Low-key Hamlisch making it up as he goes along


Composer Marvin Hamlisch, who has been all over the American musical map, touches down in Baltimore this weekend as he performs pops concerts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight through Sunday in the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

During the first half of the program, BSO associate conductor David Lockington leads the orchestra in works by Copland, Rimsky-Korsakov and Dvorak. Then Mr. Hamlisch takes over for selections including his overture to "A Chorus Line," the 1975 musical that became the longest running show in Broadway history.

He'll also dip into the scores of such movies as "Ice Castles" and "Sophie's Choice," and there will be a section of romantic ballads written by other composers. And no evening of Marvin Hamlisch on stage would be complete without his rent-a-composer routine, in which he instantly composes tunes based on suggestions shouted from the audience. It's guaranteed to bring out the ham in Mr. Hamlisch.

"I've been doing the rent-a-composer (routine) for more than 20 years and have always been comfortable with audiences," Mr. Hamlisch says during a phone interview from a hotel in Boston. "When audience members suggest titles for songs, I do them quickly. There's nothing impossible. I can make a song up about anything: garbage, the weather, things in the news.

"As soon as I hear the title I'm already thinking about what my punchline will be. Being able to figure out the rest of the song is an exercise in flying on your feet."

By way of illustration, Mr. Hamlisch once performed before a convention of 10,000 family physicians. He relates that just before the show he started thinking about words rhyming with "physician." Armed with such words as "tuition" and "inhibition" he was set when audience members asked him for doctor-related tunes.

The Meyerhoff audiences will see further proof of his good-natured rapport during the rent-a-composer segment, but Mr. Hamlisch will converse with the audience during other portions of the evening, too. For even more casual talk, the composer is also scheduled to discuss his work on Saturday at 1 p.m. as part of that afternoon's free "Musical Open House" at the Meyerhoff.

As the range of music he'll play and discuss at the Meyerhoff suggests, this 50-year-old musical talent isn't just a singular sensation. A composer for Broadway, the movies and the pop music industry, he's also steadily employed as a pianist and symphonic conductor. For his efforts, he's accumulated four Grammy awards, three Oscars, three Golden Globe awards, one Tony and one Pulitzer Prize.

As you would expect, his was a precocious talent.

Mr. Hamlisch was only 16 when he wrote the pop tune "Sunshine, Lollypops and Rainbows" for Lesley Gore in 1965. Around that time he had a high school pal named Liza Minnelli, and by the time he graduated from Queens College he was all set for a professional career.

Through the ensuing years, he's been most prolific when it comes to movie scores. He's composed more than 30 of them, with his greatest moment coming in April 1974, when his scores for "The Sting" and "The Way We Were" won three Oscars. On his third trip up the aisle that evening he told the assembled Hollywood glitterati: "I think we can now talk to each other as friends."

Even such a glowing career, however, has its less successful moments. Baltimore theater-goers may recall when his Broadway-bound musical "Smile" had a poorly received run at the Morris Mechanic Theater in 1986.

But whether inducing a smile or a frown, he's always been around. He's one of those composer-performers who's seemingly never without a job.

Mr. Hamlisch was recently very much in the public eye, for instance, serving as music director for the Barbra Streisand concert tour, which had 26 sell-out crowds from coast to coast going gaga over Barbra. The full sound supporting her big voice came from the 64-piece orchestra conducted by Mr. Hamlisch.

"I thought it was a wonderful experience and knew that it would be something historic," he says, adding that he and Ms. Streisand hadn't worked together in "at least 20 years, though we kept in touch occasionally. We were like old camp friends working together again."

He says there were three months of preparation before the first concert "to get Barbra comfortable. She felt confident and everything went well."

As his Streisand concert tour and BSO pops gig make clear, he's no stranger to leading such large ensembles. In fact, he's conducted orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic. And next season he assumes a new position as principal pops conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops.

"I want to do for Pittsburgh what Arthur Fiedler did for the Boston Pops in building a pops audience. I'm planning to spend four to six weeks [in Pittsburgh each season] and also do a tour. I want to widen the pops audience from a demographic point of view, and I'm thinking of guest performers who'll appeal to younger audiences."


When: Tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 8:15 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $21 to $48

Call: 410-783-8000.

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