Wednesday, August 8, 2012

All the Ways We Were

If we had a conversation about musical influences, I'd probably talk about Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and The Police/Sting.  If we had enough time, I'd talk about how the bands Nirvana and Garbage made my mind expand as I thought about what could be accomplished sonically--and they had some intriguing lyrics too.  I'd talk about Woody Guthrie, if we had a long conversation.  I'd talk about music that moved us to social justice.

I wouldn't have mentioned Marvin Hamlisch, who died earlier this week.  But as I've read about his work, I'm realizing how much of his music swirled in the background of my life, especially in the 1970's.  Perhaps he's most famous for "The Way We Were."  But there's also "Nobody Does It Better" and "Looking through the Eyes of Love" (from the movie Ice Castles, which I'll admit to weeping over as a young teenager).  If you want a refresher, go to this post that appeared courtesy of The Washington Post.

But honestly, Hamlisch meant the most to me as one of the creators of A Chorus Line.  I've written before about what that play meant to me (here, here, and here).  My mom got the soundtrack for Christmas of 1977, and my sister and I memorized it.  I can still sing any of the songs.  In fact, I've memorized the soundtrack of many a Broadway musical, and many of the more recent ones bear his influence, some his music.

A Chorus Line taught me many things about narrative.  I think that was one of the first Broadway musicals  with that kind of narrative structure, which doesn't tell a story so much as present intriguing character studies--and those characters tell a larger story about society.  In the case of A Chorus Line, it's a larger story about theatre culture as well as about New York City and small town U.S. culture.  It's interesting to see all these characters, only tangentially linked, who present stories and marvel at the similarities and differences of their lives.  There was concern that theatre audiences wouldn't be able to follow, but Hamlisch always maintained that theatre goers would be smarter than the play's creators thought they might be.

Some future graduate student may write a dissertation that traces my fondness for linked short stories back to A Chorus Line.  I suspect A Chorus Line influences much of my work.  We'll leave that subject for Future Graduate Student to explore.

Some have criticized Hamlisch for being too kitschy, too accessible.  Even Barbra Streisand resisted recording "The Way We Were" because she thought it was too simple.  Hamlisch persisted, she recorded it, and it's become her signature song (see this story in The New York Times for more). 

Hamlisch asserted over and over again that it takes real talent to write a simple song.  His career shows that simplicity can work.  It's an interesting lesson for all of us artists to ponder.

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