Composer Marvin Hamlisch had a long and illustrious career. Over a period of just a few years he won a Golden Globe and then three Academy Awards at the age of 29 in 1974 for his work on the filmsThe Way We Were and The Sting, followed by Grammy Awards for those films and then both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for A Chorus Line. While the remainder of his life wasn’t filled with as many awards it did include continued film score work, several new musical scores for Broadway, and an ongoing association with numerous symphony orchestras throughout the United States. Hamlisch left a legacy of many wonderful musical themes and songs, and, due to his sudden death in 2012 at the age of 68, it is only natural that his life is being celebrated by orchestras across the country. A recent tribute concert with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra that was presented for three performances was not only a living testament to the musical gifts Hamlisch left behind but also to the way he touched the lives of the featured performers at the concert, all of whom had worked with Hamlisch.
The guest vocalists for the concert included Jodi Benson, who originated one of the lead parts in the Broadway production of the Hamlisch/Howard Ashman musical Smile; Doug LaBrecque, who was a guest vocalist at several concerts that Hamlisch conducted with other symphony orchestras in the U.S.; and Donna McKechnie, who won a Tony Award for her performance in A Chorus Line. With spirited and assured conducting from Larry Blank, who worked with Hamlisch many times, including conducting Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s score of They’re Playing Our Song on Broadway, all of the featured performers had a personal connection to Hamlisch that resonated in their performances. Throughout the concert, the guest artists added many stories about working with Hamlisch, some of which were comical, others serious, but all were touching in how they showed the large heart, dedication and personal connection that Hamlisch had with those he worked with.
The concert got off to a rousing start with a lush overture that combined several well-known songs from A Chorus Line, followed by all three of the guest vocalists performing a spunky and upbeat take on Hamlisch’s first pop hit, “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows.” LaBrecque’s powerful voice proved excellent on every song he sang, including two songs that Hamlisch composed for Barbra Streisand: “Ordinary Miracles” and “One Song.” Benson’s soaring vocals on two of Hamlisch’s biggest movie songs, “Through the Eyes of Love” fromIce Castles and “The Way We Were,” perfectly matched the emotional tone of the music. While LaBrecque and Benson had a fun, spirited time with the title song from They’re Playing Our Song, their performance of “The Last Time I Felt Like This” from the film Same Time, Next Year was serious and romantic.
Songs from Hamlisch’s flop musicals were also featured, including the title song from Smile, featuring LaBrecque and nine ladies from Arizona State University’s Lyric Opera Theatre as well as Benson presenting the song she sang in that show, “Disneyland,” which she performed exquisitely. Hamlisch’s show Jean Sebergmight have flopped when it played in London in 1983 but one song from that show, “Dreamers,” is fantastic and McKechnie did a nice job in her delivery of it.
The concert also featured several orchestral pieces, all expertly played by the Phoenix Symphony. These included a symphonic version of Hamlisch’s hit James Bond song “Nobody Does it Better,” which featured a lovely piano solo, and the lush and upbeat entr’acte from They’re Playing Our Song to open the second act. A Sophie’s Choice suite also featured an amazing cello solo. The Phoenix Symphony Chorus was used to nice effect a few times, including a lovely contribution to “One Song.”
But the highlight of the evening was the inclusion of numerous songs from A Chorus Line, all of which had the added benefit of the artists “acting” the songs and not just singing them. These included McKechnie’s fantastic performance of two songs that her character didn’t sing, “Nothing” and “At the Ballet.” Her solo on “Nothing” was heartfelt and touching, like the character in the show who sings it, and “At the Ballet” featured the lovely addition of Benson and a student performer from ASU’s Lyric Opera Theatre. It was stirring. McKechnie also got the chance to sing the original act two solo song for her character Cassie, “Inside the Music,” which was replaced with the showstopping “The Music and the Mirror.” McKechnie’s performance of both songs showed perfectly how a song can evolve and become better, and she even performed a bit of the Michael Bennett choreography. Two A Chorus Line numbers ended the concert, “What I Did For Love” and an encore of “One.” In a lovely homage to Hamlisch, the first verse of “One” was changed from “every little step she takes” to “every little step he takes” while a large photo of Hamlisch was projected over the stage.
A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch with these guest artists will also be presented with the Philadelphia Pops March 14th to March 16th and the Atlanta Symphony March 28th and 29th. Information for those shows, as well as upcoming performances of Hamlisch’s music can be found at marvinhamlisch.us.
A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch with the Phoenix Symphony played March 7th to March 9th at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at www.phoenixsymphony.org.