Brief Encounter With … Composer & Conductor Marvin Hamlisch

Acclaimed composer and conductor, Marvin Hamlisch plays two very different dates in London next month.

He first conducts the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, accompanying the Tony Award-winning star Glee and Wicked star Idina Menzel for her one-night concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 6 October 2011. Hamlisch then presents an intimate night at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre on Sunday 9 October joined by special guest Maria Friedman.

One of only two people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar and a Tony, as well as the Pulitzer prize, Marvin Hamlisch composed the score for the 1979 Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song. He also scored A Chorus Line which debuted Off-Broadway in 1975 before transferring to Broadway and subsequently the West End. The show was revived in New York in 2006.

As well as being the principal pops conductor for six American symphony orchestras, he has composed over 40 motion picture scores and was musical director and arranger for Barbra Streisand’s 1994 concert tour.’s Andrew Girvan talks to Hamlisch about his two, very different, upcoming London dates and the way he approaches all of his public performances.

One is what we call “the big concert” with Idina Menzel and the orchestra, which I’m looking forward to. The other will be a very personal one with a more sporadic atmosphere. It feels like you’re in my living room with Maria Friedman. It will have a nice open question stage, so that people can ask what they have on their minds. It will be a very relaxed evening.

I like to choose songs that, first of all, the audience know. But I also like to choose things that I didn’t write but are pieces of music which I love very much. Pieces that influence me and people who have had a profound affect on me. That’s how I make the choices for the line-up.

Right now I’m on my way to Dublin to do a concert with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. It’s not as impromptu as an evening where you are alone with the piano. Having said that I enjoy both. A lot of the stuff that I do is funny. You’re in a situation with a big orchestra people don’t expect you to be funny, so when that happens there’s a real surprise element.

For me, it really isn’t that hard because I was born with a sense of humour. I think it’s very important to try to be yourself on the stage, otherwise you can just go out and buy a CD of the music. I think an evening should be more than that. I think you want people to really get to know you a little better. That’s really what’s going to happen with the show I’m doing with Maria, I think they’ll get a sense of who I am once that show is over.

I like answering questions from the audience and I don’t care what it throws up. One of the things I like about that is that it keeps me on my toes, because the rest of it you almost learn by rote. You know how you’re going to play a certain song. We actually do a section called “Rent a Composer” where I ask for people to give me a brand new title and I make up a song on the spot. I think people will walk away from my concert finding out I’m funnier that they thought I was. Well that’s the whole idea.

We did this show about a year and a half ago at the Pizza Express and I am crazy about Maria. I think she’s a great singer, a great actress and I feel very comfortable with her. That’s why we decided to do that.

I got to know Idina a few years ago. We actually started working together when she did a show at the Kennedy Center. Since then I’ve done a few shows with her and I just enjoy her so much. I think she’s a great girl and she’s a lot of fun to work with.

I think that the London audience will go nuts for her. You really don’t know what she’s going to say, but it’s usually very funny and people adore her. Her voice is fantastic. The show we’re doing is basically one we’ve done three or four times already. She has a lot of wonderful material.

Of course there are highlights from Wicked which we will include. A lot of people already know what she’s going to do, and a lot of people love the bits she’s done before. She chooses her songs with a wonderful person called Rob Mounsey and they basically put together the act. She and I have little things we work on together for the show, which we’ll decide a couple of days beforehand. Mostly it’s pretty well set.

I’m doing a concert with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in Dublin. This is the first time I’m working with them, and I’m looking forward to it. If you know what you’re doing, the orchestra knows that very quickly – so I’m not worried at all. I feel very comfortable so I just walk in and do what I do. I think they feel good that I know what I’m doing. That comes across.

Marvin Hamlisch performs at the Playhouse Theatre on Sunday 9 October joined by special guest Maria Friedman. Idina Menzel performs at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 6 October 2011.