Amsterdam, The Netherlands — The John Adams Institute — VIDEO Flashback 2011
Thanks to the John Adams Institute for sharing this recording! Thanks to The Louwman Museum in The Hague! -
The Family of Marvin Hamlisch.
On 19 September 2011, Marvin Hamlisch was honored with an invitation to the John Adams Institute in The Netherlands.
“Marvin Hamlisch was the maestro of American music, and one of the most celebrated composers of our time. He won three Oscars, four Grammys, four Emmys, a Tony and three Golden Globe awards. His Broadway credits include A Chorus Line and They’re Playing Our Song. He composed scores for more than 40 films, including The Sting, Ordinary People, The Way We Were, Sophie’s Choice, and the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film “The Informant!”
In this very special event he regaled the audience with songs and stories from his life in music. It was Hamlisch’s second visit to the institute, after his first in 2009. He died on August 6, 2012.
We remember him. The John Adams Institute.
Transcript and Video: The Visit of Composer Marvin Hamlisch to the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. (2011) — For the record:
MARVIN: Well, It’s a pleasure to be here. I did see some of this museum. I mean, Unbelievable, Spectacular. A Whole history just in the cars. Fantastic! So I’ m very pleased to be here, to see all of you here, and the person who is going to be talking to me, I must say it’s a man I’ve known for many years. We met in Baltimore (Baltimore Symphony) a hundred fourteen years ago actually, so it was a while ago, but he is wonderful and he works for a great company and he is in charge of communications and I found out I’m actually one of the people who actually buys the products from Aegon because one of the places they are involved is with Transamerica, and I have insurance with Transamerica. So I pray every night for Transamerica and Aegon. But he is a great guy and has a wonderful family, Mr. Greg Tucker.
GREG TUCKER: Well, This is nice. Great to be here in The Hague with you Marvin.
MARVIN: By the way I just want to say one thing about cars, because you all saw some of the cars right? I’ll never understand why truthfully, we changed the size of certain cars because you are so uncomfortable in most cars today and you see these huge tanks out there and you say to yourself ‘what was wrong with that?’
GREG TUCKER: Global Warming Marvin!
MARVIN HAMLISCH: Global warming? It so nice there, so lovely. (laughs)
GREG TUCKER: Well listen, we’re going to talk about your music, we’ve seen clips from many of the films that we love and of course that make you famous, but let’s just spend a moment talking about where and when it all began way back in a place in New York called Juilliard. You were a young kid I think.
MARVIN HAMLISCH: What happened is my parents came from Vienna, and they came to America and when I was about 5 ½ — 6 years old, and my sister who was two years older, was taking piano lessons, she wasn’t doing very well, and what I tended to do was to go to the piano and kind of work out the notes that I have heard her learning and stuff. So everyone said to my father that I had a very good ear, blah, blah, blah. And he not knowing New York at all, starts going to everybody saying
“my son is really talented, ‘what’s the best school, what’s the best school’ and of course he gets back the word ‘Juilliard, Juilliard, Juilliard.’
So you have to understand I was never somebody who loved the classical music, this was not my thing at 6 years old. My thing still is the New York Yankees who are playing tonight and leading 3‑nothing. So anyway, what happened was they say ‘Juilliard, Juilliard, Juilliard.’ Now, what did I play at the age of 6 ½? I played songs that were hit songs on the radio. Like the number one song at the time was “Goodnight Irene.” So Goodnight Irene was number one. I could play the song. So my father schedules me to have an audition at Juilliard at the age of 6 ½. And at Juilliard there was this thing called the Preparatory Division, because people think it’s just a college, but there is a Preparatory Division. So I go to this examination; the way this examination works is three people in a room and you walk in and you write down what you are going to play and basically they always ask you to play the most difficult part of whatever you are going to play. Now, I walk in and I play “Goodnight Irene.” This people are expecting Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, and I play “Goodnight Irene.” And the man says to me “and now what are you going to do?”
Well, I say “I could play Goodnight Irene in any key.”
And I started to do that. You have to understand about Juilliard that they had a really interesting choice here to make. They could either say “forget it kid” because you are not in the sphere that we want or they say “well you know, we will take a chance on this kid” because he honestly has a very good ear, he plays these songs in any key, let’s see what we can do. And that’s what they did, I mean they really backed me up. And the story I want to tell you about that backing up has to do with the fact that as I started learning the great masters, my biggest problem was that I got so nervous at these auditions that I used to throw up all the time. I knew where every bathroom was in the Juilliard School because I left my mark in everyone of them. So, and the other thing was that the examination always came around my birthday – I was born on June 2nd. — and you know the exam will come either at the end of may or the very early part of June, just to drive me crazy, because I couldn’t even enjoy the birthday worrying about going for the audition. And the reason the test was important is because that decided if you were going to keep the scholarship or not. My parents weren’t that wealthy so I really needed that scholarship.
