Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New York Philharmonic New Year's Eve Concert: Marvin Hamlisch Tribute (PBS, 12/31/12)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was a bit disappointed by the New York Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, mainly because instead of a classical (or even light-classical) program, they did a tribute to the late Broadway and Hollywood songwriter Marvin Hamlisch, best known for “The Way We Were” (one of four Academy Award-winning songs introduced by Barbra Streisand) and the score for A Chorus Line. Alas, none of Hamlisch’s other musicals had anywhere near the success of A Chorus Line — which may at least in part have been due to his and his collaborators’ choice of plots: they did three from his 2002 adaptation of Sweet Smell of Success, but Alexander Mackendrick’s and Ernest Lehman’s marvelously dark and cynical movie became the excuse for two absurdly romantic love ballads and a generic “success” song (sung by the story’s seedy protagonist, press agent Sidney Falco, nèe Falcone, played in the movie by Tony Curtis and on stage by Brian D’Arcy James, who sang the song last night) more along the lines of “I Believe in You” from the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying than the deeper, richer, nastier piece one would think this story would have inspired. There was also a song from Hamlisch’s last musical, an even unlikelier story source — The Nutty Professor — that was similarly sappy. I like Hamlisch’s music — it tries so hard to be endearing it’s really hard not to — but I don’t think he was a great songwriter; even among his contemporaries Stephen Sondheim towers over him (if the N.Y. Phil wanted to do a tribute to a modern-day songwriter, I spent much of the evening wondering, why on earth didn’t they do Sondheim instead of Hamlisch?), as do John Kander and Fred Ebb — there’s nothing in the Hamlisch oeuvre that comes close to the scores for Cabaret or Chicago. I’d put Hamlisch at or a bit above the Andrew Lloyd Webber level — there’s nothing in Hamlisch’s music as annoying as Lloyd Webber at his cornball worst, but he doesn’t really reach farther up the quality scale than Lloyd Webber at his best (I can’t help but compare “The Way We Were” to “Memory” from Lloyd Webber’s score for Cats — both songs are built around the word “Mem’ries,” with the second vowel contracted, and both were memorably recorded by Barbra Streisand.)

Much of the evening was devoted to A Chorus Line, though the great “tits and ass” chorus from “Dance 10, Looks 3” was spoiled by an unfunny alteration in the lyric when Audra McDonald, serving as host of the show as well as occasionally singing (she opened with “The Way We Were,” and while she didn’t phrase it as eloquently as Streisand the combination of her pipes and the best music of the night made the rest of the show seem anticlimactic), told singer Beth Bairs that the PBS brass would allow her to sing “ass” but not “tits,” so she had to spin out a series of substitutes that rhymed with “tits.” (This reminds me of Sondheim’s careful avoidance of the obscenities his actual characters would have used in his lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story; the line “When the spit hits the fan” from the “Jet Song” still rankles, especially since 33 years later he got to use the S-word in Sweeney Todd.) It was an O.K. program, which surprisingly did not mention Hamlisch’s most significant contribution to musical culture other than “The Way We Were” and A Chorus Line — his arrangement and adaptation of the music of Scott Joplin for the film The Sting — a Joplin piece in one of Hamlisch’s (mostly) idiomatic arrangements would have been a major boost to this program, especially since even as it stood the two best pieces on it were the ones Hamlisch didn’t write: a violin-and-piano duet on Richard Rodgers’ “Manhattan” with Joshua Bell (taken from an earlier PBS show from six years ago on which the still-living Hamlisch had appeared; Bell returned to play a “live” version of the violin part he’d played then but Hamlisch’s part was reproduced from the earlier recording and played back on a Yamaha Disklavier, a computer-operated high-tech player piano; why they didn’t just show the original film clip is a mystery to me, unless they wanted to show off the technology that makes instrumental as well as vocal “ghost duets” possible) and a lovely version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” taken from Bernstein’s own arrangement for the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” (which makes the song even lovelier than the Irwin Kostal arrangement used in the actual show).