When Marvin Hamlisch called the other day, he was in Buffalo, performing in concert with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, who had starred in the Hamlisch-co-written musical They're Playing Our Song in the 1970s.
It was a single stop in an extended road trip for Hamlisch, who will also be at the University of Akron this week. Indeed, Hamlisch — now in his 60s — could spend all of his time just replaying and relishing past successes.
A Chorus Line, for which he shared numerous awards, has been enjoying a long revival on Broadway, where Hamlisch has
also had a hand in performance shows by Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli. Old Hamlisch-penned tunes have popped up in Ugly Betty and Shrek the Third.
He has 12 Oscar nominations, the most recent in 1996 for I Finally Found Someone from The Mirror Has Two Faces, where Hamlisch's collaborators included longtime friend Barbra Streisand, Bryan Adams and Mutt Lange, the ace producer and husband of Shania Twain.
Hamlisch has three Oscars, all won in the same year for work on The Way We Were and The Sting, with his work on the latter bringing the music of Scott Joplin new popularity. He also has Emmys, a Tony, four Grammys and a piece of A Chorus Line's Pulitzer Prize.
And he's a showman, whether as a player, a conductor or a guest on old game shows.
''He's a very different kind of musician than our students in the music school normally deal with,'' said Guy Bordo, director of the UA symphony orchestra. ''His knowledge and experience are going to be invaluable.''
Indeed, Hamlisch himself explained that different kinds of music require different skills.
''Stage music [for a Broadway show] is forefront music,'' he said. ''It helps to move the story along. It has to entertain and be informative. When you're doing a film, you're background music. You want to help and support the emotions of a scene. You want to add layers.''
Hamlisch is the second film composer to make an extended visit to UA, following Randy Newman a year ago, and his card is well-filled.
For the public, there will be a concert at E.J. Thomas Hall at 8 p.m. Friday with Hamlisch, singer J. Mark McVey and the university's symphonic band, orchestra and choir. Tickets are $25; visit http://www.ticketmaster.com or call 330-945-9400.
In addition, Bordo said, Hamlisch will meet with student composers and arrangers, rehearse with the UA groups and address the student body of the music school.
''I enjoy working with students,'' Hamlisch said. ''I get a kick out of it.''
Alluding to a recent appearance at Harvard, he said: ''I was so taken by the students. I knew the kids were going to be very smart, but they were gleaming with the kind of excitement that's part of youth.''
I asked whether he would consider doing American Idol, the way Andrew Lloyd Webber did recently. ''They've never asked,'' he said. But he wasn't sure he'd say yes if they did. ''The whole thing of reality shows . . . is taking up time that we could be using for Playhouse 90. Mainstream television has gotten disappointing.''
He does watch some TV, including American Masters, ''and all those wonderful things with the animal kingdom'' on cable.
And he has seen the familiar territory of musical theater get tough, especially if your name isn't Disney.
Earlier this decade, he was involved in two shows, Imaginary Friends and Sweet Smell of Success, that proved disappointments. He had hoped to turn Woody Allen's movie Bullets Over Broadway into a musical and went so far as to write some songs on spec.
''It would have been a great, great show,'' he said. ''Woody Allen was exceedingly nice.''
After hearing the songs, Allen told Hamlisch, ''Terrific. Now just make it happen.''
''But there were so many legal problems,'' Hamlisch said. (Among them, Allen was not the only producer on the movie, and therefore not the only person who had to sign off on the project.) ''It was beyond impossible to do it.''
Even when rights are obtainable, though, Hamlisch said a show is not easy to put together. ''You need to get four people who all want to do the same thing at the same time,'' he said, referring to a composer, lyricist, book writer (someone who does the script) and a director.
But young people aren't looking at Broadway, he said. A stage show might take two years from script to production, and then fail before the writers and director can cash in. Hollywood is full of stories about scripts that are sold for big bucks, even though they wait years to be produced — and often don't get turned into movies at all.
Hamlisch has not given up on music, though, including stage songs. Later this year, he will be writing music for a movie from director-producer Steven Soderbergh. And he would like to take another crack at Broadway.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in a blog at http://www.ohio.com. You can find more columns, questions and answers at http://www.ohio.com/entertainment/heldenfels.