Left - Marvin Hamlisch. Photo - Jason Cohn.
Besides having composed some of the most memorable scores for films and Broadway shows, Marvin Hamlisch makes great theatre all by himself. With the accompaniment of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a packed audience at the State Theatre settled in for an evening of musical uplift and allure.
The show was autobiographical, featuring in roughly equal measure music Hamlisch wrote and music which had inspired him. 'Songs I wish I had written', he says.
The proceedings kicked off, appropriately enough, with Cole Porter's 'I Get A Kick Out Of You'. If there's one thing that can make a full orchestra sound even more magnificent, it's the rich tinkle of the ivories invoked by someone who knows their way around a Steinway grand piano. Hamlisch does, and spent the evening alternating between playing and conducting - and upon occasion somehow managed both at once.
Between melodies, Hamlisch treated us to his stage patter, which, while smooth, never felt hackneyed or rehearsed. He has a Hollywood ego and a New York sense of humour, and wears his Jewishness on his sleeve. It's an endearing mix and it was clear that each member of the audience had reached an individual decision to adopt him almost immediately.
While being taken on a tour through the big hitters of the Hamlisch oeuvre, it becomes apparent why Hamlisch has won so many composing awards - including, famously, three Oscars in one night. His scores are suffused with a deep emotional resonance in which the melody is subservient to the broader tonal characteristics. This makes Hamlisch perfectly suited to being a film composer, where the score underlines the action and an ability to craft a multitude of subtle variations on a musical theme goes a long way to finding the humanity in the characters on screen and making their actions and personalities seem believable. And if you doubt the importance of the auditory element to a movie - try watching it with the sound off.
The Oscar winners were the score to The Sting - whose trademark bouncy mix of clarinet and marching band drums repopularised Joplin's classic 'The Entertainer' and returned ragtime to the general public consciousness - and The Way We Were, whose mention alone evoked audible sighs of nostalgia from the audience. Then there was the James Bond ballad 'Nobody Does It Better', which astoundingly in hindsight did not win the Oscar, which went to Joseph Brooks' 'You Light Up My Life'.
An unexpected treat was the inclusion of a medley of the songs from My Fair Lady, the soundtrack to which Hamlisch said he played over and over again and deeply inspired him before he had even seen the show itself. And indeed, 'I Could've Danced All Night' and 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly' never sounded so good as they did live this night.
All these and more were beautifully rendered by the MSO, who appeared to take to the evening's programming with more than their usual enthusiasm. Perhaps it is something about the optimism and sense of possibility which pervades these pieces. Hamlisch himself said it was a pleasure to present this kind of performance because 'it's really hard to hear this music any more'.
He also said in his experience the soul of a song always comes back to its title, and that people walk around with great titles in their head that are just begging to have great scores to accompany them. To demonstrate this, he asked someone in the audience to yell something out, and after observing the politeness of Australians who put their hand up to speak as opposed to New Yorkers who just yell, Hamlisch began composing a song on the spot in response to a man who had called out 'mid-life crisis'. The result, a toe-tapping klezmer number on piano, earned cheers from the audience for its spontaneity and humourous lyrics.
Hamlisch chose to close the main program with what would have been the overture to A Chorus Line, had there been one. Ending a show with an overture, especially one that doesn't exist, might seem a bold choice, but it says more about Hamlisch's playful personality. During the intermission he received a request from someone in the audience to play Happy Birthday and spent some time joking about how insulting such a request is for a composer, before launching into two different versions in the style of Bach and Beethoven, who he says must also have gotten sick of such party requests.
Back on stage for an encore after a standing ovation, Hamlisch shared a few words of flattery concerning Melbourne, suggesting we keep it a secret lest a bunch of rich Americans buy up the place and ruin it. He spoke a bit about optimism and left us with an entreaty not to spoil the evening by going home and watching the news, because you never learn anything and it's always lousy. With that, the orchestra embarked on a sweet, soaring rendition of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow', which gently segued into 'Waltzing Matilda', before we all filed out into the cool, starry night.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presents
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: Friday 9 and Saturday 10 July at 8pm
Tickets: $99 - $179
Bookings: theartscentre.com.au, 1300 182 183 or Ticketmaster on 1300 136 166