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Lunch at Lever House with: Marvin Hamlisch

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-02

Marvin Hamlisch says he's still here - and he's looking.

"Who knows - the next big project may be just a dime away," the celebrated composer and conductor said.

Then he gave a short laugh.

"Well, perhaps more than a dime away - given the rising cost of phone calls," Mr. Hamlisch said. "Getting the right marriage of people in show business is the hardest thing. I always say that putting together a show is a bit like trying to get three or four friends to go out with you to a restaurant on a Saturday night. Everyone's ego has to be massaged about the venue, the time, even the composition of the group."

He laughed again. At 62, Mr. Hamlisch retains a boyish guffaw that frequently punctuates his conversation.

"I'm looking, my radar is on to find the right project - I certainly want to do another Broadway show, and I've some ideas of what I'd like to do," Mr. Hamlisch said. "I'd love to do a really funny, highly enjoyable musical comedy - where you could sit back and laugh your head off. I'm a 'Type A' personality, which means I need to be doing things constantly. I'd hate to think that when it comes to writing, this is it. The idea of retiring - that's not me. I don't ever want to sit on my laurels."

Those laurels include virtually every major award in entertainment. Indeed, over a composing and performing career that began while he was barely in his teens, the Upper West Side-born Mr. Hamlisch has won three Oscars, four Grammys, two Emmys, a Tony and three Golden Globe awards. His groundbreaking show, "A Chorus Line," received the Pulitzer Prize.

"I like being busy," Mr. Hamlisch said. "I don't like an imposed vacation."

Imposed vacation? What, then, is one to make of the fact that "A Chorus Line" is being revived on Broadway in the fall? Or that Mr. Hamlisch is the principal pops conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and the National Symphony orchestras?

What's one to make of the fact that just this past weekend he was in Ohio at a performance of "Anatomy of Peace," a symphonic suite that he composed to draw attention to the need for global unity?

What's one to make of the fact that since his marriage to Terre Blair in 1989, Mr. Hamlisch seems to have ratcheted up his enthusiasm not only for his craft but for humanitarian and philanthropic work?

What's one to make of the fact that, at Carnegie Hall on May 8, Mr. Hamlisch will lead the New York Pops in a star-studded musical tribute to its late founder, Skitch Henderson? The event will reunite Mr. Hamlisch with a star for whom he wrote songs while he was still a teenager, Liza Minnelli.

And Mr. Hamlisch's response?

"The goal is to keep writing," he said. "The goal is to remain relevant. I'm always looking for viable projects. I write best when I am focused on a specific project."

But, the reporter said, after five decades of writing how does Mr. Hamlisch sustain his creativity and keep composing on his Yamaha and Steinway pianos?

"My piano teacher at Juilliard, Edgar Roberts, often said that talent was like water in a deep well," Mr. Hamlisch said. "The more you pump, the more the water comes out - the water gets colder and clearer. The well of creativity doesn't run dry, especially the more you keep pumping it.

"In music, if you write 10 songs, you want to write 10 more. You don't run out of steam. You get into a rhythm - you can feel a crazy manic high. I feel that rhythm in my body," he said. "The mechanical part is simple - the language of thought is English, which I simultaneously translate into music, and out it flows. The part that you hope hits you is the 'God,' the mother lode, the angel of drama, or whatever gives your work that special spark. If that ingredient is given to you, then your work shines. But that doesn't mean I sit around waiting for the spark. The quickest way to run out of steam, however, is to stop. And I don't intend to ever stop."

He hasn't stopped since he was 5 years old. That's when Mr. Hamlisch's father Max, a musician, and mother Lilly - both Vienna-born Jews - heard Marvin hammer out tunes on the family piano in imitation of his older sister Theresa.

"My father went around asking which school would be the best one for me - and so I was enrolled in Juilliard," Mr. Hamlisch said. "My father would have preferred me to be a concert pianist, the next Vladimir Horowitz. The problem was that the little fellow he took to Juilliard didn't want to be a Horowitz but a Richard Rodgers, someone who composed show tunes."

His father may have been privately disappointed but he was no less enthusiastic about his son's desires.

"Marvin," the older Hamlisch said to his son, "if you are to compose show tunes then it behooves you to learn to play the piano well."

There were times when the young Marvin felt that learning to play the piano took him away far too much from the obsession of the boys of West 81st Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues, where he'd grown up. That obsession was a classical New York street sport called punch ball. To this day, Mr. Hamlisch remains enamored of sports, especially of baseball - and most especially of the New York Yankees.

Like the Yankees, Mr. Hamlisch is a New York institution. He said that he savored his celebrity as much as anyone else but that he wasn't swayed by it.

"I don't even keep my awards where I can see them," he said. "They're behind me, a part of the past. I'm a person who looks ahead to what more is possible. I'm very competitive with myself. I'm very disciplined. I am very focused on a specific project when I'm working on it. That's why I'm always looking for viable projects."

Mr. Hamlisch paused for a bit, and then said:

"Ever since I was 6 years old, I heard one phrase from my loving parents - 'This is a God-given gift that you have Marvin.' I see my music as a gift. I don't ever want to waste it. And while I'm still energetic, I also know that there are time limits to everything in life. So I just love to go at it. The reason I'm obsessed to the degree that I am in my music is the enjoyment, the ability to give pleasure to millions of people out there. I understand how blessed I am. For me, at least, it's just not yet time to cool it."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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