Marvin Hamlisch, especially when he was dressed in a tux for performances, always projected the image of the erudite, scholarly artist.
But for those who saw him onstage, that image withered away in less than a minute.
Hamlisch, who died Monday at the age of 68, was one of only 11 performers who were EGOTs, those who had won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. (The first time I heard the phrase was from Tracy Morgan on “30 Rock.”)
Anyone who remembers seeing Hamlisch on “The Mike Douglas Show” and the like knows he had a shy, self-effacing humor that balanced out all of the formality.
He was in his element onstage. He played at the former Mark of the Quad-Cities in 1997 for the centennial of Palmer College of Chiropractic. I’ve had the chance to interview him three times: The first time was in 1994, when I was with the the Herald & Review, the Lee Enterprises newspaper in Decatur, Ill. There, he was a guest performer for the annual pops concert by the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra.
The one concert of his I did see in Decatur was fantastic. He had the timing of a Borscht Belt comedian, but he got serious when it came to his music. There was an exception to that rule, though.
He had a segment in his concerts called “Rent a Composer.” An audience member would shout out the title of an unwritten song and Hamlisch would quickly come up with the music and lyrics.
“That’s my little signature piece,” he told me in 1999 while promoting a date at the Sangamon Auditorium in Springfield. “No. 1, it’s different. No. 2, it shows composers have a sense of humor and aren’t these snobs sitting in a garret, drinking from a wine glass.”
In interviews to plug 2006 dates in Muscatine and Iowa City, he said of the novelty, “When it’s works, it’s a terrific smash. When I don’t get a unique title, it’s still OK, but not as good as when you get a title.”
His sense of humor was a constant throughout. He was the conductor for Broadway star Idina Menzel’s tour last year, a stop of which was released as an album. In the concert, he introduced a “long lost stepbrother. ... People say we look exactly alike.” That “stepbrother” was actor Taye Diggs, Menzel’s husband.
From the three interviews I did with Hamlisch, here are a few choice quotes:
On pops concerts — “Popular music, if marketed correctly, can fill a house. ... The revenues of that concert can help a symphony at times when they’re not full. There are a lot of people there.”
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On touring as Barbra Streisand’s conductor — “It’s great to work with the most wonderful voice in the world, who happens to be a living doll, y’know what I mean?”
Later in the same interview — “I used to play concerts for Groucho Marx and I didn’t do it because of the musical vitality. I did it because I really wanted to be around a fellow like Groucho Marx, a living legend. The same way on this. There were two reasons I wanted to do this: No. 1, because I think she’s the greatest. And No. 2, because I now have a friend called Barbra, and I think that’s the best reason to do something.”
Before his Muscatine and University of Iowa dates — “I kind of have a Gemini background, and a lot of me likes the gregarious fun of being around an audience. There’s also something wonderful about walking around, years later, and someone stopping you on the street to say, ‘I saw you in Iowa.’ ”
Adding the human element to concerts — “Otherwise all you’re doing is giving a person the same kind of experience you could have on a CD. You could stack three CDs — Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms — and have an intermission with a Coca-Cola and basically have the same experience. You’re sitting down and hearing music.
“Once you have someone who can tell you about the music, what you’re supposed to be listening for, tell you the context the music was written in, I think it’s a much bigger reason to go.”