A Singular Sensation

While still a schoolboy, Marvin Hamlisch laid a plan: “I was going to write a number one hit song before I was 25, win an Oscar before I was 30, and write the music for a smash Broadway show before I was 35”. Albeit five years late in delivering the number one hit, Hamlisch otherwise accomplished all three. Through tremendous early musical promise, fierce hard work and what his mother termed “making elbows”, Hamlisch came to be the consummate American success story, charting a deft course through Hollywood as one of the era’s most sought-after song and film composers. It was however success on Broadway — “the place where I belonged” — that Hamlisch craved. From his earliest days as a piano student at Juilliard, Hamlisch’s lodestar was firmly fixed: “I competed with a pack of driven young kids who wanted to become the next Horowitz. Me, I wanted to become the next Cole Porter.” But when Hamlisch came of age in the 1970s, the Broadway he loved had become home to the “concept” musical, an altogether darker, more complex project that grappled anew with American identity politics, from the roar of anti-war counterculture in Hair (1967) to the ruined hopes and broken hearts of Follies (1971). Beyond the runaway success of A Chorus Line, Hamlisch would never quite find his groove on Broadway, neither in terms of box-office takings nor critical acclaim. Indeed, it was Hamlisch’s very longing to establish himself among the pantheon of the “golden age” greats that perhaps proved his downfall. For if the story of Broadway can be read as a story of America, Marvin Hamlisch may have started on the wrong page.

A Chorus Line burst onto Broadway in 1975, garnering a string of hit reviews and accolades the length of Fifth Avenue. The brainchild of choreographer and director Michael Bennett, the show’s concept was bold; built out of a series of interviews with scores of Broadway dancers, the production was dubbed a “reality musical”, a hard and unflinching account of the anxieties of the chorus line dancer. It proved an instant hit. New York Times reviewer, Clive Barnes (otherwise known as the Butcher of Broadway), declared that “the conservative word for A Chorus Line might be tremendous, or perhaps terrific… We have for years been hearing about innovative musicals; now Mr Bennett has really innovated one” while Martin Gottfried proclaimed the show “a major event in the development of American musical theatre… capturing the very soul of our musical theatre”. Alongside Sondheim’s Company (1970) the show beckoned in a new era of “fragmented” musicals that spoke directly to the disillusioned, disintegrating world of 1970s America, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam. For theatre scholar John Bush Jones, A Chorus Line was a test-case production for this new sensibility, where musical theatre was no longer “about community but dramatised the splintered, inward-turning tendencies of the ‘Me Generation’”.

In a daring shift of tone for A Chorus Line‘s finale (“One”) Michael Bennett envisaged a number that would denounce the blithe celebrations that had come to close the standard Broadway show. The troubled, complex individuals we meet over the course of the production emerge in matching, gold-laced top hats and tails, their identity subsumed by the empty sheen of show business:

“You’re going to get to know all these dancers as individuals and care about each one. Then, at the very end of the play, they’re all going to come out in tuxedos and top hats, and you’re not going to be able to tell one from another. They’re going to do everything you’ve ever seen anyone in a chorus line do. It’s going to be the most horrifying moment you will ever experience in a theatre… If I do this right, you will never see another chorus line in a theatre.”

Yet for Marvin Hamlisch, A Chorus Line‘s finale (and thus the musical as a whole) stood for precisely the opposite. His diary entries for the rehearsal period describe how “the dancers are gonna go high-kicking their way through the glorious final dance combination… The chorus kids who normally do a number like this behind the star, will now take centre stage… I love this idea. These dancers have become one.” For Hamlisch, the finale enacted a moment of redemption, an opportunity for the fractious, isolated individuals of the show to find their place at last. Aside from the mystery that this hit show was predicated on two such incommensurate viewpoints, Bennett and Hamlisch’s positions define a crossroads in the Broadway musical and in turn reflect a key shift in the issue of assimilation and integration in America.

