High Holiday Feature: Marvin Hamlisch Has Won 4 Grammys, but He Prefers to Work for a Good Cause
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High Holiday Feature: Marvin Hamlisch Has Won 4 Grammys, but He Prefers to Work for a Good Cause

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When Marvin Hamlisch gets a new calendar, the first thing he does is mark off Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The renowned composer wants to make sure he doesn’t inadvertently schedule jobs on these holidays.

In fact, a few years ago Hamlisch taped an interview for the CNN show “Larry King Live.” When Hamlisch discovered that the segment was scheduled to air on Yom Kippur, he insisted that the words “This interview was taped earlier” be displayed on the screen throughout the show. He didn’t want any viewers to think that he worked on the High Holidays.

The foundation of Hamlisch’s Jewish identity, and that of his sister, Terry, was laid by his parents, refugees from Vienna who escaped to the United States before World War II.

“As a child growing up in New York, every time the television was on about World War II, my father stopped everything and we watched. This experience made me very aware of what it means to care about people who are persecuted. That’s where my Jewish background has made me more aware of certain things.”

Hamlisch, 55, says he loves playing the piano, especially when he can help improve the world.

“When I perform in concert with various orchestras I am still somewhat removed from the audience. But for me to play for 30 minutes for 100 people in a beautiful home in Palm Beach sounds too perfect to refuse,” he said, referring to a December 1998 benefit concert for the Kaplan Jewish Community Center Children’s Scholarship fund.

The money he helped to raise went to providing pre-school, after-care and camp programs for hundreds of children in need in South Florida’s Jewish community.

“What you have done by giving from your hearts is such a commendable thing,” he told the local supporters. “I congratulate all of you.”

Hamlisch, who has been to Israel several times, was thrilled to help a group of young people through a project called Seeds of Peace.

The New York-based project brings 20-year-old Palestinians, other Arabs and Jews to a camp in Maine where they discuss the issues that normally divide them, often becoming close friends.

Several years ago, Hamlisch wrote a song for them called “A New Ending” inspired by a play the participants put on.

“I was thrilled to see all of these young people come together for peace,” he said. “This new generation is so open and willing I only wish the rest of the world could be like that.”

The secrets of success, according to Hamlisch, are simple: talent, luck and persistence.

It is clear to that this award-winning Broadway and film composer has consistently honed all three of these secrets: Hamlisch has won one Tony Award, two Emmy Awards, four Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

To Hamlisch, there may be other composers who are more talented than he, but none that are hungrier.

“You have to really want it, and some people don’t want it enough. The key is how well you do after you’ve been told no again and again.”

He’s also written the music for the movies “The Way We Were,” “Ordinary People,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ice Castles,” the musical “They’re Playing Our Song” and one of the best-loved shows in Broadway history, “A Chorus Line.”

Hamlisch said that on the day he realizes he has a Broadway hit he feels invincible.

“When I see the lines around the box office, the euphoria lasts a while, but the genes inside of me that say I must create don’t allow me to savor it for that long,” he says.

His schedule doesn’t allow it either.

He holds the position of principal pops conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He will also become principal pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, starting with the 2000-2001 season. For this newly created post, the first pops position in the history of this prominent orchestra, Hamlisch will conduct and perform during several major concerts, conduct additional pops programs and act as a consultant on special projects

Hamlisch also performs about 70 live concerts a year and is already being asked to book dates in the year 2001.

His influences include his teachers at the Julliard School, which he began attending at the age of 5, as well as the works of some of the great composers including George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Cole Porter.

Hamlisch’s parents were, perhaps, his biggest influences. From his father, Max, who played six musical instruments, Marvin received his musical gifts. From his mother, Lilly, he says he inherited his sensed of humor, passion for good food and practical nature.

“My mother gave me good advice when I was starting my career,” he said, `You always need a Plan B.’ My Plan A was to write a dozen hit Broadway shows, live in the south of France and have champagne filling my bathtub. My Plan B is complementing my work as a composer with performances on stage.”

When he is not performing or composing, Hamlisch is content to spend time in Manhattan with his wife, Terre, and their gold Labrador retriever, Jessye.

Another important part of his life right now is writing and perfecting the music for the Broadway version of the hit 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success.” The show is slated for a Broadway opening next year.

“Sweet Smell of Success” tells the dark story of the rich and famous — and what they do to stay that way — by documenting the last years of the great Broadway columnists. The backdrop is the underworld of gritty nightclubs, walk- up offices at the fringe of the theater district and dingy jazz hangouts.

“This is a timely piece of work,” Hamlisch said. “I believe the public is ready for a show based on innuendoes and rumors.”

How much pressure does a musical genius like Hamlisch feel when embarking on a major new project?

“Enormous,” he replied. “I feel like most people who have accomplished major things in their lives. You’re only as good as your last achievement,” he says. “I am a wildly passionate baseball fan and like a good baseball player, I always look forward to my next time at bat.”

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