Album Review: ‘Play It Again, Marvin! A Marvin Hamlisch Celebration’

A recording of Hamlisch's hits and misses
June 4, 2018 Updated: June 4, 2018

Marvin Hamlisch (1944–2012) was born in New York City and at age 7 became the youngest student to attend the Juilliard School of Music. He became one of the most popular and award-winning songwriters of his time, winning the Pulitzer Prize, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. The only other person to accomplish that feat was Richard Rodgers.

To honor Hamlisch, Varèse Sarabande Records has just released “Play It Again, Marvin! A Marvin Hamlisch Celebration,” a recording of a live performance by the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by J. Ernest Green with singers and instrumental soloists.

The CD booklet begins with the imprimatur of Terre Blair Hamlisch, the composer’s widow, who opines that Marvin would have been proud of the record. The project is a labor of love by pianist Kevin Cole, who worked with Hamlisch and was a close friend and also sings and plays piano on the album. He is more impressive at the keyboard (for example, “Marvin’s Medley”) than as a vocalist.

The CD begins with a schmaltzy orchestral rendition, with soloist Adrian Daurov on cello, of “The Way We Were.” Without Barbra Streisand, it sounds like elevator music. Incidentally, Hamlisch’s long relationship with her began at age 19, when he was a rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl.” Another interesting fact is that she initially didn’t want to sing the song, criticizing it as too simple.

The performance shifts into high gear with “A Chorus Line Concerto,” a medley from “A Chorus Line,” the groundbreaking Broadway musical, which stands as Hamlisch’s finest achievement.

One reason that the album is invaluable is that includes unfamiliar songs from shows that did not succeed, like “Jean Seberg.” “Dreamers” from that musical (which never reached Broadway) is beautifully sung by Sylvia McNair, who has a distinguished career as an opera singer but sounds completely at home with popular songs. She resists the temptation of opera singers to overwhelm the material in order to show off the power of their voices (as Mario Lanza was prone to).

“Sweet Smell of Success” flopped on Broadway but had some good songs, such as “I Cannot Hear the City” and “At the Fountain,” both well-sung by Doug LaBrecque.

Hamlisch’s songs for movies include the hits “Nobody Does It Better” (sung by Judy Harrison) from “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Looking Through the Eyes of Love” (sung by McNair) from “Ice Castles.”

These still hold up, but “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows,” a Leslie Gore hit, here sung by Cole, sounds like bubblegum music.

Hamlisch was notable for his work on film scores, excerpts of which are performed here (“The Swimmer” and “Sophie’s Choice”). His scores for movies are often darker in tone than his work for the stage, which tends to be upbeat.

The theme from “The Sting” (“The Entertainer”) won a raft of awards, though more of the credit should have gone to the composer, the late Scott Joplin, rather than Hamlisch, who merely arranged the music. On the other hand, the score led to a revival of interest in ragtime music and Joplin’s achievements.

The album ends, as one might expect, with Sylvia McNair, Judy Harrison, and Doug LaBrecque singing the irresistible “What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line.”

Despite a couple of fumbles, the album has enough obscure material and good performances of better-known pieces to appeal to lovers of theater music and popular songs.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.

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