October 17, 2019

‘Chorus Line’ composer’s music still has a kick

When the cast of “A Chorus Line” sings “What I Did for Love,” an emotional piece about dancers’ dedication to their craft, 16 actors stand on an empty stage singing from the heart. No helicopters or flying witches, no cats, puppets or falling chandeliers cascading through the Ahmanson Theatre in this revival of the longest-running American Broadway musical, which continues in Los Angeles through July 6.

With music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and concept by Michael Bennet, the story seems as relevant today as it was at its 1975 New York premiere. “I think that there’s an empathy of the show,” Hamlisch, 64, said in a phone interview from his home in New York. “People see themselves in the show.”

The son of Viennese Jewish parents, Lily and Max — the latter an accordionist and bandleader in New York — music was always central to Hamlisch’s life.

“A piano was in the house, and I was magnetically drawn to it,” he said. “Having the genes of my father, I had a predilection to music.”

In 1951, a few months before he turned 7, he became the youngest person ever accepted to Juilliard. “I can’t really say I loved music right away, but I could do it well. And I started writing songs,” he said.

He is known for his versatility, both musically and thematically: His works range from his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” for the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film, “The Sting,” to a little song written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman made famous by Barbra Streisand titled, “The Way We Were.”

Hamlisch said “The Sting” was the project he most enjoyed doing; much more difficult was writing for the Holocaust drama, “Sophie’s Choice”: “It was a fine line between doing tragedy and going too syrupy,” Hamlisch said. But writing for the different genres shifts the focus of a composer.

“In concerts you put yourself out there. On stage you have music that you have the lyrics to in the forefront. Music in the background of movies heightens emotion,” said Hamlisch, who helped turn Neil Simon’s 1977 film “The Goodbye Girl” into a musical in 1993 and won an Oscar when “A Chorus Line” came to the screen in 1985. But, he said, the composer must try not to “call too much attention to what you are doing.”

Hamlisch received a Pulitzer Prize for “A Chorus Line,” which, when added to his Tony (“A Chorus Line”); Grammys (two each for “The Way We Were” and “The Sting,”); Emmys (including one for “Barbra Streisand — Timeless”); and Oscars (“The Way We Were” and “The Sting” in the same night), makes him only one of two men to have won all five trademark awards — the other being Richard Rodgers, who Hamlisch says was one of his influences. (Fittingly, Hamlisch also received the Richard Rodgers Award from the ASCAP Foundation in 2006, which recognizes a lifetime of achievement for a veteran composer or lyricist of musical theater.)

“A Chorus Line” played more than 6,000 performances during its initial Broadway run, but it hasn’t been seen at a major Los Angeles venue since the late 1970s when it came to the Pantages. At the time, the idea of a stage production that brought up the themes of sex and homosexuality was almost unheard of. Nevertheless, the opening lyrics of the show’s finale — “One singular sensation …” — have become iconic.

They resonate for any actor or dancer who’s ever gone for an audition, Hamlisch said, “particularly today, the whole idea of being on the line and needing a job.”

The “line” he refers to is, literally, a long piece of tape that stretches from one end of the stage to the other. It, along with a wall of mirrors along the back of the stage, are the only set adornments throughout the show.

The cast members return to the line between every musical number, as each is interviewed by the director, Zack, about their family backgrounds and what got them involved in dancing. The characters find the questioning unusual for a dance audition.

The characters reveal their stories through a mixture of singing and dancing — with some pantomime thrown in. Hamlisch said that from the beginning the creators felt that certain stories were best told through song, others through dance.

For example, the song “Nothing,” about one dancer’s experience of being told by a high school teacher than she’d never succeed as an actress, “seemed to be the type of thing that you wanted to put to music,” he said.

“Other stories,” such as a monologue by gay dancer Paul, “you felt didn’t sing as well as they would speak,” Hamlisch said.

“‘At the Ballet’ is always special. It is the heart and soul,” he said, of the song sung by three of the female dancers who each found refuge at the ballet — where “everything was beautiful” — to escape unhappy childhoods.

Hamlisch said that for anyone to make it in the arts, it is important to have passion, but stay true to who you are, as the “Chorus Line” dancers learn during the course of their “audition.”

“I wouldn’t follow in anyone’s footsteps, you have to go on your own path,” Hamlisch said. “I would say, ‘Follow the passion.’ If you don’t have that, don’t do it.”

“A Chorus Line” runs through July 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. (in the Music Center downtown). For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.