."

His is seemingly unaffected by his stature as one the most recognised songwriting influences of our time - he has worked with some of the greats, including Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand - but confesses that he would "do anything to perform with Bette Midler". He admits that he is most proud of A Chorus Line for which he won the Pulitzer and a Tony. "I had been a dance-music arranger for years. I understand the brain and power of a dancer. I was the right guy to do it and I feel very comfortable about saying that."

At 67, Hamlisch travels and performs around the world. He holds the position of principal pops conductor for six orchestras and he is currently working on a new show for DreamWorks film studio.

Some composers embrace the technological opportunities available to them but Hamlisch is not one of them. He says that when he writes, "it's just usually me and the piano. I'm still the old-fashioned guy with the pencil and paper. I don't own a computer. I have a cellphone, that's as far as I go".

It seems to be more than enough.

Marvin Hamlisch conducts Idina Menzel at the Royal Albert Hall on October 6. Visit Evening with Marvin Hamlisch is at The Playhouse Theatre on October 9. Tel: 0844 871 7615.

Last updated: 11:47am, September 27 2011