‘The Hollywood studio and the Broadway theatre became sets on which Jews described their own vision of an idealised America and subtly wrote themselves into that scenario as accepted members of the white American community.’

Just as the Hollywood film score of the 1930s was shaped largely by European Jews fleeing persecution, so the architects of the Broadway show were first or second-generation Jewish immigrants. As such, the struggles of Jewish assimilation came to weave tightly through the entertainment music of this era, with musical theatre presenting both an opportunity and challenge for composers to write themselves a place within the “new world”, a task that demanded Zeliglike adaptability. Cultural historian Stephen Whitfield cites a neatly illustrative example: while Hammerstein was working with Jerome Kern on an adaptation of Donn Byrne’s biography of Marco Polo, the lyricist is said to have enquired: “here is a story set in China about an Italian and told by an Irishman. What kind of music are you going to write?” Kern lightly replied: “it’ll be good Jewish music.”

Indeed, as musicologist Andrea Most asserts in her Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (2004), the story of Jewish-American acculturation and the development of the American musical prove indivisible. Broadway musicals not only secured a new gateway for Jews to enter American cultural life, but effectively set about reconstituting America’s very idea of itself: “the Hollywood studio and the Broadway theatre became sets on which Jews described their own vision of an idealised America and subtly wrote themselves into that scenario as accepted members of the white American community.” It was amid this phase of musical theatre that Hamlisch grew up, attending as many Saturday matinees as his sixth-grade pocket money would allow: ‘this was the world I wanted to live in… it was an era on Broadway that created its own magic.’ A number of the era’s most dazzlingly popular works, including Oklahoma! (1943), South Pacific (1949) and The King and I (1951), explored these questions of assimilation and notional inclusivity, often demarcating a subtle but ominous distinction between the notions of ethnicity and race. Taking a paired definition of “otherness”, such works positioned ethnicity as a more palatable, manageable source of difference while presenting race as a threatening and potentiallyexcluding category of differentiation. This division in turn mirrored broader issues in Jewish-American assimilation, where the “colour line” functioned as an instrument in the acceptance of Jewish otherness. As such, Jews of the early cold war era tended to define themselves primarily as a “religious community” in order to gain acceptance into mainstream white political culture.

However, by the mid 1960s, this integrationist approach became an increasing source of friction among the civil rights movement. Growing confidence in the social acceptance of American Jews in turn nurtured the will to express greater Jewish “differentiation”, a drive that coincided with the black power movement’s call for a truly pluralist society. The stage was set for the so-called “ethnic revival” of the 1960s and ’70s, a time of dedicated, celebratory Jewish “particularism”. Yet the movement ran amidst an otherwise fractious socio-political climate in 1970s America, where economic malaise and political disillusionment following Watergate and Vietnam prevailed.

Marvin Hamlisch emerged on the entertainment scene at this complex juncture and the twin path his career followed — where extraordinary success ran alongside intermittent disappointment — in many ways reflects the era’s dualism of optimism and unease. Hamlisch’s autobiography highlights how far he perceived himself to belong to the lineage of the “Jewish-American composer”, and the sense of responsibility he felt to find his place in America. Born in New York in 1944 to Viennese parents, Hamlisch recounts the words of his father, himself a musician exiled from Austria amid the onset of fascism: “God has not just given you your talent, Marvin…He’s put you in a land where you know the language, a place where no one can take success away from you.”

