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A Chorus Line

About the Work

Marvin Hamlisch
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Quick Look Composer: Marvin Hamlisch
Program note originally written for the following performance:
NSO at Wolf Trap: "Bravo Broadway 2005!" Thu., Jun. 23, 2005, 8:15 PM
© Emil de Cou
Untitled Document

There are many windows into the American experience: baseball, politics, jazz, super-sized fast food. The name Bloody Mary (the grand dame of South Pacific, not the cocktail) probably wouldn't pop to mind when thinking about the American psyche, but it's surprising how much can be gleaned about our nation as a whole by looking at the100 plus year history of the American Musical Theater. The myths and melodies of our musicals play like a historical record of what was important, what was controversial, what was joyous. Tonight's assemblage of beloved Broadway music reveals clear landmarks of 20th century.

Before Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote their revolutionary musical Showboat in 1927, musicals were a vaudevillian grab-bag of song and dance numbers, often with jugglers or comic contortionists or singing dogs thrown in for good measure. With Showboat music advances the storyline. It informs us about the characters, their feelings and motivations. You don't need to make believe the emotions when you hear Julie sing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" or "Just My Bill." Broadway, once a goulash of vaudeville, ballet, operettas and stage plays, made a quantum leap--no longer a flimsy container for improbable stories and tap dancing animals acts--the musical became a way of telling contemporary and often profoundly moving stories. 

Oscar Hammerstein II was a legend not just because of the beauty and wit of his lyrics, but because he imbued his words with a social conscience. Showboat is ultimately a tale of racial intolerance, a daring concept at a time when many alive still remembered the Civil War. So too is South Pacific, a Rodgers & Hammerstein tale of World War II that unabashedly comments on interracial marriage--not a light topic the late '40s.

In 1944 Rodgers & Hammerstein once again catapulted the art form into something more elevated with Carousel .  In numbers like "Soliloquy" you have a previously unheard-of sophistication in the use of song to heighten the emotion and further the plot. In Carousel we feel the darkling sky of an America battered by depression and war. It's a tribute to Richard Rodger's prodigious talent that after 61 years after its debut the bittersweet calliope sound of the "Carousel Waltz" remains fresh and arresting. 

My friend Marvin Hamlisch is one of those rare artists who has a grasp on this most American of idioms. Like Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini, Hamlisch is one of the few heirs to the legacy of Kern and Rodgers and Gershwin: a truly versatile composer who can integrate a contemporary American sound into every form of entertainment: film, theater, popular song.  Like Showboat and Carousel, Hamlisch's A Chorus Line signaled yet another turning point in musical theater. At a time when rock and roll was finding its way into every aspect of popular entertainment, Marvin defied the trend and wrote A Chorus Line in his own singular voice. In this paean to the American dream of fame, with dancers as a metaphor, Hamlisch once again shows us how our modern psyche can be revealed in popular entertainment.

Oh yes, one more thing: run out and rent The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  It's a terrific movie with a terrific score, for which Marvin Hamlisch won the Academy award. Hamlisch ingeniously wove the artistry of Scott Joplin, another American innovator, into the story line in a manner that turned a couple of incorrigible thieves into two indelible characters.  

What will the NSO@Wolftrap Festival Conductor who writes a program note in 50 years say about how music of our time reflected the shared experiences of those of us gathered here tonight? I couldn't say, but I am fairly sure that musical theater will continue to be a barometer of who we were as a people--maybe Rent or The Lion King or Spamalot or Wicked or Hairspray --all currently playing on Broadway and the latter two coming to the Kennedy Center--will be the emblems of our era.

Or maybe Alien vs. Predator ?

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