Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012): Harmony and Ham

August 7, 2012 at 11:24 pm 1 comment

Earlier this summer a student of mine emailed:

“Tomorrow night I’m hearing Marvin Hamlisch conduct a bunch of Gershwin stuff with the National Symphony, you jealous??” [Quoted with permission]

There is a lot to be envious of in that sentence, especially given that I was deep in the midst of a month home renovations.  But what piqued my jealousy was the fact that they were going to get to experience Marvin Hamlisch in action.  With Hamlisch’s unexpected passing yesterday, I’m glad that this student had the opportunity.

Back in graduate school, fellow Amusicologist Drew and I taught for a course on the American Musical devised up by our illustrious advisor, Carol Oja.  Using the generous resources at our disposal (and the cachet that accompanies an invitation to speak at Harvard) an in-class interview with Hamlisch took place in the middle of the semester.  Personally, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of his visit.  Here was one of the most decorated popular composers of the late 20th century.  The man is an EGOT for goodness sakes: Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar, Tony.  Plus a Pulitzer.  Regardless of how you feel about such awards with respect to artistry and industry, one must doff thine hat.  One might also expect a disengaged, self-important person.  This was not the case.  He was entertaining and witty, fully captivating–a complete ham.


Ryan, Drew, Marvin, and Carol (2008)

By popular vote, the class requested that he perform his song from A Chorus Line: “Dance: 10, Looks: 3.”  Sitting in the front row of Paine Hall watching him pound away at our concert grand, bellowing out Edward Kleban’s lyrics of the song was one of the more notable moments in my graduate school career:

Tits and ass.
Bought myself a fancy pair.
Tightened up the derriere.
Did the nose with it.
All that goes with it.

Tits and ass!
Had the bingo-bongos done.
Suddenly I’m getting nash’nal tours!
Tits and ass won’t get you jobs
Unless they’re yours.

A song about implants may not not be all that titillating today, but in the context of Broadway 1974 it was ahead of its time.  A Chorus Line is basically about people—about life stories and identity, individuals and community.  Characters are constructed through vignettes that are part monologue, part song.  Here is a foot-taping ditty by an outspoken female character that unabashedly mixes sex and work, placing second-wave feminism front and center.  The message at hand–that talent isn’t worth a damn if you don’t look the part–is smoothed over, perhaps even masked a bit by the vaudevillian styling that unfolds in the quasi-AABC form of Hamlisch’s song.  But that is one reason that his music for A Chorus Line became as popular as it did.  Even when it wears its heart out on its sleeve, as in “What I Did For Love” there is so much more beneath the surface.

What I like best about Hamlisch’s music is the fact that he was a pianist/composer.  That is, like Gershwin, his songs fit very neatly under the hands.  The chord progressions make greater sense when played and consider in terms of voice leading, than when analyzed through traditional means.

Take the opening of “One” for example.  The changes over the first stanza are as follows:

Ebmaj7                           A7
One singular sensation, every little step she takes.
Ebmaj7                             Bbm6                        C7
One thrilling combination, every move that she makes.
Cm6                D7                        Gm D7  Gm
One smile and suddenly nobody else will do.

C#7                                                   F#m C#7  A7     E7
You know you’ll never be lonely with you-know-who.

Let’s say you play that first Ebmaj7 in root position.  To get to the A7 simply slide your thumb up a half step and your middle finger and pinky down a half step–no need to move the index finger off the G.  Similar half-step motion gets you from the Bbm6 to the C7 as well.  In root position, keep your thumb and pinky in place on the Bb and G, respectively, and slide index and ring fingers down a half-step from Db and F to C and E.  Lower the Bb and E another half-step and you are at Cm6.  Another quite slide and you arrive at D7.  It feels great under the fingers and remains fun to play even on multiple occasions.

And that was ultimately what impressed me the most about his visit to our class.  Hamlisch seemed to be having fun, playing a song that had probably been requested of him countless times over the course of more than thirty years.  Not a lot of Broadway composers can sit down at the piano and accompany their songs, let alone offer a performance as dynamic and engaging as you might encounter it in a theater.

In addition to “Dance: 10, Looks: 3,” Hamlisch also played the theme from his first film score The Swimmer (1968).  It too was harmonically and rhythmically fluid.  I’ve never seen the film, so I can’t say much more about it.  But hopefully someday someone will write more thoroughly about Hamlisch’s creative output for the stage, screen, and concert hall.

I would have loved to hear Marvin Hamlisch conduct Gershwin with the National Symphony.  Alas, that won’t happen.  The jealousy grows.

Entry filed under: musicology, Ryan Raul Bañagale, Thinking Out Loud. Tags: , , , , , .

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1 Comment

  • 1. Ralph P. Locke  |  August 8, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Wonderful evocation of a fascinating, multi-sided pianist-composer-arranger. Many of us became aware of him from his performances of Scott Joplin rags on the soundtrack of The Sting (1973). I wish I could have been in your classroom that day….! Thanks for sharing the memories…


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