Larry Blank could not be more ideally suited to lead the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to Marvin Hamlisch this week.
A one-time protégé of Hamlisch, a previous guest conductor at SSO and a key figure in several world-premiere productions at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Blank is looking forward to celebrating the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of “A Chorus Line” with Hamlisch’s local fans.
Hamlisch, who died at age 68 last year, was Seattle Symphony’s principal pops conductor as well as one of America’s most recognized composers. One of only two recipients (the other being Richard Rodgers) of a Pulitzer plus all four major performing awards in the U.S. — Emmy, Oscar, Tony and Grammy — Hamlisch did more than deliver light fare at Benaroya Hall.
He made it his mission to help keep the American Songbook thriving in Seattle — pointedly educating young people in his audience — by conducting entire, illuminating programs of music by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.
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“Part of the reason Marvin played the work of so many other composers in concert was because he felt they were greater than he was,” says Blank. “So there was a lack of ego. He really liked to entertain and educate.”
Blank, 60, a longtime conductor, arranger, orchestrator and composer equally at home on Broadway and in Hollywood, knows what it’s like to have one’s young life altered by Hamlisch’s generosity.
“I was an aspiring Broadway conductor in the late 1970s,” Blank says. “Don Pippin, conductor of the original production of ‘A Chorus Line,’ made sure I was hired to conduct the international touring company of the show. A year later, Marvin had a new show called ‘They’re Playing Our Song’ and wanted to meet me at his Park Avenue apartment to talk about conducting it. He opened the door in his robe and said, ‘Hey, babe. Don says you’re good. You’ve got the job.’
“At that moment, at 23, I became the hottest conductor on Broadway.”
Blank, a three-time Tony nominee, became Hamlisch’s music director for the next decade. His burgeoning career eventually led him to Seattle and a 30-year relationship with the 5th Avenue Theatre. In 1983, Blank conducted “Collette,” starring Diana Rigg, with his friend Illsley Ball Nordstrom — a major arts supporter — seated beside him in the 5th orchestra pit.
Blank went on to conduct or orchestrate several more shows at the 5th Avenue, including Broadway-bound tryouts of “Catch Me If You Can” and “A Christmas Story.”
For the Hamlisch program at SSO, Blank has chosen selections from “A Chorus Line,” plus hit songs “The Way We Were” and “Nobody Does It Better.” But there is less obvious material: Lesley Gore’s mid-’60s “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” (cowritten by a teenage Hamlisch), and tunes from the musicals “Jean Seberg” and “Smile.”
The Seattle Choral Company and stage veterans Susan Egan, Lisa Vroman, Brandon O’Neill and Katherine Strohmaier will provide vocals.
“Marvin was extraordinarily creative, very facile and very busy,” says Blank. “You had to move quickly to be around him. He was also very generous, quick of wit, and a bit testy. After all those awards, he was trying to live up to expectations. But that was a good thing.
“He was very good about bringing the music to the public and to his friends.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org