Millions of viewers awaken daily to his Good Morning America theme on network TV or have enjoyed his music in Broadway’s long-running musical A Chorus Line. Award-winning composer, conductor and entertainer, Marvin Hamlisch, 56, kicked back between recent shows of prom night music from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s at the Kennedy Center to talk to Arrive.
Q: You’re the Kennedy Center’s first Principal Pops Conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra. What does this mean to you?
A: It’s the American dream come true. I’m the son of two immigrants. I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy became president and where I was when he died. I pinch myself when I go on stage at the Kennedy Center. I’m trying to make sure American music is played here in the Concert Hall.
Q: I understand you’re working on two new shows. Tell us about them.
A: The first is Sweet Smell of Success starring John Lithgow; John Guare is doing the book; Nicholas Hytner is our director and Craig Carnelia is doing great lyrics. We go into rehearsal October 2001 and open in New York, I hope, in February 2002. I’m hoping to do a second, but there’s not a deal yet. I’ve had conversations with Woody Allen about doing Bullets Over Broadway as a musical.
Q: How much time do you spend on the road performing?
A: Most weekends, at least Thursday through Sunday.
Q: How do you balance your entertainer/performer side with your composer side?
A: The truth is I have more time on the road to write than I do at home. When I go on the road to do a concert, I’m free except to rehearse and do the show, so it balances pretty well. I’m not the type to do anything continuously, so going to rehearse an orchestra is good. Each thing allows me to get away from the other for awhile.
Q: If you could only do one thing, what would it be?
A: Creating, because I’ll leave something behind — the melodies.
Q: What kind of environment inspires your creative process?
A: I’ve become very adept at writing almost anywhere as long as there’s nobody in the room except my lyricist. You put a third person in the room, and I can’t write. Usually we get a piano in the hotel suite.
Q: If you’re not creating, what do you do to unwind between shows?
A: First thing, get rid of the tux. Catch up on mail, go to a movie, or, in Washington, work out on the treadmill in the gym at my hotel. I’ll eat an early dinner before the show. I like Geppetto’s white cheese garlic pizza and Mendocino Grill in Georgetown. I enjoy walking around Georgetown and asking people where they like to go. Union Station has B. Smith’s. You could stay in the station for ten days. Put a piano in there, and I could write. It’s an easy routine; the hard part is the rehearsals.
Q: I know you spend a lot of time in the nation’s capital. Do you have a favorite monument?
A: Lincoln. There he is in all that stone; you look at the words and you start to feel the man. I feel that when you need a “Washington,” a Washington shows up; when you need a “Lincoln,” a Lincoln shows up. Right now, we could certainly use a Lincoln.
Q: What are some of your other favorite cities?
A: Boston, because it has a wonderful charm. It’s a little big city, but it never feels like you’re in a big metropolis. It feels like you’re in a lovely place where people actually speak to each other. It’s also historic. And, of course, New York — I eat at Danube, Le Bernadin for fish, and when it comes to Japanese, nothing comes close to Nobu. For vacation, I love anywhere in France. We like to travel to Europe a lot. I also love Charleston, S.C., for its fabulous food.
Q: You’ve received many awards — Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Golden Globes, a Tony and even a Pulitzer Prize — what do you cherish most?
A: I was a pianist for Groucho Marx and toured with him. He was like a grandfather I never had, and towards the end his life he gave me the duck that came down during his show, You Bet Your Life. It’s one of my most cherished possessions. And Joe Papp gave me something that I really like very much — his own words after we opened on Broadway with A Chorus Line. It was his advice to me that changed my life: Be true to yourself and write the music you feel is right for the show, even if you’re criticized for it. I’ve tried to live up to that.