Getting up close and personal with Marvin Hamlisch

When it comes to showstoppers, Marvin Hamlisch is a singular sensation, having written some of the best-known tunes for stage and screen. But he never considered taking center stage himself until a friend dropped the hint.

Recalls the composer: “He said to me, ‘You should get out there with your music.’ Then he added the magic words: ‘Gershwin did it.’ ”

Knowing that the great 20th-century composer performed musicales was all it took, and for more than 20 years, Hamlisch has performed intimate one-man shows from time to time.

He will sit down at the piano May 6 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Singer Mark McVeigh will accompany on vocals.

Though he perform his own songs, Hamlisch says this is not an autobiographical show-and-tell. He calls it a musical “potpourri,” an homage to the music that inspired him, including classics by Gershwin and other greats.

Marvin Hamlisch

“What I’m trying to do is simply have people enjoy themselves,” Hamlisch says. “I’m not trying to make a statement of brilliance here. Just have a good time.”

He’ll also tell stories. And, man, does he ever have a few.

Hamlisch, 67, has been a Broadway and Hollywood staple since the 1960s. He’s worked closely with artists such as Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen and Neil Simon.

He’s also one of only 13 EGOTs (artists who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), thanks to his scores for  “The Sting” and “The Way We Were,” as well as his most immortal work, “A Chorus Line.”

That musical has been a Broadway powerhouse since its 1975 premiere. Hamlisch still counts it among his all-time favorites.

“I saw it about a year ago,” said the composer from his New York home. “It was a production going to Israel. I was just amazed at it.”

Though he excels in American styles, Hamlisch traces his artistic roots back to Vienna, home of the waltz and operetta.

That’s because his parents were Jewish refugees from Austria, fleeing the Nazi invasion in the late 1930s. His father, Max, was a bandleader who also served as his son’s first music teacher.

“My dad stressed,” Hamlisch recalled, “that the most important thing is a good melody. That’s a Viennese trait.”

His father also had traits of those who fled the Holocaust.

“I was taught all the time about what happened in World War II,” he said. “If there would be a show on television at 3 in the morning about [the Holocaust], my father would wake us up.”

Hamlisch was a piano prodigy who attended a Julliard program while still in grade school. Later on, one of his first jobs was rehearsal pianist for Streisand, then set to make her 1964 Broadway debut in “Funny Girl.”

That led to film work, including writing scores for Allen’s breakout hit “Take the Money and Run.” He had a great run with Simon on musicals including “They’re Playing Our Song,” and films like “Chapter Two.”

Hamlisch won an Oscar for his work on “The Sting,” in which he adapted the ragtime of Scott Joplin. He won two more for his score and title song for “The Way We Were.”

But Hamlisch said his score for the 1983 film “Sophie’s Choice,” set partially in a death camp, was a meaningful project, considering his family background.

“One reason I’m proud of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is that I didn’t want it to sound Jewish. I tried to make it about humanity.”

Though he wrote only one new musical in the last decade, and one film score in 16 years, Hamlisch is as busy as ever. He serves as conductor for several pops orchestras around the country, and is working on a musical based on “The Nutty Professor.”

Too early to say if that show will earn him another Tony. It won’t matter either way to Hamlisch, whose mantel is  gleaming with all those awards.

“If you’re in a race or on a sports team, you wake up wanting to win,” he says. “But no artist worth his salt does that. You just get involved and write. It’s nice to be rewarded, but it’s just icing.”

“An Evening with Marvin Hamlisch,”
  4 p.m. May 6 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $72-$85.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.