When Marvin Hamlisch sits down to play the piano, they all laugh. But that's OK, because they're supposed to--for part of the program anyway.
Hamlisch has taken a page out of Jonathan Winters' playbook and breaks up the monotony (his word) of the standard concert program with a 15- to 20-minute improvisation segment in which he uses lines from the audience to instantly compose songs.
He calls it "Rent a Composer," and he will be pressing the routine into service today and Saturday when he appears with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Speaking by telephone from his New York City home, Hamlisch, who turned 45 last week, said the bit came out of the musings of every songwriter who ever lived. "You're walking along and you see a sign--'Don't Walk'--or a headline, like 'Wall Street Crash,' and you just automatically start repeating it in your mind and putting it to music."
"It's a game I used to play as a kid with my family, and it's just gradually been incorporated into my concerts. It's fun for me and it's fun for the audience."
Of course, he's quick to point out that it's only a small part of a much larger program of serious (for pop music) material, mostly of his own prolific creation--"The Way We Were," "The Entertainer" (with some major help from Scott Joplin), "Nobody Does It Better," and others from his catalogue of Hollywood and Broadway hits.
The first half of tonight's and Saturday's programs belong to the Pacific Symphony and will be led by the orchestra's assistant conductor, Lucas Richman. The group will perform the overture to "The Barber of Seville," the suite from "Raintree Country," the theme from "Laura" and excerpts from the "Star Wars" scores. Hamlisch's longtime conductor, Larry Blank, will take the baton for his segment.
The Performing Arts Center appearance begins a two-week mini-tour for Hamlisch that will also take him to Los Angeles, where he'll play a benefit for KCET Channel 28, as well as Sacramento and Cincinnati--all part of a "working honeymoon" for the Pulitzer Prize-Tony-Grammy-Oscar-winning composer.
Hamlisch was married May 29 to independent television producer Terre Blair in an outdoor ceremony on the banks of the Hudson River, serenaded with his own music by actor-banjoist George Segal and singer Roberta Flack.
They left immediately for Portugal, but even that was work-connected, Hamlisch said. His music publisher was hosting a convention there, and Hamlisch was the star attraction.
When the current tour ends, he plans to get back into a "serious search" for either a film or Broadway musical on which to work. While he prefers Broadway and he's certainly had success there ("A Chorus Line," "They're Playing Our Song"), the odds are that the next project will be a film.
"(On Broadway) you work two or three years for just one night," he said, "and if it dies, it's really tough."
Marvin Hamlisch will appear today and Saturday at 8 p.m. with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $49. Information: (714) 556-2787.