Watch: The Exhibit at The Columbus Museum of Art: Remembering Marvin Hamlisch The People’s Composer:
So the one that I remember the most was this audition that I was supposed to do, I was about 11 years old, and my father said: “You know Marvin, maybe the mistake we’re making is we’re getting there right at the right time, you know, the audition is 2:30, we’re there 2:15. He said we should get there much earlier. We should get there early enough so you can really relax, enjoy yourself, calm down, you won’t throw up, you will be fine, everything will be fine. So we left for this thing at 1 o’clock in the afternoon for the 2:30 audition. And to get to Juilliard takes about 15 minutes, then you walk around the places and there is a store there called Charmers, where you can buy really good pencils and stuff like that, so it’s about a quarter to two, but I haven’t thrown up, I’ve been really good, I’ve been nice, and my father says “you know it’s such a beautiful day, let’s go upstairs to the sixth floor, the roof. Beautiful! You could see everything. So we go up to the sixth floor, the roof, and I see in front of me the famous Grant’s tomb, which is right up there. Juilliard now is at Lincoln Center but it used to be at 122nd Street and Broadway. And at 123rd Street & Broadway you could see Grant’s Tomb.
(And I as a youngster thought that Grant was a kid who didn’t do well at Juilliard and they killed him and they just set him up there. I Thought it was a former student.)
So now it’s like we look around, it’s quarter after, ant we think to ourselves, now is good, now we’re just going to go down there, handle the thing, I’m going to play my Bach, I’m going to be fine. Now, what happened? Well, two things had happened: The first thing is as I go to the door of the 6th floor, the door is locked! The door has locked from the outside. You can open from the inside, can’t open from the outside. And there I am supposedly going to be mister cool about to go crazy ‘cause I am yelling down from the 6th floor “help me, help me, help me!”
That’s number one. Finally that problem got straightened out, somebody heard me and came up. The second problem was that my mother in December – The December before- had bought the suit for me for this particular thing. She bought in December a gray pinstripe wool suit. We are in June, is in New York, is like 91 degrees and I am dying. And I told my mother I cannot play this piece of music in this, it’s driving me crazy, itching, it’s hot!
“So very quickly, my mother said “Well look, I can’t put on a linen now, It’s too late, what I can do is you can put your pajamas on, and if you have your pajamas on, you will be able, it will not itch you so much, it’s cotton, it will be fine.”
Look inside: The Childrens Book ” Marvin Makes Music” — Great for kids of all ages! Obtain a Copy, Watch videos:
So I go down there, but when you have to do a presentation at Juilliard I always say that you have to make it look difficult. So you come there at Juilliard, you go, you have to do all that, you have to make it worthwhile. And as I am doing that the three judges start laughing. And I am thinking to myself, I haven’t even played a note and they are laughing at me. And the reason they were laughing is because as I have gotten pacing back and forth upstairs and slowly but surely the pajamas start showing underneath the pants. So it was a very interesting tenth year, that’s all I can tell you, but we did get the scholarship and we kept going and I went to Juilliard from the age of six and a half to the age of 21, and what was great about it for me, even though it was very tough, one thing Juilliard does is that no matter what instrument or what you want to do, they make a “full rounded, learned it all musician.” Which allowed me in my later life to do things that I never even thought I’ll ever do but I was ready for it, whether it was conducting, arranging, play, it didn’t matter, and for that I am always very thrilled.
The other nice thing that happened at Juilliard was that when I won all these prizes I never heard a word from Juilliard, even though in my biography, no matter what, I always put in the word Juilliard. And only about 10, 12 years ago, the new head of Juilliard called me up and was very respectful and very sweet and then we had a wonderful rapport and I’ve even given some classes at Juilliard which I can’t believe I’ll ever thought, but you know what the heck, and…
GREG TUCKER: Not on the pajamas…
MARVIN HAMLISCH: Not on the pajamas, no, no….
GREG TUCKER: But everybody, be it you on music or theater, or anybody in insurance, for example, you look for that big break. And so what was it that you call Juilliard as a big break?
MARVIN HAMLISCH: What happens is my schooling was either Public School (which is PS9, New York,) then to a very wonderful, very unique school called Professional Children School, very much like FAME – if you saw the movie FAME – one of those schools, where all the kids in the school are on Broadway shows. I used to say about this school, when you walk up to a kid and say “hi, what’s your name” and the response is “ask my agent.” Very Professional. (laughs). And then I went to Queens College – I was going to Queens College and Juilliard. One of the first jobs that I got in my life was to be the rehearsal pianist on a show called “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand, that was my first job. In order to pull off that job – and I was going to college I had to say to my father – he really made me do this – that I will have to take off a term off college and no matter what happened in my life I would return to college. That was the bargain, otherwise you can’t do this thing. So that was the bargain that I stroke and by the way, I was good to my word. So I took this one semester off and I’m doing Funny Girl and I’m feeling great. Now my job to be exact about it was this: Barbra Streisand had a pianist. His name was Peter. Anything she sang alone, solo, he played. But anything she sang with anybody else or that anybody else sang, I’d play it. So most of the time I am at the piano because, you know she has a certain amount of songs alone and the rest of them are usually with the cast. So that’s my job. It’s a very fantastic job. We’re having a great time. And I’m in the part of the business I want, which is shows. I want to be on Broadway, that’s all I am thinking. So, it’s a certain night and Peter Daniels calls me up. This is a fateful moment and I’ll tell you why. He calls me up and says that a woman has called him to play a party that night because the man who runs this party, who gives a party every Saturday night, always used to have records and tapes playing in the background but has now bought a piano and has forgotten that they need a piano player. And he (Peter) had said no and gave my number to her.” As if I’m going to say yes. So she calls me up and she tells me the story about blah, blah, blah and we need a pianist. I said “Lady please, you know, I am a pianist, I’m playing with Funny Girl, I just don’t do this. And I said but if you tell me who the party is for perhaps I could send somebody over. And she says: “is for the Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel.” Sam Spiegel has just done “On The Waterfront” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” I said “I’ll be over in 10 minutes.” (laughs). — And parenthetically I told myself “I’m not Jewish for a hobby.”
