Harvey Granat Songs and Stories: On Marvin Hamlisch

When Harvey Granat asked his special guest, producer/broadcaster Terre Blair Hamlisch how she’d like to be introduced, she replied “Mrs. Marvin Hamlisch.” Today’s Songs and Stories begins on a personal note with a glimpse of the multifaceted Marvin Hamlish beyond output and awards  “How did you meet?” Granat asks.

Blair’s house cleaner in Los Angeles was concerned the attractive, young woman remained unattached. She gave Blair’s telephone number to her sister, housekeeper to Hamlisch’s best friend. That housekeeper, in turn, gave it to her employer…who pressed the composer to follow up.

A month later, he left her a message: “This is Marvin Hamlisch. If Springsteen doesn’t call you, call me back.” As he wasn’t on Blair’s television interview list, she didn’t respond. Hamlisch persisted and they began a long distance telephone relationship, often falling asleep cradling a receiver. She recollects once asking where he was calling from: “Virginia, buying summer shirts on sale.” That night Blair saw the artist on the news-at the White House. She remembers that the moment illuminated his personality.

Harvey Granat and Terre Blair Hamlisch

Calls continued and lengthened with Blair on one coast and her suitor on the other or traveling. They grew close. He made her laugh. At last, Hamlisch suggested they meet in New York. “I had cold feet and my mother’s voice in my head saying, you don’t really know this man.” Still, she agreed. “He rang the doorbell and I pushed a questionnaire under the door.” The form included inquiries like the distinctive spelling of her name (multiple choice) and – Do you love this girl with all your heart? Undaunted, Hamlish filled it out, then asked through the door, “Sight unseen, will you marry me?” Blair said yes.

Marvin Frederick Hamlisch (1944 –2012) was a composer/conductor/performer. One of only fifteen people to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, the prolific, multifaceted artist also garnered Golden Globes and a Pulitzer Prize. Whether or not the name is familiar, you’re more than likely aware of his music.

Calling Hamlish a child prodigy would be minimizing his outsized talent. At 6 ½, he was accepted into what is now the Julliard School Pre-College Division. His first Broadway job was as rehearsal pianist to Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl, the initial movie venture, a score for The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster.

To the distress of agents who grew rich on his multiple film projects, Hamlisch insisted on straddling the two genres. To these he added pop music, starting with Leslie Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Roses.” Granat sings this with bubbly pleasure, inviting the audience to join. Many do.

From Hamlisch’s film archive, guest Rebecca Garfein (cabaret/concert artist and the Sr. Cantor at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in NYC) offers “Nobody Does It Better” (The Spy Who Loved Me – lyrics: Carole Bayer Sager.) She has a strong, soulful contralto with controlled back trill. Massaging notes while her left heel keeps time, the vocalist communicates with great feeling.

Terry Blair Hamlisch, Harvey Granat, and Rebecca Garfein

“How did he get into the heads of his characters?” Granat asks. “Marvin’s own humility allowed him to go into a character instead of writing on top,” i.e. filling a space, Blair Hamlisch responds. Exemplifying this, our host performs “Life Is What You Make It.” (Kotch – lyrics: Johnny Mercer.) The lovely, musing melody is so innately warm, it shrugs and sighs.

When Hamlisch came back to New York, temporarily abandoning Hollywood success, it was not for something bankable. The composer moved in with his mother on the Upper West Side to write what he called, “something about dancers.” “Marvin always chose the most artistically authentic project over lucrative work,” Blair Hamlisch notes with admiration. Here he needed to plumb 17 featured dancers who told their stories. A Chorus Line won nine Tonys and a Pulitzer.

At one point in the musical, the director Zac asks dancers about what happens after. “What I Do for Love” (lyrics: Edward Kleban) is beautifully presented by Garfein. Lyrics are deeply mined, phrasing impeccable. Blair Hamlisch looks palpably moved even after hearing the number innumerable times. “Rebecca, that was powerful,” she comments. “I’m still recuperating.” Granat describes the show’s finale. “For this I need 19 audience members who are former dancers,” he quips launching into “One Singular Sensation.”

“Notes poured through him wherever he went, 24 hours a day. He used to say, I know I’ve been given a gift, but it’s also a curse. When he listened to me, he’d hear underscoring. I think that’s why some geniuses go mad,” Blair Hamlisch reflects. “Marvin was filled with life and joy.”

Valerie Lemon and Harvey Granat (Terre behind)

Granat’s attempt at the irregular tempo of “They’re Playing Our Song” (the musical of the same name, lyrics: Carole Bayer Sager), falters and is rescued by Valerie Lemon who rises from the first row to handily duet with our host. Lemon toured with Hamlisch 12 years. “It was good for me, was it good for you?” he niftily asks her. She beams. High spirits abide.

“Through the Eyes of Love,” (Ice Castles. Lyrics: Carole Bayer Sager), “a perfect wording of song to character,” is Granat’s next offering. I can see what’s mine, he sings – shoulders rise – what’s mine now – they descend. David Lahm strokes the piano keys. Blair Hamlisch takes a deep breath.

Several short lived musicals brought Hamlisch to Sweet Smell of Success. (Lyrics: Craig Carnelia.) Both Granat and the artist’s widow feel it was ahead of its time and should be revived. I second the opinion. Our host’s rendition of the simply gorgeous, “I Cannot Hear the City,” fills the room with shadow. The song was Blair Hamlish’s request of Itzhak Perlman at her husband’s memorial.

“You were quoted about his three loves,” Granat suggests to his guest. “Yes,” she replies. “They were, in this order, the Yankees, music, and me.” As newlyweds, the couple gave each other gifts. When Hamlisch was growing up he was never allowed to play ball for fear something might happen to his hands. Blair Hamlisch’s gift to her new husband was Fantasy Baseball Camp. His handlers, she comments, were horrified.

The composer had a fabulous time on a field with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. “Marvin just wanted to be like everyone else… Suddenly a ball was hit right to his area of the outfield. The team runs out screaming, don’t catch it, Marvin!!! But he does.” Players hoisted Hamlisch on their shoulders and carried him off the field.

Marvin Hamlisch

Apparently the virtuoso was also terrific at improvisation. And wrote a symphony. Many don’t know he was also a secret, serial philanthropist. When he died, Blair Hamlisch received “tens of thousands of letters,” some of which came from recipients of his munificence. Hospital bills, in particular were quietly tended to when needed. His wife once got into a taxi outside their building only to be told Marvin Hamlisch lived there by an enthusiastic driver whom he’d helped.

“Marvin did things because they were right, not to get credit,” she says quietly. “He changed people’s lives and none of us knew, especially me, even after 23 years.”

Granat and Garfein close with the iconic “The Way We Were” (the film of the same name, lyrics: Marilyn and Alan Bergman), which begins with her beautiful hum. It’s heavenly. “I think if you just listen to “The Way We Were” you’ll hear his heart.” Mrs. Marvin Hamlisch tells us.

Performer photos courtesy of Harvey Granat
Photos of Marvin Hamlisch by Len Prince Courtesy of Terre Blair Hamlisch
Opening: Marvin Hamlisch

Harvey Granat Songs and Stories: On Marvin Hamlisch
Special Guest Terre Blair Hamlisch
Featuring David Lahm at the piano
Musical Guest Rebecca Garfein
92 Y  at Lexington Avenue
March 28, 2019

NEXT: On Jimmy McHugh: Granat and Lahm present a program on one of America’s most prolific songwriters, with songs like “It’s a Most Unusual Day,” “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” and “When my Sugar Walks Down the Street.”

About Alix Cohen (1793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.