JONATHAN TAKIFF, Daily News Staff Writer email@example.com, 215-854-5960
Tuesday, March 4, 2014, 3:01 AM
Blank is flying in from L.A. to conduct. Coming from Atlanta to sing Hamlisch’s praises and music is Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel in Disney’s "The Little Mermaid" smash animated movie-musical series (and TV cartoons, video games and toys).
Another high-profile participant is Broadway dancer, actress, singer and choreographer Donna McKechnie, who originated the role of Cassie in "A Chorus Line."
Playing his song
Even Peter Nero, the Pops’ founding musical director/pianist whom Hamlisch was to replace, concedes, "Marvin would have done great here, raised the Pops profile, sold lots of tickets."
The job went to Michael Krajewski, "the nation’s best pops concert programmer," according to Giordano.
Chances are strong Hamlisch also would be working on another stage show, looking for the next "They’re Playing Our Song" or "A Chorus Line." Although the latter was an especially tough act to follow – an American musical landmark that opened in 1975 and is still always being staged somewhere – the man never stopped trying.
Of course, Hamlisch also would be scoring more films; his romantic contributions to movie soundtracks didn’t just strike a haunting tone, they lived long after the flick had faded, keeping those royalty checks pouring in.
"What do you remember about [the movie] ‘Ice Castles’? Nothing but the song ‘Through the Eyes of Love,’ " noted Blank.
And, for sure, creative friends would be getting new chances to interact with the generous-of-spirit, easygoing yet clearly workaholic composer/performer.
Witness the gathering that’s happening in his honor.
Benson’s 1986 Broadway debut as star of a Hamlisch- and Howard Ashman-scored show changed everything for her, the singer related recently. For the beauty pageant-themed "Smile," the composers had given Benson a wistful wish to sing – longing for a visit to "Disneyland."
The heart-tugger literally opened the doors to the Magic Kingdom for the charming performer, as well as for lyricist Ashman, who would collaborate with Alan Menken on the "Little Mermaid" score and several more Disney productions.
Twenty-five years later, Benson said that she is still "blessed" by that association – doing lots of voice-over work for Disney and serving as "the company’s unofficial singing ambassador."
Hamlisch also turned up the heat for McKechnie. When they first met, she’d been doing an unpaid workshop, trying to help her former "Hullabaloo" TV dance-troupe pal Michael Bennett shape a stage show about the oft-tense, occasionally rewarding lives of Broadway dancers, McKechnie recalled.
"When Marvin walked in to the second workshop and played his first collaboration with Ed Kleeban, ‘At the Ballet,’ everything fell into place," she said. " ‘A Chorus Line’ had found its musical voice."
And McKechnie would score her greatest stage acclaim, including a Tony for best actress in a musical for the "semiautobiographical" part of Cassie.
Keeper of the keys
Larry Blank got to see the world as musical director of the first international touring company of "A Chorus Line," he shared recently.
But, after a year, the guy quit the tour and returned to New York with the itch to conduct on Broadway. Hamlisch made that happen, too, handing him the baton for his soon-to-be-hit musical "They’re Playing Our Song."
"I also became his personal conductor for 10 years, taking nights off from conducting on Broadway to jump on planes with Marvin when he’d go out to guest with a symphony orchestra, before he became a pops conductor himself," Blank said.
"He had a great way about him onstage. Very funny, off-the-cuff, self-effacing. He’d drop lines like, ‘Now I’m going to have to do one of my own songs, because I know Henry Mancini isn’t going to be doing a Marvin Hamlisch medley when he’s conducting.’ "
When the idea of this touring tribute show was raised, with enthusiastic approval from Marvin’s widow, Terre, Blank knew where to go looking for Hamlisch’s charts. Some needed abridging – like McKechnie’s big "Chorus Line" production number, "The Music and the Mirror" – or "patching," that is, filling in the piano parts that Hamlisch would wing.
Blank also insisted that this tribute dig deep into the catalog – "not just skim the surface, pander to the masses as others have" – by pulling out forgotten gems, like Hamlisch’s instrumental suite from "Sophie’s Choice" or material from "Jean Seberg."
Although the latter, a musical about the expat film actress, never transferred from London to New York, "it contains a song called ‘Dreamers’ that was Marvin’s absolute favorite," said Blank. "He must have told me so a dozen times."
Going down swinging
At the time of his death, at 68, Hamlisch was holding the baton for six pops orchestras coast-to-coast, the closest to ours being the Pittsburgh Pops.
He’d quietly undergone a kidney transplant a few months prior, had just finished scoring that Liberace biopic for HBO ("Behind the Candelabra") and was still recovering from the critical drubbing of his "A Nutty Professor" musical (directed by original film star Jerry Lewis) at its world premiere in Nashville.
"But he was one of those guys who never quits, never feels he’s done enough, never feels what he’s done is good enough," said Benson. "Maybe it was the way he was raised. Maybe it’s because he was the youngest student ever admitted to Juilliard."
"Marvin actually called me, out of the blue, and asked for the Philly Pops music director gig when he heard we’d had a parting of the ways with Peter," Philly Pops president Giordano said.
"He was going to give up the Seattle Pops to take on our orchestra. He was very low-keyed about the whole thing. He didn’t ask for much. No need for a limo to bring him in from New York – he’d take the train and a cab. He even cut his initial salary demand for us.
"That’s how much he wanted to perform at the Kimmel with the Philly Pops. He’d heard this was an orchestra that could do it all, that could really swing. And he loved the hall, loved Philadelphia."
"Marvin Hamlisch – A Musical Tribute," with the Philly Pops, Larry Blank, Donna McKechnie, Jodi Benson, Doug LeBrecque, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce streets, 8 p.m. March 14, 3 p.m. March 15-16, $34-$78, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.