Marvin Hamlisch's Legacy Lives On in 'A Chorus Line'

Marvin Hamlisch - H 2012
David Livingston/Getty Images

Marvin Hamlisch - H 2012

The pinnacle of the composer's work across film, theater, television and recorded music is inarguably the milestone 1975 backstage musical about auditioning Broadway dancers.

It's a time-honored tradition to dim the lights on Broadway's marquees in memory of significant figures from the theater community. When those lights go dark for a minute on Wednesday night in honor of Marvin Hamlisch, who died Monday at 68, they mark not only the passing of a beloved composer, but also one of the key creative forces behind a show that redefined American musical theater, A Chorus Line.

In an awards-obsessed entertainment culture, Hamlisch was one of that tiny, elite group of professionals whose trophy cabinets contain all four of the top-tier kudos -- Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy. But while his contribution to film, television and recorded music was considerable, his score for A Chorus Line will be Hamlisch's most indelible legacy.

Spun out of informal sessions in which a group of Broadway ensemble dancers opened up about their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and disappointments, their formative experiences and the sometimes crushing obstacles they had struggled to overcome, the 1975 show bounced from a downtown premiere at the Public Theater during Joseph Papp's tenure to a history-making 15-year run on Broadway.

A multiple Tony winner as well as the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it was the brainchild of director-choreographer Michael Bennett, with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, a score by Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban.

At that time, emotional self-exposure was not yet the standard currency of popular entertainment that it has since become in the reality-TV age. That made the raw confessional candor of A Chorus Line something startlingly fresh. But while the audacity of Bennett's concept and the penetrating insights of Kirkwood and Dante's book were radical elements in a musical, Hamlisch and Kleban's brilliant score was equally fundamental to the show's enduring success.

The breakout hit from A Chorus Line was "What I Did For Love," a cabaret perennial that sits comfortably among Hamlisch's many movie theme songs, notably the Oscar-winning Barbra Streisand hit, "The Way We Were." And the climactic showstopper, "One," is surely one of the greatest songs ever written about the ecstatic high of performing. The darker subtext of that number was that while those ensemble members dazzled in their gold costumes, they were the exact opposite of the "singular sensation" that the song celebrates. Drilled to be cogs in a perfectly oiled machine, they were stripped of the individuality they had spent the entire show dredging up and putting on painful display.

Hamlisch had a subsequent success with the 1979 musical They're Playing Our Song, an autobiographical riff on his relationship and creative collaboration with Carole Bayer Sager, who wrote the show's lyrics. But none of his other stage projects ever came close to the success of A Chorus Line. How could they?

As a testament to the tireless determination and sacrifice of one of Broadway's more unsung contingents, and as a rites-of-passage document about the countless paths that lead young performers to the stage, it was unique.

That journey was captured in thrilling musical vernacular by Hamlisch and Kleban. Songs like "I Can Do That," "Sing!" and "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" are superlative comedy numbers, each one a vaudeville turn of sorts that reveals some defining aspect of the characters singing it. "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" and "At the Ballet" are tremendous illustrations of multi-character musical storytelling, digging deep into adolescent experience, its sweet memories and its scars. And "The Music and the Mirror" is a casebook study of the burning desire to give all of oneself to an audience -- eight shows a week. Hamlisch's melodies for those songs are forever cemented into the playlist of every musical theater geek's mind.

While the show has been performed in countless regional, touring and international productions over the past three and a half decades, the spectacular synergy of that original staging makes it unlikely that the magic of A Chorus Line will ever be equaled. The 2006 Broadway revival attempted to circumvent that challenge by replicating Bennett's template, succeeding to a certain degree despite the nagging awareness that duplication is not the same as inspiration. It was certainly preferable to Richard Attenborough's clunker of a screen version from 1985.

But even with all of its quintessentially '70s group-therapy gestalt, A Chorus Line and its songs live on, maintaining the power to conjure profound emotional associations in anyone who ever saw this truly original theater milestone. It's one of the indisputably great behind-the-scenes shows about show-biz, and that in itself is a stirring tribute to Hamlisch.