PITTSBURGH, PA — “He was very funny and very whimsical and very carefree in terms of how he treated life and people so respectfully, but when it came to music it was serious business, because he knew so thoroughly and so completely what he wanted”
Anyone close to Marvin Hamlisch knew that food finds were high on the late composer’s list of “musts” — must try, must share.
Talking of Hamlisch and food, a vivid memory came to Brian D’Arcy James, who originated leads in the Broadway musicals “Shrek,” “Next to Normal” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” scored by the late composer and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Pops conductor.
“It was perfect timing, everyone was getting tired at the end of the day,” recalls Mr. James, among the artists in the PSO program “One Singular Sensation: A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch.” “Marvin comes in with his New York Yankees Starter jacket on and says, ‘Sorry, sorry, I have to interrupt. Rehearsal is over. I have THE BEST ICE CREAM IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD for everybody.’ And he proceeds to get 20 boxes of this ice cream that he flew in from Cleveland to share with the whole company. It was unforgettable. That to me was a little glimpse into him.”
Long after “Success” closed, Mr. James would get the call to provide concert vocals and bring his family along on dining experiences with Hamlisch and his wife, Terre.
‘One Singular Sensation: A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch’
Heinz Hall, Downtown.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday Jan 29
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, The All-Start College Chorus. with Idina Menzel, Lucie Arnaz, Robert Klein, Brian D’Arcy James, Maria Friedman, Kevin Cole. J. Ernest Green conducts.
Another of Hamlisch’s favorite collaborators, British musical star Maria Friedman, was introduced to him as a voice on the car radio. He pulled over to put a name to the voice, then tracked her down and called to invite her to sing at a concert. “Everyone knows Marvin did everything himself. I picked up the phone, and I thought it was a joke.” The vocalist and composer became fast friends.
“We bonded with our sense of humor. He was a very funny, naughty man. So irreverent, so smart,” she says with a laugh. “And we both loved food. He would order all of the desserts on the menu and want to know, ‘Which do you like?’ Once he announced that he had found the best soup in the world, and we had to hike to this tiny place and I had to say to him, this is not even good soup!” She laughs again. “We would track around while we were doing concerts, and it was always great meals, great chats.”
Hamlisch, a winner of the big five entertainment awards — Pulitzer, Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and Tony — died suddenly on Aug. 6 at age 68, leaving a void at the head of the Pittsburgh Pops and in the lives of family, friends and fans.
Mr. James and Ms. Friedman will honor the composer’s memory in the PSO tribute at Heinz Hall Tuesday. Others on the bill include Kevin Cole, Tony winner Idina Menzel; Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, who starred in Hamlisch’s “They’re Playing Our Song” on Broadway; the All-Star College Chorus, under the direction of Robert Page; and conductor J. Ernest Green.
Tributes have abounded since that sad day; Mr. James and Ms. Friedman were part of a New Year’s Eve concert with host Audra McDonald and the New York Philharmonic that has aired on PBS. He sang his big number from “Sweet Smell of Success” that night and at another star-studded tribute at the Juilliard School of Music.
Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli and other big name artists also performed at Juilliard, where when he was 7, Hamlisch became the youngest student ever admitted.
“It was incredible, not just because of the lineup of people, but because it was incredibly sad. What an extraordinary legacy he leaves behind! To hear this music in that context was very uplifting in a way but very difficult to do,” Mr. James says.
He was helped by words of wisdom from Mike Nichols, who directed the program.
“We had a brief chat about [the song] ‘At the Fountain,’ and he very clearly made me realize that this song now is about how this man, Marvin Hamlisch, who gave me the opportunity to succeed and move forward in my career. The song is about this guy who is given the keys to the kingdom by [the character] J.J. Hunsecker. But when I sing the song now, it will always and forever be a tribute to Marvin having given me the most extraordinary gift of music. That for me makes it an electric experience. There’s a whole new level to that song that never existed before.”
Ms. Friedman is known as an interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s works and as a winner of three Olivier Awards (the British Tony). She played Marian in “The Woman in White” in London and on Broadway, and on screen, she has been seen as the Narrator in the film version of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and in her native England, on the TV show “Casualty.”
In Pittsburgh, she will sing “Nothing” from “A Chorus Line” and a new song from “The Nutty Professor,” a musical still in progress when the composer died.
One had to be on her toes when working on stage with Hamlisch, who was known for changing things up when he was conducting or accompanying vocalists on the piano.
Ms. Friedman fondly recalled the first time she worked with him, in an Avery Fisher Hall program that included Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. “I trotted on stage with him, and he seemed to have lost his glasses in the piano. There was this epic silence. He just said, ‘Woops, I lost my glasses,’ hunted inside the piano. Then we started. I’m not sure he ever found them, and I’m not sure what he was playing. I thought, ‘Wow, this is surreal.’ ”
This is the first time in Pittsburgh for Ms. Friedman and the second for Mr. James, who was on the Benedum Center stage for Pittsburgh CLO’s 1993 production of “Fame.” You also may know him from his role as the husband of Debra Messing’s cheating lyricist in the first season of “Smash.” The actor has a cameo in the first episode of season 2, but that’s it — for now. “I hope I get to say something more about my character,” he says.
Two weeks ago, he was in a recording studio to create a recording of “Giant,” a new musical based on the 1952 Edna Ferber novel. He’ll take time from preparing for his first New York City Town Hall concert in May for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to its Pops leader.
Collaborating on stage with Hamlisch was always “wildly exciting,” notes Mr. James, who often spoke of his friend in the present tense, then caught himself.
“He was very funny and very whimsical and very carefree in terms of how he treated life and people so respectfully, but when it came to music it was serious business, because he knew so thoroughly and so completely what he wanted. From my personal point of view, if you get even close to achieving what you think he wants, it’s really something special,” he says. “You know it’s damn good.”