- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2001

Sing "A Chorus Line" of cheer: Today is Marvin Hamlischs 57th birthday. Mr. Hamlisch, a composer, conductor, pianist and entertainer, no doubt will celebrate by doing more of what has consumed much of his energy this past year — working on the score for a new musical. "Sweet Smell of Success" will make its debut in Chicago next March before its Broadway run.
The man perhaps best known for his award-winning scores of "A Chorus Line" in 1975 and "The Way We Were" in 1974 doesnt rest on his laurels. His energy seems boundless.
He will be in Washington next weekend as principal pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra for the last of the pops seasons six concerts. He is the orchestras first pops conductor, and this is his first year in the post.
The series, which began in October, introduced the idea of a Friday matinee. This has proved to be popular with local audiences.
Mr. Hamlisch expresses pleasure — but not too much surprise — that the performances of "All Jazzed Up" with the U.S. Army Field Band Jazz Ambassadors and jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant are sold out for Friday and next Saturday nights. Only a few tickets remain for the matinee show.
"I think people want to have a good time at the Pops," he says by phone recently from his home on Manhattans East Side. "Its to go out and spend two fun-filled hours. I get a joy out of playing and conducting totally different music from what I usually do, at least different from what Im writing at present."
Mr. Hamlischs touring most often involves conducting or performing his own compositions and arrangements. He isnt averse to including his own work in his Washington venture, as the first of these concerts in the fall proved. The evening was a classy mix of well-known melodies, rendered more impressive when backed by the NSO.
The orchestra even had a new wardrobe for the occasion: The women wore white tops and either black trousers or skirts and the men had burgundy cummerbunds.
The debut concert, labeled "Beltway/Broadway," featured fabled New York chanteuse Barbara Cook singing representative songs by American musical theater greats: George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Stephen Sondheim. The orchestra also played Mr. Hamlischs arrangement of a "Tribute to Cole Porter" and ended with his upbeat overture to "A Chorus Line," which got a resounding ovation from the audience.
His favorite musical theater composer, he says, was Leonard Bernstein. He calls Mr. Bernsteins score of "West Side Story" "the standard to which we all aspire."
"It doesnt mean he is better, because its impossible to say one is better than the others," he says. "Im just glad they are all there."
Mr. Hamlisch threw in a whimsical touch midway through the first matinee program by inviting audience members to suggest a theme for a tune that he would invent on the spot. He called the interlude "Rent-a-Composer."
"Call out a song," he urged. The title that came from an anonymous challenger in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was as offbeat as it could be: "Waltz of the Bunions."
"Thank God this is a matinee," Mr. Hamlisch responded with mock relief, adding: "Are you telling me your feet are killing you?"
He did the promised creative stint admirably but says he doesnt plan to repeat it in the future.
Other programs of the season were "Prom Night With Remembering the Platters," over Thanksgiving weekend; "Happy Holidays" in early December; "Gotta Dance" with various dance groups in mid-January; and "Isnt It Romantic?" with singer Linda Eder in February.
Mr. Hamlisch says the contents of programs are his decision. Explaining his pick of the Army Field Band jazz group, he waxes ecstatic.
"You gotta hear it to believe it. Theyre unbelievable. You couldnt put a band together like this in real life, with everyone in it being a cracker killer. The truth is that a lot of these guys like the idea of having a steady gig and a great pension," he says.
He continues talking about the upcoming weekend performances in the same enthusiastic vein. "Were going out with a big jazz show: the band, plus our orchestra, plus Michael Wolff, a fantastic pianist, and his Impure Thoughts musical group."
Mr. Wolff, whom he describes as "cutting edge wonderful," was band leader for the Arsenio Hall late-night TV show.
"Weve added a girl who plays jazz harp — you dont think of the two together — to give you a real feeling of what jazz is about."
The difference between his engagements in Pittsburgh — where he is principal pops conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra — and his Washington engagements is that "the stage there in Heinz Hall is like a real theater and you can do tricks. Have more dancers, for instance, without having to make the orchestra smaller," he says. "Im very theatrical, so I like having theatrical items."
Mr. Hamlisch says he is "a little careful" about his choices for the Kennedy Center "because by its very name the center is a place where one should be playing mostly American music, so we try to keep it very American. But with only one season , we still are getting our feet wet. Were now talking about a third."
Saying that "we never want to be predictable at the Pops," Mr. Hamlisch will be conducting four out of the six pops concerts planned for the next season, which begins Oct. 26 with "Bravo, Broadway" and which is followed by a "Salute to Arthur Fiedler" in November. A repeat of "Happy Holidays" with Miss Eder is set for December, and the season ends next January with an "All Gershwin Program."

WHAT: National Symphony Orchestra Pops with Marvin Hamlisch
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 1:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday and 8:30 p.m. next Saturday
TICKETS: $20 to $69
PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444/1324


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