And what happened was that ( this is a philosophy of mine that really took hold when this situation occurred, and this is what I really believe.) I believe that every person in life is one major opportunity. And the two requisites for that are:
1- you have to know “this is it, this is important”, and
2- you have to be ready for it.
When I heard Sam Spiegel’s name I went “one, the chances of me having a shot at being in a room with a Hollywood producer in New York city at a major party and me being there is a billion to one. So if that comes up, I’m going for it! And number two, it gives me the opportunity to possibly do something. And a lot of people I know, in fact, my sister, was a victim of this. My sister was asked sometimes to do something and she would say something like “you know I’m not ready, I didn’t take a course, call me back in six months. You never get the call back. They don’t call you. So One shot. So at that moment I get my trusty tuxedo and I go to Sam Spiegel’s home and I played this party. I am literally playing just background music, however you can image the difference of these people who are there who are now having music played for them, anything they want as opposed to having a record. I’m telling you, famous people are there. They’re asking. So they’re telling him this is the greatest party because if Bobby Kennedy wants to hear something I’m going to play it. Faye Dunaway was there, she asked play me something, I’ll play it! It doesn’t matter what you play, whatever, I am ready!
So what happens is when the party is over he says to me and I remember he was Viennese also so we had a lot of things that we could talk about. He says that he is working in a new film, it’s by John Cheever, it’s a short story and he is looking for a new composer because he gave a big break to Leonard Bernstein to do “On The Waterfront.” – That was a Sam Spiegel Film. So I go out, I buy the book and I read the book – a short story really – and I called him back cause I now have his phone number in my rolodex and I said to him:
“Mr. Spiegel I just want you to know I read this book and I think I’ve written a terrific theme for your film.” And he says “well, come on over!” So I come over, I play this theme and I am not kidding you, on that night Sam Spiegel, after I play the theme for him three times and he really loved it, he started calling people, and they will show up at his apartment and I had to play it for them. I told him at one time, “you know, if this song was played these many times on the radio, as I have played it here tonight it will be a smash!
So the next thing you know is he offers me a job to go to California and to do this film. And as I said, I wasn’t really worried about doing the film because I had told him “Yeah I can do it” – because once I get the job I’ll figure out how to do it. I don’t have to figure it out until I have to do it. And once I have to do it, I’ll go to people that I know and get all the advice I can and hopefully find the right people. So what worried me was not the doing the job, what worried me was the air, going by air, because I never flew before. So I was so nervous about flying that I took a train from New York to Los Angeles which took sixty hours. And as I said to people if you ever had a fear of flying the easiest way to get over it, is to take a train from New York to Los Angeles. So I thought it might be nice for you all to hear this theme and the whole world of movies opened to me once I’ve done this film. How many of you saw “The Swimmer” by the way? (not many) – You can see why my career took a while to get going…” (laughs)
VIDEO: A Marvin Hamlisch Piano Performance, Theme from “The Swimmer” (Performance at The Louwman Museum The Hague during his visit to The John Adams Institute:
GREG: In three days you wrote this right?
MARVIN: It took about couple of days. But then I went up to Hollywood and had a nice time up there; I was there long enough to figure out what the movie business was like. And because of the fact that no one was calling me to do a show I basically stayed up there for quite a while.
GREG: I want to move on to that because you’re known as much as a film musician as for theater, for Broadway. So Sam Spiegel gets you started, brings you up there, and then of course as we saw from Streisand (video shown at the event) your career really took off with a particular show called The Way We Were. How did that occurred?
MARVIN: You know that show called “Six Degrees of Separation”? In a way that’s really part of my life because when I found out – It took a while to figure this out but the relationships that you make with people sometimes is what keeps things happening in your life, because you just connect with certain people. So for instance, when I did the “Funny Girl” It was produced by a man named Ray Stark. He was a huge producer of Hollywood films. When it comes to Broadway I think probably “The Way We Were” may be the only show he ever produced. But in films he was huge. When I did the dance music for a show called “Henry Sweet Henry,” the director of that show was George Roy Hill who then did “The Sting.” And the choreographer of that show was a fellow by the name of Michael Bennett, who then later on did “A Chorus Line.” So all these little things mean a lot. Now, how I got to write the score for “The Way We Were” , is a very interesting story because it shows you the mentality –unfortunately or fortunately – of producers. I was brought up in a very European household. Very Viennese, my father was a person that really believed in the rules. The rules were everything. My mother not so much but my father, yeah. So, my father also believed very much that if you actually did good work, really good work, then that somehow pays itself off somewhere along the way. So Ray Stark calls me to tell me that he is doing a film called “Fat City” – now, let me just tell you right now, if you haven’t seen it you are a very lucky person. It’s not a very good movie and it was directed by John Houston. I may have one of the worst films that I ever did with John Houston, but to be honest with you John Houston was really gone from this film. The director wasn’t even there to tell me what he wanted. It’s like “unbelievable.” So what did they want? Very simple. They wanted me to go to Nashville, record, whether it’s old music or new music, I mean I can write it, I can have somebody else write it, it doesn’t matter. Just record about 20 minutes of country music, and then, you are on a certain budget, they give me the pieces of paper where you have to sign how much money costs and then come back to Hollywood and show them the “20 minutes” right? So this is exactly what I do. I go down there, I pick some really great musicians, we go on a studio, we start recording. It takes about 6 – 7 hours, you get twenty minutes of music, you are all happy, everyone is happy. When I come back to California I go to Hollywood, I go up to Ray Stark’s office and then there is Ray Stark. And in this hand I have all the tapes, I have all the stuff, all the recordings, those days it was all on tape. There was a lot. In this other hand I had all of the paperwork, the requisitions and costs. I have the number. And turns out I came $8k dollars less than what they were going to expend. They were thrilled that they saved eight thousand dollars right? And Ray Stark, without having heard anything, hasn’t even taken the tapes, says your came in eight thousand dollars less? I said “Yes I Did.” There is this other film I got called “The Way We Were.” I mean, talk about you wanting the story to go “he heard my music and fell in love with it so much and said: You Are My Man” but no, Eight Thousand cheaper, you got the job, you know what I mean?