A modern exponent of Kern’s “good Jewish music”, Hamlisch quickly proved his ability to adapt musical genres, a skill that earned him greater acclaim in Hollywood than Broadway. Hamlisch’s two early scores for Woody Allen, Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971) cleverly mirror the mercurial tones of Allen’s films, offering a series of musical pastiches and vignettes from sitar-based dream sequences to a frenzied silent movie piano roll. His score for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) features a disco-funk version of the James Bond theme and proved a popular and skillful updating of this cinematic icon for the late 1970s. However, Kern’s quotation proves perhaps most piquant in Hamlisch’s score for The Sting (1973). The composer’s arrangements of Scott Joplin’s rags won the composer his first Oscar but also situated Hamlisch among an older generation of Jewish-American composers. Vincent Brooks’ account of Jewish identity in “post-modern” America notes a certain “talent” among early 20th-century JewishAmerican artists “for translating other cultures into an American idiom”, citing Gershwin’s Jazz Symphonies and Al Jolson’s “blackface” performance as key examples. While Gershwin was celebrated as a pioneer by his contemporaries, by 1973 the complexities of multicultural America meant that Hamlisch’s score generated some terse criticism. Aside from the question of a film set in the thirties using music from 1902, Hamlisch was alleged to have appropriated the work of another man — an African American whose artistry was only partially recognised while alive. While the score proved a hit with the public at large, it remains one of his most contentious works.

Hamlisch’s eagerness to transpose older “golden age” values onto the 1970s was perhaps nowhere more marked than in his work on A Chorus Line. His clever pop-infused score had wide appeal, even in a rockheavy decade. Yet his celebratory understanding of the production’s meaning reveals a more fixed allegiance to the explicit mission of the 1940s American musical. The message of the show — for Michael Bennett — was a far cry from championing the values of a stable, cohesive community: in laying bare the workings of the traditional Broadway musical, Bennett sought to unmask the glib, “unifying” goal of the standard musical comedy. Rather than present a cast of characters seeking to resolve their differences, Bennett’s show highlights the sharp contrasts in background and character among the performers, assembling a cast described by Andrea Most as “almost absurdly diverse… In short they are meant to represent the real America, not the fairy-tale America of the musicals.”

Where Michael Bennett intended the grand finale “One” as a death blow for the resolution of the traditional musical, Hamlisch read the opposite. For the composer, the finale was to serve as a closing number straight from Broadway’s “golden age”, celebrating a release from individual anxiety through the redemptive power of “joining in”. It turned out audiences felt the same: Bennett ruefully recalls how the crowd reacted to “One” as if it were “like Oklahoma”, leaving the theatre “cheering and humming”. Indeed, as Andrea Most suggests, audiences refused to accept the empty homogeneity that Bennett tried to represent: “their overwhelming embrace of the final number implies that they let their memories of other musicals fill in the blank”. Hamlisch’s interpretation chimed with his audience, and the sea of glittering top hats and flashing grins of the finale has graced the production’s playbills ever since. Yet Hamlisch’s reluctance to grasp the more complex message of the show or to engage with the disillusionment of 1970s “fragmented” musical more generally can be viewed as one of the reasons he achieved such scant success on Broadway thereafter. A closer examination of his score for A Chorus Line further highlights his limitations in shaping a progression rather than a regression in musical theatre.

There are surprisingly few musicological accounts of Hamlisch’s contribution to A Chorus Line. Steven Suskin’s authoritative “Show Tunes” includes a largely excoriating entry on Hamlisch, reluctantly acknowledging A Chorus Line to be “a great Broadway musical” but noting its music to be “more atmospheric than artistic” (while stating that Hamlisch’s “other scores have been almost devoid of distinction”). John Bush Jones celebrates the impact of A Chorus Line as a piece of theatre but makes no mention of the work’s score having any musical merit or indeed salient features whatsoever. Joseph Swain offers a much more detailed account of the composition but pillories the composer’s musical failings to such an extent that an appendix to the chapter notes that Hamlisch’s print agents refused to release excerpts of the score for publication in his essay “due to the critical nature of the commentary.”

For Hamlisch, the finale of A Chorus Line was to serve as a closing number straight from Broadway’s ‘golden age’, celebrating a release from individual anxiety through the redemptive power of ‘joining in’.

