REVIEW: Hamlisch Uncovered

Recording CoverWhen composer Marvin Hamlisch passed away at age 68, he had already achieved a remarkable career, including being an EGOT winner, that would be the envy of almost any artist. Listening to Hamlisch Uncovered, a collection of lesser-known and cut songs from the composer leaves one, though, with a real sense of loss. If only Hamlisch had lived longer, what else would he have produced? Hamlisch is, of course, best known as the Tony Award-winning composer of A Chorus Line and while Hamlisch's career continued long past the 1974 work, with perhaps the exception of They're Playing Our Song, he never really had a hit on the scale of A Chorus Line. Hamlisch was hardly resting on his laurels though. From serving as conductor for Barbra Streisand to writing for film (he wrote "The Way We Were" and "Nobody Does It Better") Hamlisch was always at work on one project or another. But Broadway was probably where Hamlisch was most at home and in the years following A Chorus Line he produced a number of scores that while chock full of melody and heart, never brought commercial success, most only running for a few months on Broadway.

Hamlisch Uncovered sheds light on a number of these projects from Smile, a musical based on the 1975 satirical film about beauty pageants to The Nutty Professor, a musical that premiered in Nashville in 2012, four days before Hamlisch's death. Listening to these lost tunes, one is struck by Hamlisch's talent for both tender ballads (Smile's "Six O'Clock News" with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and sung by Daisy Carnelia is a standout) and catchy numbers ("The Only Way to Go" for the TV movie The Entertainer, sung here by Tony Sheldon). But what the songs also reveal, perhaps, is that there was no single Hamlisch signature sound; he was a musical chameleon who wrote for the character at hand, but with a sound that made his music less instantly recognizable than contemporaries Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, or John Kander. Hamlisch was a bit in his own category and one might argue, despite all his accolades, has never fully been given his theatrical due in terms of retrospective shows or compilations.

While the tracks on Hamlisch Uncovered are simply presented mainly with piano, they are well sung by a bevy of notable Broadway performers, many of them connected to the original projects for which the songs were written. Kelli O'Hara, who in 2002 was still virtually unknown, performs two gorgeous cut ballads ("A Different World" and "That's How I Say Goodbye") from Sweet Smell of Success, which was a breakthrough moment in her career. Sweet Smell was one of several projects written with collaborator Craig Carnelia (Hamlisch never really identified with a single lyricist, a fact reflected on the album with collaborations with writers Rupert Holmes, Howard Ashman, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Tim Rice), and Hamlisch Uncovered is in many ways a tribute by Carnelia to Hamlisch who both produced the album and wrote the liner notes.

The Nutty Professor musical based on the classic Jerry Lewis film, never made it to Broadway, but original cast members Klea Blackhurst and Marissa McGowan get to preserve their performances in the catchy "Step Out of Your Shell" and yearning "While I Still Have the Time." The greatest number of tracks on the album actually come from the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron about Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, which Hamlisch and Carnelia provided the music for. Many of these tracks feature Hamlisch himself on the keys, singing along with Carnelia. It's hard not to tap your toes along to the pastiche "Fig Tree Rag," but the other songs, like the rich and moving "Words Fail Me" sung by Lisa Brescia seem to be as much about the friendship between Carnelia and Hamlisch as they are about McCarthy and Hellman.

Hamlisch may be gone, but in this album, his music and legacy live on, providing listeners with another glimpse into the prolific and creative output of one of theater's most talented composers.


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