So, then what happened was, again, getting yourself ready for certain things, I knew that Alan and Marilyn Bergman were the people who normally write for Barbra Streisand, so, the first thing I do is to call and find out their phone number. Now, Quincy Jones, again, all these things have a way of coming together, Quincy Jones, when he was the head of a certain record company, had recorded a song of mine called “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” with Lesley Gore. So I had his number in my rolodex and I called him and he gave me the number of the Bergmans. But he also said to me, “well if you are going to do a movie, you better get orchestrators, and then he gave me the number of these two orchestrators, he said “these guys have done hundred of movies, they can really do it great.” So I had them kind of in my corner. And then we wrote the song. Now, when we wrote the song I was really thrilled. I was totally happy. An then what’s very
funny is you go to the home of Barbra Streisand and three lousy singers (The Bergmans and me) are going to show her “The Way We Were.”I’ve got myself, can’t sing, I’ve got Alan and Marilyn Bergman – not exactly the best vocalists — but everything is fine and she makes a couple of changes, so this is her want, and we do the changes and everything is fine. Except then for some inexplicable reason which is still unclear to me, the suggestion came “well you know you have months before the film is going to be ready, why don’t you write another song for the hell of it. I was happy that she liked the first one, it was like, “I’m happy to quit here, you know.” So we wrote another one and I didn’t like the second one as much as I liked the first one. So thankfully the director of the film, Sydney Pollack did a smart thing. He had Barbra literally do what we call a “scratch track,” a track in which she sings but just for the piano and we put both of those tracks up against the film, and that’s when you really know what you have. It’s one thing to play it alone, but when you put it up with the actual images then there is a visceral thing that happens which you either like or you don’t like but starts to work. And the first song won, thank God. But the story I want to tell about The Way We Were is that the interesting part of this whole thing was that we recorded this thing, we did the whole movie, I was really feeling great about what I’d written, I was in a good mood, I was very proud and it’s very interesting when you finish a movie you can’t tell anybody. The movie may not come out in five months and you can’t tell anybody. You just kind a ‘and what are you doing?’ uh uh you know… I always say in California if you say to somebody ‘you’re not doing anything’ then you go: ‘He is out of work.’ In New York if you’re not doing anything they go: ‘he is really working in something big’ you know… It’s just the difference of the coasts you know?
So we finish this picture and it gets previewed I think in Denver or Phoenix, one of these two places. And what bothered me about the preview was that I felt that we didn’t get people crying enough at the end which I just didn’t get it. And I was really upset with myself ‘cause I thought ‘I don’t know I might have made a mistake here because they should be crying, you know… So I go up to these two guys, these two orchestrators, I said “guys you’ve done over 400 pictures, what did I do wrong? I said, ‘cause is driving me crazy.” They said: “well you know Marvin, when you do a film and you have a theme song you might hear it 30 times but the audience only hears it three times because they’re not aware of it 30 times, because they’re watching a film and they hear all this dialogue. So you think that you may have overused it but I think you got to use it more.” And the pivotal scene where I thought I was being brilliant was the very end of the film when she touches his hair at the plaza hotel. This was the pivotal moment and I thought my original version was had what I called “the second theme,” you know a supporting theme happened there and then as they all left each other, I had her coming singing The Way We Were. That was my original concept. So I re-wrote it and decided to put the melody now, the way we were melody, on that moment when she touches his head – Still have her sing at the end – but at least it’ll be the same melody. So I felt very strongly about this and I wrote it out and I went to the head of the music department and he said to me, “no! We are not going to spend another dollar on this thing. Forget it.” So then I said to him – “kind of like with a real grin and a come-on, yo-ho-ho” — ‘you must have a film doing a session here, this is going to take me only five minutes, you can put me in one of your other movies just to get these five minutes with the orchestra.’ “No!”
So I did a very daring thing because I really couldn’t sleep. I really could not stand the fact that I had a better solution and I hadn’t been able to get it. So I gave them back $15 thousand dollars so I could record this thing on my ticket. Now I’m paying $15 thousand dollars for an orchestra that I’m going to use for 10 minutes but you have to pay them for three hours, so it was a heck of a gig, you know what I mean?
But I did have the last laugh because the next preview there were tears. And when the tears started I went “it was worth it.” And I’m very big on that, I do believe that if you get a chance to alter something that you really think it’s wrong, if you even get that chance, you need to stand up and say “this is it, I have to have it.” So that was a turning point in my life because of having “The Sting” and “The Way We Were” in the same year set up a great moment for me at the Oscars. I mean having two great films: The Sting is a perfect film, that thing is just perfect. The way We Were is not perfect but the good news about The Way We Were is that it almost doesn’t matter because those two people had electricity on that stage. – on the screen. I mean I always say that the two best love stories I’ve ever done were Redford and Newman, and Redford and Streisand, because it’s chemistry, it’s chemistry like you can’t believe. I mean that chemistry takes apart all of the things that are bad with the movie. I mean, one of the things that I felt very strongly about “The Way We Were” was that I was going to make it as romantic as responsible because I wasn’t a big lover of the other stuff in that movie, particularly the stuff having to do with Hollywood and all of the political stuff which by the way from the time that I first saw the film to the time it came out it got really much shorter, much less, I mean it got down to the main basics. But what worked in that film was that love story. Worked fabulously. And those two people on that screen they could have said “blah, blah, blah, blah” and you’d have loved them.
GREG: So the music does shape the film.
MARVIN: There are times in music where I think producers are hoping you can somehow make it better, meaning support it, make it better. I’m not sure if music by itself could ever –quote “Save a loser” – I mean that’s asking a lot. But a film can, in a comedy make it feel much quicker, it can in a love story really get your heart strings; there is a lot of things it can do. I mean look at “Jaws,” It’s a perfect example. Jaws, you know you hear …. (imitates jaws music tune ) and I don’t even go in the bath anymore, I am a shower man now, do you know what I mean?
GREG: Well you created an irresistible moment for us so you are going to have to indulge us here and to help you we have a young rising star here from The Netherlands who many of you will know from a famously aired competition for Mary Poppins , she’s also appeared on Dirty Dancing as well as a number of television program and is currently in The Producers. So please give a warm welcome to Noortje Herlaar
Marvin plays the piano. Song: The Way We Were.
MARVIN: (To Noortje Herlaar) Now that you are here. This is so wonderful, we’ll play an Academy Award “loser”, I do lose them also you know. And this a very interesting song because the song it lost to says the whole thing about this event. This is Ice Castles and we lost to Shaft; so there you are.
Song: Through The Eyes of Love (Rendition by Melissa Manchester)
GREG: Now even the non-musicians in the room will surely know Marvin that there is a unique sound, there is a certain sound to your music that’s similar, I mean Gershwin, you can tell a Gershwin song. You didn’t write Shaft for instance. So do you think you have…is there a “Hamlisch sound” is there a unique style?
MARVIN: I very much care about melody which these days it’s almost – I’ll say at the brink of being ultra old fashion. — I still believe that “a melody” is what it’s about. Right now we are in a very “rhythm oriented” world as opposed to (imitates fast rhythmical sound) as opposed to t (imitates melodic ballad sound.) I just hear the melody but that’s probably because that what I grew up on. That’s what I remember, that’s what I feel strongest about. I pride myself in being somewhat different in terms of my sound for certain films, I mean I think if you look at what you saw before (Video “The Inspiring Music of Marvin Hamlisch” ), I think what I did for “Take the Money and run” is wildly different from the James Bond score, which was about more Rock and Roll and more into a whole other world, I mean I try to immerse myself in what the film particularly needs.]
GREG: Well let’s talk about what you are doing today. You did “The Informant!” last year, with Matt Damon (Directed by Steven Soderbergh)
MARVIN HAMLISCH: Yes with Matt Damon; a very interesting film because it was one of the few films in my life that I didn’t really write a note for the first two weeks; I could not come out with anything that I thought was really good and one day I’m walking on the streets and I realized that the guy in the film is bipolar so that means that what’s white is black, what’s up is down, what’s right is wrong, and then I decided to write the whole score literally like a schizophrenic would, meaning trying to figure out what was going on in his mind, which is totally different that everybody else perceives it. And I remember calling the director (Steven Soderbergh) and say “you better come over here because if I write this and commit to this I just want you to know you’re in for it. I just want to see; and Steven Soderbergh really liked it and I was really happy with that. And I’m now working on a show in New York for Dreamworks which I’m really excited about because that’s really where my heart is – my heart is usually in theater – and for film.
There is a film that is going to be coming out, it hasn’t been done yet, but we are looking forward to it which is about an incident in the life of Liberace. (Update: Released in 2012, after Marvin’s Passing. won an Emmy) Is not the Liberace story, but a very specific incident, and I’ll be writing the music for that. And by the way I met Liberace years ago in Vegas and I can only say to you that it ever there was a man who did not have a mean streak at all, one of the sweetest people you ever met in your life and so un-competitive, it was ridiculous. And the thing about Liberace that’s so great is that if you were to buy a Liberace record and you just close your eyes, you don’t look at the cover, you didn’t see the mink coat, nothing, the playing is unbelievable. I mean, I’m thinking about literally having to overdub most of the piano stuff because nobody could actually play what he actually played. I mean he is the Lang-Lang of Pops. It’s unbelievable what he could do. So to get that sound is a whole other thing.