Swain’s detailed commentary examines A Chorus Line in terms of its “frame story” structure, judging how far Hamlisch succeeded in creating ‘complete dramas in miniature’ and whether these form a cohesive whole. As Bush Jones notes, it is something of a paradox to term this brand of concept musical as “fragmented”, when many of these shows proved “the most integrated ever composed” with all elements of working together to convey a single idea. Swain highlights “At the Ballet” as an example of Hamlisch’s success and shortcomings. The song explores the ways in which three women view dance as a means of escaping their troubled lives, with angular verses linked to by a soaring waltz refrain. Swain praises the song’s characterisation, noting the opening melody’s asymmetric shape and insistent A’s against G-minor harmony as “an admirable image of the loveless home”. Similarly the fantasy world of “the ballet” is delicately conjured in the refrain, but pushed in expressive potency through patches of darker chromaticism. Yet for Swain the song as a whole lacks a clear tonal centre: the verses and refrains pass through a large number of keys, going beyond “expressive variety and structural articulation” until “their deployment … just seems haphazard. The form lacks the tonal unity, and therefore the expressive power, it might have had.”

While the extended number “Montage” that sits at the heart of the show scores well for tonal unity, Swain nonetheless identifies a similar lack of overarching structure, here in terms of motivic development. The song is hugely ambitious in the variety of narrative strands and dramatic tones it seeks to establish, yet Swain notes it is held together only by the slim melodic refrain “hello 12, hello 13, hello love” which ultimately proves an inadequate hook: “there is no attempt to treat the melodic lines or accompaniment with any motivic consistency, so the entire burden of organisation is put on the refrain, and the continuity between refrains is therefore carried entirely by the text”. Once more it is on the charge of “unity”— the somewhat ironic criterion for creating a successful “fragmented musical” — that Hamlisch is judged to fall short.

In contrast, Hamlisch’s foremost musical success in A Chorus Line came through a number that arguably belongs to a different kind of show altogether. The sentimental power ballad “What I Did For Love”, with its simple, sweeping melody standing in sharp contrast to the bite and sass of the remainder of the musical — an opinion shared by no less than the show’s producer — remains by far the show’s most popular breakout hit. For while commentators have found Hamlisch lacking in terms of his ability to craft a broader musical structure that makes sense of a complex, fractured narrative, Hamlisch could certainly deliver a standalone hit, the building block of the early musical comedy.

While Hamlisch did not continue to distinguish himself on Broadway, his greatest legacy is perhaps as the composer of outstanding one-off songs, in particular those scored for his longstanding musical collaborator, Barbra Streisand. Here Hamlisch’s timing proved impeccable. While the 1970s marked a period of complexity and fragmentation in the Broadway show that did not chime with his own aspirations for the musical, the so-called Jewish “ethnic revival” proved an ideal backdrop for his work with Streisand. The bright new poster girl for the female Jewish-American experience, Streisand validated what theorist Henry Bial has termed an “overt ethnicity”of ‘being Jewish’, asserting its unique desirability.

The torch song hits that Hamlisch scored for Streisand helped give voice to this image. The title song of The Way We Were (1973) sparked a performance by Streisand whose rich expressiveness stands for many as a clear marker of her “ethnicity”: according to Stacy Ellen Wolf, “[her] singing voice does not allow her ‘to pass”. Streisand herself has been keen to state that her affinity with Hamlisch lay in a shared background, a shared sensibility: “It’s a Jewish thing…” she declared at Hamlisch’s 2012 memorial concert: “without explaining why or how, we understood each other’s anxieties… and that line became a kind of running joke between us. So tonight, musicians, let’s do a Jewish thing.” Thus, in a curious reversal of the adage that the demise of the Great [Jewish]-American Songbook spelt the downfall of Broadway’s “golden age”, Hamlisch’s musicals went on to fall flat but the composer established his legacy through the one-off hit number, that staple of Broadway’s earliest Jewish emigrés. However, beyond A Chorus Line Hamlisch’s Broadway ambitions fell short, shaped as they were an outmoded vision of American communality rather than a will to respond to the complex fragmentation of the era. It was instead in the commercial hit, the “singular sensation”, that the composer has achieved his lasting legacy and where, for Hamlisch, the Great American Songbook never closed. — JQ

You might also like

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.