Once the fearless wunderkind of Broadway and Hollywood show music, composer Marvin Hamlisch now is a bit afraid.
“It’s getting scary,” said Hamlisch, who at age 29 won three Academy Awards in 1974 for film music. “You ask a kid today who Cole Porter is and they don’t know. That shouldn’t be. The variety show went away and we got into the world of iPods. It changed everything and not for the better.
“It’s important for kids to hear the American songbook,” Hamlisch, 64, said. “I heard them on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ We don’t have that anymore. It’s up to the parents or grandparents to bring them in. Do they know there is this thing called Ella Fitzgerald? I’m not against the new things being heard. We’ve got a huge pallette of colors out there, but you wonder if they know of other songs.”
Most of the popular music Hamlisch grew up with came from the theater. “It’s no doubt the songs that were on the ‘Hit Parade’ came from shows,” he said, adding that the music world changed in the late 1950s with the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll and the singer-songwriter.
Hamlisch - who entered Julliard’s preparatory school at age 6 ½ - doesn’t want anyone calling him “an old fogie. “I don’t mind listening to Britney Spears as long as you give me something else: Frank Sinatra.”
His latest project: composing music for the upcoming Matt Damon thriller, “The Informant.”
Hamlisch has lived a charmed professional life. In 1960, he became friendly with a high-school girl who wanted to give her mom an unusual Christmas present - a demo record to prove she could sing. The two teens went into a studio and recorded four songs.
“I almost died right there,” Hamlisch recalls, when young Liza Minnelli brought him home to play the demo for Judy Garland.
Four years later, Minnelli performed Hamlisch’s musical arrangements during her famous London Palladium concerts with Garland.
“I’ve known Marvin Hamlisch since I was 14 years old. He was then, is now and will always be the best of the best - and funny,” said Minnelli in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. She’s still singing a few of his arrangements on her new album, “Liza’s at the Palace.”
In 1964, Hamlisch went to work with another young diva, as assistant vocal arranger for Barbra Streisand in Broadway’s “Funny Girl.” The two have maintained a longtime professional relationship that earned Hamlisch a Grammy, Golden Globe and two Oscars in 1974 for “The Way We Were” (his third Academy Award that year was for scoring “The Sting”); and two 1995 Emmys for “Barbra Streisand: The Concert,” a videotaped record of their 1993 tour together.
Hamlisch says “the award I’m very proud of, I just got.” On Jan. 28, he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, his name inscribed on a plaque at New York City’s Gershwin Theatre. A few blocks away, at the Shubert Theatre, Hamlisch helped create show-biz history. The original production of “A Chorus Line” ran there from 1975 to 1990, making it Broadway’s longest-running American musical.
“Chorus Line” director Michael Bennett asked Hamlisch to write the music just after the native New Yorker won his three Oscars.
“I was at the pinnacle and I got a call from him to go back to New York,” Hamlisch said. “None of us had any idea if it would be a hit or a miss.”
The show was one of the first to deal candidly with relationships, aging, homosexuality and other modern issues. “When we started previews, there was a sense that this was something important,” Hamlisch said. “It’s still timely. It’s still about us folks who are on the line. It still resonates with people.”
“A Chorus Line,” about a company of dancers auditioning for parts in a big show, produced several hit musical numbers, including “What I Did For Love” and “One.” Another highlight: “The Music and the Mirror,” danced by lead character Cassie, who desperately hopes to get a chorus job after going nowhere in bigger roles.
“Cassie’s part was the most difficult, the last to be finished,” said Donna McKechnie, the show’s Tony-winning original star. “Marvin came in with this fantastic song. I was so eager to do it. It was written for my voice, my range. All of a sudden it’s this big mega number.”
McKechnie said the original song, “Inside the Music,” didn’t reflect Cassie’s desperation. Bennett - her future husband - agreed and he asked Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban for a substitute production number. The songwriters returned with “The Music and the Mirror.”
No problems with the show’s thrilling finale, though: “‘One’ is like Hamlisch just played it the first time and that was it. He was looking for the hook. It’s very exciting, but has that bittersweet feeling,” McKechnie said. “It’s gorgeous.”
Bob Avian, Tony-winning co-choreographer of the original “Chorus Line” production and director of the recent Broadway revival, says that much of the show’s success belongs to Hamlisch.
“He believed in it so deeply,” said Avian. “His work is so intrinsic to the fabric of the evening.”