GREG: Do you think when you come to a song you have to have an idea…
MARVIN: Well, actually, starting with The Way We Were, what was interesting is that a lot of people think that a lyricist wrote the title for the song. There wasn’t a professional lyricist who wrote the title; The Way We Were is the title of a book by Arthur Laurents; made into a movie, sent out to the Bergmans to put all the words but the title “The Way We Were” was in fact the title of a book. And that, when I realize that there are people in this world, regular people, normal people who have titles in their head, and if they had a composer around he could write… you know…
GREG: Well, I don’t want to take you up on that, but I’m going to take you up on that. We might have a few ideas, here, and we’ve got a composer…
MARVIN: It should be original ideas, because sometimes some calls out “Tea for Three” – it’s not original.
GREG: Can we bring the house down just a little bit. This is the audience participation moment. So what we want you to do is think about a “brand new” title, holler it out, and let’s see if Marvin can put it to music. Now, be creative here. Come’on…. There! In the back!
AUDIENCE MEMBER: “Two Skinny People Hugging”
MARVIN: This is not “Stomp The Band” but it’s a good title. Hold on to it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: “A Private Man”
GREG: “Two Skinny People hugging a Private Man..” No!
MARVIN GOES TO THE PIANO. STARTS A COMPOSITION…
Marvin Hamlisch sings:
“So they ask me what I’m gonna do tomorrow,
What I’m gonna to tomorrow, I cannot say.
Because I’m a private man.
And I do the best I can,
But I’m a private man.
But I’ll tell you about what I did last Sunday night
And I’ll tell you and I bet you know it! It’s all right.
I saw two people hugging on the street.
And I said I gotta meet those crazy folks, O yes it’s true!
But that’s all you gonna get from me
That’s all you can because, my friends
I’m a private man.
SONG ENDS. (Applause.)
GREG: (to the audience) Well, now that we have the light house up, let’s turn it over to your questions. Any questions
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What’s the score you wish you’ve written?
MARVIN: That’s a good question. You mean a score that I love so much. A French film: Cinema Paradiso. It’s a fantastic score and it’s so great that even just hearing the music alone is a great experience. I love that film. But that music is to “drop dead die.” Which is unfortunate because you’d like to live while you heard it… (laughs) But, that’s the one. I mean that’s really wonderful stuff.
GREG: Another question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What would you say you prefer? Composing a film score or composing songs
MARVIN HAMLISCH: Well, unfortunately there is a whole thing that comes with writing a song as opposed to writing a score. And I’m being very honest now. This is not the kind of answer I would give to the Hollywood press because I will get killed for it. From an ego standpoint when you write a song and it becomes a hit, that is what we will call “real fire” in your career. That’s something that just ignites a whole lot of stuff.
You know there are some great scores that have been written that no one has ever heard of, because if the film “dies” the score dies. And then there are some great scores and great films that come out and still no one’s heard them. So what usually gets nominated at the end of the year are usually scores from major motion pictures. But if you wrote just the song from “Titanic”, more people know you from that than know who wrote the score of Titanic. So the good thing about film is that if you can immerse yourself in the score and you are happy with it because you really like it and that’s it, fine. Nothing wrong with that. Because a great thing about working in film is they pay you. They pay you if the movie is a hit or a bum. You get paid. That’s not what happens on Broadway. On Broadway you kill yourself for two years, you write it, it comes out, it’s a bum, you have nothing, zero. You had nothing going in, it’s a bum, you had nothing going out. But when you have a hit song it’s kind of it’s just another lane, but a very hot lane.
So in my opinion, and this may have hurt me in my career, I really try to look for a film that has a song. I just think that’s more up my alley. Now, if you’d said to me, well, you could’ve written the music for “Schindler’s list” but there’s no song. Believe me I’d have written the music for Schindler’s list no question. But most of the time in your career you don’t get five great movies. You’re thrilled if you get two great movies. I mean you don’t get five, you know, it’s very hard. That’s really the difference between the two.
GREG: OK. ONE MORE…
AUDIENCE MEMBER: When you are composing, what’s going on in your head? Do you just hear music, melody, or do you see visuals or pictures, or a combination?
MARVIN HAMLISCH: So the question is “What’s going on in my head when I’m writing..” Early on in my career I started writing a lot of songs, just for the heck of it right? And I started to collect a small body of work on my piano, and then I read the obituary of Steve Allen. He was this absolutely fantastic television personality, funny as anything, but he was a very good composer and a very good pianist. And in reading the obituary it said like he had 990 songs published, of which only two does everybody know. (Sings: “You’re walking along the street, they’re having a party…” (Song: “This Could Be The Start of Something Big”) he wrote that and he wrote another one called “South Rampart Street parade.” So I thought to myself you know there is something crazy about writing 990 songs of which the public only knows two, because the thing about the public, that I don’t think they even understand is YOU (the public) control my career. I write a song that I think it’s crap, you like it, everybody is happy. I write a song that’s great, you don’t like it, I’m unhappy. I write a song that I really think it’s good and you like it, now we are all happy. But the people who decide which way the song is going doesn’t have to do with me. It has to do with what the public thinks. So at an early point on my career I went “you know, it’s not really worth writing just songs for the heck of it, where you’re just knocking on the doors of people and say “could you sing this?” First of all it’s very demeaning for me to have to go – I’m not good at this – “hello, hello, I’m begging you to sing this song,” they say no! And then you have to live with yourself where you go: “it’s rejection” this is not good. So what I decided to do was to become “a gun for hire” meaning: You hire me, I know it’s gonna be used. I know this thing is gonna have its day. You either hire me for a film or for a Broadway show, but there comes a book with it, there comes an idea with it, there come actors with it, so my life has been about not so much of tons of stuff, just a small amount but stuff that gets out there. So you know, A Chorus Line was a show, it gets out there. They’re Playing Our song was a show, it gets out there. It doesn’t mean I haven’t have bums too; I had a huge bum in London years ago called Jean Seberg. A show that I loved but was a bum. But at least you know it has its day in court. So I don’t walk around the whole day going, (Sings: “with a song in my heart’.) No. But I’m very quick once I get the assignment. Once I get the assignment what happens normally is that I immerse myself. I immerse myself in that story. And then I try to get into the mind of the protagonist of the story. And then I start thinking about what’s the most interesting way to go about this. And that’s how it starts to come around. And what really – I will tell you one piece of advice that I think is really true — If it’s ten o’clock at night and you are writing something and it’s eleven o’clock at night and you like it, you put on tape and you go “ok, I got it!” At 11 o’clock at night you think is the greatest piece of music you’ve ever wrote. Now you have to go to sleep. If you wake up at 10 o’clock the next morning and still like it, you have something. But if you don’t like it at 10 o’clock in the morning – which happens most of the time – you go, “another day at the shop.” The thing about it is with a movie, what you try to do is support the movie the best you can. And that’s really the bottom line. In a show is different cause you’re the person that is making these songs come alive. But that’s how I try to do it. I try to get myself totally immersed. My only pet peeve on movies that I can’t stand is – and this happen in America more that it happens in Europe, I kind of like the way they do European films better in terms of the music. In America what will happen is a film will start and it says “1836 Budapest” and you’ll hear (Sings: “baby baby I’m here from Budapest and I love you”) (laughs.) In their attempt to have another hit song they would throw anything in, doesn’t matter the time, doesn’t matter the place, doesn’t matter the context, that’s it! And I can’t stand that, that drives me crazy. I wanted to be, if it says “1836 Budapest” I want to sound like 1836, that’s about it, you know?
GREG: We’re often asked in the business world to think out of the box. But of course you at one point on your career actually, literally had to think “in the box.” Tell us the story.
MARVIN HAMLISCH: This is an “A Chorus Line” story, I got this phone call from Michael Bennett, about doing a show and all he knew about the show is he “thought it’s about dancers.” Period. The end. That was it. And I left all my stuff in California, zoomed to New York and started working on the show. And I didn’t have an apartment in New York, so I found an apartment which was in a very beautiful block in New York. What I didn’t realize is this was a new apartment building and they make the apartment buildings in New York “paper thin walls” and within a day or two a woman kept calling my phone and say “could you stop that crap” and I would say to her, it’s not that I won’t stop ‘cause you call it music, ‘cause I’m really doing my best here. So I called and architect asking what can I do – cause this woman is going to drive me crazy, — and they actually built in this apartment a little box, a box, because I was working on an upright piano. We put this piano into the box, the box was a foot off the floor so it wouldn’t make any kind of vibrations, and most of the music for A Chorus Line was written in a box. And the thing I want to say about A Chorus Line that is really important, cause I really believe this very much, — because anything that I tell you has come out of my own experience so I can believe in it, — but when I gave up having just won three Oscars, when I gave up my career to go to New York and dash any hopes of getting the next big picture, because I’m going to go out of that world for a while; the reason I did it was simply because this was my passion, what I wanted to do, and here is the guy that I’m crazy about offering me a job, not offering it to Stephen Sondheim, offering it to me. And he had just worked with Stephen Sondheim, so it seemed unbelievable to me that he would hire me. And I think in life, whether it was a hit or a bum, because people think – I say this because it was a hit, but it could have been a bum — if you get an opportunity to really follow your heart, absolutely follow your heart, “I don’t care what” , you do it because the worst death I can think of, the worst, is on your death bed saying “if only I had…” (fill in the words.)
And so to me, my whole life I would have been so depressed if I had not – cause I could’ve said to Michael: “Michael, (Bennett), you are a little late you know. I got three movies coming up, I got this and that, I’m the hottest guy in Hollywood, enjoy yourself, you know?” But this was the “manna from heaven,” and I wasn’t going to say no.
And the thing about A Chorus Line was that when we were working on it we did three workshops on that show over a year and a half, and nobody thought it was going to be this big hit. Nobody. I love when people talk to me now about it – like we knew. We had no idea. We were just trying to do a good, different show. That’s all we were trying to do. Just change the whole thing up there. No big star, no big set, no big costumes, no big orchestra. Just trying to do something new. But I had so much belief in Michael Bennett that I just thought he could lead me to a mine field and I would have gone. I was really into it. And it was a great experience and on opening night I said to him what do you think if we made a mistake and this is going to get killed.
And he said: “do you think you did a good job?” I said: “yes” He said “Do you think you wasted any time” I said “ NO” “So then you’ve done all you can do.”
So there we are at Sardi’s the show has opened, I’m waiting for the newspaper the New York Times and New York times in those days was next to Sardi’s. So I walked over to get the New York Times, first paragraph “Brilliant” second paragraph “brilliant” get to the fifth paragraph, ‑this is something I will remember to my death-( “The Music by Marvin Hamlisch, this time without the help of Scott Joplin…”) And then death, pure death, this is like horrible. So after I threw up (laughs) – “went to Juilliard, why not, you know…” – I was totally depressed to the point that I was in bed for like three days after that. Here is the biggest show on Broadway and I am like “can’t even move” – and I kept thinking to myself “if I go downstairs for a taxi, the taxi drive is going to be looking at me and say: “you are the one that got that bad review, get out of my cab” you know what I mean? So what happened was – two things happened to get me out of the funk cause it was really bad – One was a dear friend of mine sent me a book about the worst reviews ever written for composers, starting from classical composers. Worst review that Beethoven ever got, that George Gershwin ever got, that Bach ever got, and I say “boy I’m in good company, and the second thing that happened that was for me God sent was that the show opened on a Wednesday or Thursday, but by Sunday we got the Sunday review in the New York Times which was written by Walter Kerr, and he was the Dean of all the writers in Broadway and he loved the show and he loved the score. He called the score “Perfect” So I called Michael Bennett and I said, Michael I know I’m not supposed to do this but gotta let me call Walter Kerr because I gotta thank him for this because he is kept me from putting the bullet in the barrel you know? And I called him. I called Walter Kerr and said “you have saved my life, cause I have not been able to walk outside for four days. I am talking about no hunger, no this, no that, just get me another pill, just get me anything, you know what I mean?
An then A Chorus Line became this thing that was like off and running and it’s all around the world. (Read more: A Chorus Line, Get License for this musical )
I know we have to finish this up but I want to tell one story about A Chorus Line that I love, and again, from my own experience. It’s something you never realize; So A Chorus Line is coming to the last of its previews, we had like ten previews. And I have to be honest with you, the applause at the end wasn’t like anything that it became. It became huge at the end. We were doing the same thing except for one difference and it was getting “ok” applause. And no one could fix it, nobody. I mean, Michael Bennett had no idea what was wrong, I had no idea what was wrong, the book writer had no idea, Joe Papp, a brilliant producer, had no idea and we said to ourselves “I can’t believe we’re doing these incredible ballads, these fantastic dances and we’re getting (mimics a soft applause.) So who comes to the show? On about the 4th, or 5th preview, Marsha Mason who was then married to Neil Simon comes to the show. And when it’s over she says “I have to see Michael”, because Marsha had done a show with Michael.
And she says to Michael “I think I know what’s wrong with the show” He says, “tell me because I have no idea.” She said “well you know in the end of the show when they’re giving up the jobs a person who did not get the job during that part of the show, was Cassie, and you cannot do that to an audience, because we know that Cassie is the best person up there, we knew she was the most qualified, if not over qualified and no director worth a salt would turn out the best person just because she didn’t love him or their love affair didn’t work out.”
Because it was very personal actually with Michael, because Michael had been married to Donna McKechnie in real live. So he was using this ending of this thing to almost take care of his own psychological problems. So, for the hell of it, the next day Michael changed the ending and just had her get the job. It was a one second change. You are going to win, you are going to lose, next. I swear to God, from that day on, that show was incredible. And I remember saying to someone, “do you know what this remind me of: if you buy a 35mm camera and you see yourself through the focus, you know the distance between unfocused and focused is literally nothing. That’s what life is all about. I think that whole thing that happened with Donna McKechnie and that whole situation taught me a life’s lesson. Because sometimes you are that close to it. You are that close to the solution, and you are killing yourself all over the place, and you have to just go (imitates moving the lens of a camera,) and that’s a very important lesson that I learned. Because sometimes is a note, sometimes is the way you play, sometimes is a key, sometimes is a feeling, it’s just is, but you know that you are closing in on it. So it was a great, great lesson.
GREG TUCKER: Well, again, you whetted our appetite. What do you say if you give us some music from A Chorus Line.
MARVIN HAMLISCH: Okey! And I want to say this has been a lovely, lovely evening. And I’m going to say, for those of you who have a chance to see this private museum, do it. Wow!
MARVIN STARTS PLAYING “ONE,” stops and says: “you know the man who asked me what’s going on in my head when I am writing, this is a good example. “ONE”, how did we get to “One”, well, the lyricist came up with the title “one’ the idea was that we’re all in it together. Michael said to me before I got to playing anything he said, “I must have this” So when I sat down I already had (hits the two first notes of the song;) that’s how the song gets written, it becomes part of what you need.” He then re-starts playing the song “One.” Plays: “Overture to A Chorus Line”
The great singer Noortje Herlaar enters. Sings “What I Did For Love” and Marvin ends the appearance with the final notes on the piano.
WORDS FROM THE JOHN ADAMS INSTITUTE:
I would like to offer some “thank yous” on behalf of the John Adams Institute.
First of all Greg Tucker, thank you, for expertly conducting this interview with Mr. Hamlisch but beyond that the John Adams Institute works with other partners to bring speakers to The Netherlands. If I have called Marvin Hamlisch and asked him to come he wouldn’t have taken the call I think. Because Greg Tucker asked him then he came. Thank you very much to Greg and for all that you do.
Noortje Herlaar, thank you very much, it was spectacular your contribution.
To our friends and sponsors of the Institute, most of whom are here tonight both current and soon to be, thank you all very much for your support.
A special thanks to Aegon, to the Louwman Museum, The Hague, for this remarkable space. To our steady supporters and the US Embassy.
VIDEO: Higher sound quality. (1H 17Min Duration). with background pictures of the Marvin Hamlisch visit to the Louwman Museum and the John Adams Institute. (Includes: The Car Exhibit at The Louwmna Museum) — Enjoy!