Thursday, August 9, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch, friend and colleague

"Yes or no. . . . . .? YES OR NO?"

This was my introduction to Marvin Hamlisch, as I observed him in rehearsal with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It didn't matter to Marvin who responded -- he just wanted a quick answer -- no discussion, no maybe-this-or-that, no equivocation. Just yes or no. I do not remember the question -- only that several people within earshot were paralyzed with fear, no one daring to respond. From the back of the hall, I wanted to shout out "YES," but never having worked with him, I didn't dare intrude. I hadn't even met him yet.

As I would later learn, Hamlisch trusted that anyone who responded to him had good reason to, whether he liked the answer or not. Which is why I nodded knowingly reading an obituary in which he was described as the consummate pro. People loved his songs, his music for Broadway and film, his stage persona (and that fabulously quick wit). But I will remember him most for his professionalism. If it worked, he was all for it. If it didn't work, fuhgettaboutit. For Marvin, it was as simple as that.

In the mid 1990s, when the Pittsburgh Symphony's annual Holiday program had been lagging, the orchestra asked Marvin to revive it. He had already been Principal Pops Conductor for several years (Pittsburgh got to him before anyone else), and as the Holiday concerts were part of the pops series, he felt partly responsible. But he had never conducted it, and he wasn't going to start now. ("What? A Jew celebrating Christmas? Give me a break!") But the Pittsburgh Pops was his baby, and he wanted it to work, whether or not he was on the podium. So he came up with a story line, which required a funny man and a foil. Kevin Glavin, the comic bass-baritone, would play Santa Claus, and I would be his straight man. The plot (and for many subsequent years) was simple: Will we we get snow for Christmas? And would Santa be able to deliver it?

A script was created, and every day, Kevin and I rehearsed it for Marvin. The opening set the tone: after I conducted Leroy Anderson's Christmas Festival Overture, Santa would make his first entrance, running on stage, out of breath, stopping dead in his tracks with a frown on his face, facing the audience, saying

"Do you know how hard it is finding a parking place in this town? There was no room on the roof for Rudy and the guys, so we had to find a spot in Three Rivers Stadium . . . and they made me feed the meter!"

It was classic Hamlisch. The penultimate number featured Kevin (still as Santa) singing Silent Night in his rich, beautiful baritone, and then Marvin had us segue into Irving Berlin's White Christmas, performed by chorus and orchestra. Only one problem (gulp): Marvin wanted snow. Maybe not the real, honest-to-goodness kind, but his show business sense demanded it.

The stagehands were not happy. I had come to depend on these guys, and trusted them immensely, but they were incredulous to Marvin's demand. ("What, SNOW? How we gonna do THAT?") There was a lot of back and forth, many naysayers, but Marvin was adamant. The show had to have snow.

This was the part of Marvin that few understood. If he was the only one in the room who believed something, he was unshakeable. This was his genius, his foresight to know what would work with an audience. The musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony were not always pleased with Marvin's rehearsal style, because they felt he made too many decisions at the last minute. It belied the enormous amount of preparation he would put into a program. But once he heard the orchestra play it, he knew. And if a song was thirty seconds too long, he would snip away. Even if a song was ten seconds too long, he'd cut out ten seconds somewhere. Timing and pacing were everything to him. When he took over the Pittsburgh Pops, he transformed what had been merely orchestral concerts into dramatic musical presentations. With Marvin, it was always about the show.

One of his programs was 'Music at the Movies.' After entering the stage in his customary white tie and tails (a tall man, Marvin looked particularly elegant in a penguin suit, and knew it), and began to regale the audience, "Don't you long for the days of old, when you could go to a movie with your true love and it meant something? Remember what it was like to see the newest movie with Cary Grant and Kathryn Hepburn?" He went on: "How many of you remember your first kiss? Was it at the movies? Perhaps, by chance, was it while you were watching this movie?"

After which Marvin would spin around, ascend the podium, give a big downbeat, and out of the orchestra came . . . . shrieking strings from Psycho. Marvin had set them up, and while half of the audience gasped, the other half was doubled over in laughter. It was classic Hamlisch.

During the late 1990s, Marvin would often have to open the Pittsburgh Pops in late October when his beloved Yankees were playing in the World Series. It was agonizing for Marvin to be conducting while Jeter and Rivera were doing their heroics, not knowing what was going on. So he kept some new gizmo close by his music stand -- this was years before the iPhone -- that would give him inning-by-inning results. It drove the orchestra staff crazy, but the audiences never minded. That was just Marvin, being Marvin. Every once in a while, some admirer in the audience would yell something to him, and he would whip around and respond, sometimes carrying on a conversation with the person for the next few minutes. He made everyone feel like he was talking to you.

Small wonder that at the time of his death, six different orchestras had Marvin as their pops guy, and Philadelphia was next to join the club. Everyone wanted a piece of him.

But on this day, the stagehands wanted a different piece of him. Ultimately, someone came up with the idea of placing a faux snow machine high above the stage, so the 'snow' would fall onto the front rows of seats. It was completely hokey, corn pone to the hilt. But it didn't matter. When Marvin saw it, he was ecstatic. "Perfect! They're gonna love it!" After the dress rehearsal, some were still shaking their heads, but when the Mendelssohn Choir sang " . . . and may all your Christmases be white," the snow came down, and the audience oohed and ahhed.

As Marvin knew all along, the audiences loved it.

I last caught up with Marvin when he was a guest during my last season with the Hartford Symphony. A year or two before that, he was here for some other shindig, and my daughter and I took him to lunch at Trumbull Kitchen. The waiter was completely agog, but Marvin soon had the guy feeling like he lived down the street. And with my daughter, Carolyn, a performer who is still just one step away from her big break on the music theatre scene, Marvin could not have been more generous, taking her questions, listening to her intently. He was such a mensch.

It's so hard to imagine him gone. I already miss him so.
I learned so much from him.
He was,
and always will be,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . a singular sensation.

No comments: