Wave goodbye, say hallo

From 'A Chorus Line' to 'The Way We Were', Marvin Hamlisch knows about success. Now, he tells David Benedict, he's hoping his revival of 'The Goodbye Girl' will hit the spot
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"If you were a Broadway musical, people would be humming your face." Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for saying that to Marsha Mason in the 1977 movie The Goodbye Girl. Eating lunch in the plush grandeur of Claridges, composer Marvin Hamlisch can't remember if Neil Simon's original line is still there but the sentiment is central to their musical stage version which opens this week, almost exactly 20 years on.

The show first saw the light of day four years ago, but even with the Broadway favourite Bernadette Peters in the lead, it only survived 188 performances before going down with all hands. From the man who wrote the groundbreaking A Chorus Line, which ran for 15 years, it was, shall we say, a disappointment. Yet, to quote a lyric by the late, great Dorothy Fields, "It's not where you start/ It's where you finish", and Hamlisch is determined to "finish on top" with a completely revised version, courtesy of director Rob Bettinson, who helped mastermind the phenomenally successful Buddy, still going strong here after seven years.

Solid, broad-shouldered, mid-fifties, with a mile-a-minute New York mouth, Hamlisch is buoyant, expansive, and not one to hide his light under a bushel. He's over here "tweaking" the show during its tryout run in Bromley and he's busting to sell it. Genuinely bowled over by Gary Wilmot's performance in the lead - "He's really spectacular... he's going to be the talk of the town" - he's equally enthusiastic about Bettinson's new vision of the piece. The lyricist, David (City of Angels) Zippell, declined the invitation to rework the show, so Don Black was called in. "He's a family man with two kids, he understood the dynamics. Any song that needed little changes we said 'No' to and started from scratch. How many writers get the chance to do it a second time and do it better?" The final score? Three by Zippell, seven by Black.

The original teary, feelgood movie occasioned Pauline Kael's famous, astute remark: "It's not Neil Simon's one-liners that get you down... it's his two-liners. The snappiness of the exchanges is so forced it's almost macabre." But that didn't stop it becoming a smash. Simon had first hit paydirt in the Sixties with The Odd Couple, his great flat-share comedy, first as a play, then film, then TV series, so he knew what he was doing when he wrote another, this time one in which defensive, dumped-on divorcee and single mother Paula is forced to share her apartment with Elliott, a health-obsessed struggling actor. An acrimonious cute-meet gives way to afterglow. It's a situation comedy in which the situation virtually doesn't change, Simon merely piles on running gags and then runs them into romance. The advantage of making a musical version of it is that songs can give the emotions the space that the high-velocity dialogue squeezes out.

"This show has a great empathetic quality," if Hamlisch says so himself. "People are laughing like crazy and they cry at the end because there is a very strong emotional tug. You care about these three people, you care about this family." He admits that first time out, he and Simon made a mistake with the director. "What Bettinson did was give it reality. He didn't want a backstager. He cut that out. He said, 'She's not just a theatrical person, she's got a daughter, she's got a job, she's in trouble and in comes this guy...' and Neil was very quick to take direction." "She" may be the girl of the show's title, but Hamlisch also credits Bettinson with bucking the musical tradition and shifting the balance to the guy.

Whether it's judiciousness or plain superstition, he's not happy apportioning blame. "When you make a mistake, if you correct it, you want to talk about the correction." Fair enough, particularly when you're talking to a former child prodigy who, aged seven, was the youngest student ever enrolled at Juilliard, is the only composer in history to pick up three Oscars on one night (two for The Way We Were and one for arranging Scott Joplin's music for The Sting), and then wrote Broadway's longest running musical, A Chorus Line, currently on a 21st anniversary revival tour around Britain. He first worked with Neil Simon in 1979 on the small-scale show They're Playing Our Song, based in part on his relationship with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. It ran a respectable two-and-a-half years.

Then there's his other career. As musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and the Baltimore Symphony Pops, he conducts around 70 concerts a year. "I don't like to do nothing, sit around waiting for my next musical. My next one is two years away and I like getting this thing back from the audience... it's called applause!" There was plenty of that around on his recent world tour conducting the 63-piece band for Barbra Streisand. "I think we did a helluva job. You watch the video and I don't think you'll hear a band play better than that." He first met Streisand when he was the rehearsal pianist and assistant vocal arranger on her Broadway debut in Funny Girl over 30 years ago, and is quick to defend her over having the entire show written out on autocue. "She hadn't done a concert in 27 years and the last time she did one she had a death threat hanging over her,. I mean, this girl was nervous. I was proud of her. Here's the deal: you hear the best vocalist in the world to sing with the autocue or blow it."

His Midas touch has occasionally deserted him. Smile, his musical with Howard Ashman, flopped and his National Theatre debut was a bit of a debacle. Peter Hall, bloodied but unbowed by the gargantuan flop of his musical debut with Christopher Gore's Via Galactica (originally entitled Up!, set on an asteroid, with trampolines, laser beams and a flying spacecraft... don't ask) mounted Hamlisch's bio-musical Jean Seberg. It hurtled over budget and into oblivion.

"A good idea done poorly," he concedes. "Why? Probably because the original idea which Peter Hall really liked never really got up on stage. Somewhere along the way he decided to change it conceptually." Hall split the focus. "He decided to have two Jeans on stage, the young one and the old one. When you're the music man, it's like being on a plane and the captain is the director. You say, 'We're going to New York', and he says, 'We're changing: we're going to Paris'. At that point you either get off the plane or you go to Paris. I think that was a mistake. If you watch one person knock themselves out for two-and-a-half hours, then, when they die, you're in tears. If you watch two, they're only doing half as much and it's not like watching a tour de force." I remind him that 10 years ago he described it as his best score, but he leaps to the job in hand, heralding the closing song of The Goodbye Girl as "one of the best songs I've ever written for the theatre. You know, I love 'One' from A Chorus Line but I know what it is. This song still gets to me and I think 'Ooh that's good'."

Despite the success, he feels a lack of recognition which obviously rankles. "My versatility sometimes plays against me, it's hard to put me into a specific box." The success of A Chorus Line lies in the theatrical genius of Michael Bennett's dramatic conceit and its execution, and he admits that the anthem "What I Did For Love" doesn't belong in this most organic of shows but none the less he was hurt by the mixed reviews he personally received. Hamlisch is an intriguing mix between exhibitionist self-confidence and thinly disguised neediness, and I'm reminded of the end of the Act 1 song: "That I can do/I can do that." He knows there's nothing he can do about his reputation and resigns himself to versatility. "I need that variation in my life. I'm not a person in the garrett with the wine bottle. I interact with people. Yesterday I was out the whole day, walking and doing and buying and eating and having a good time. I'm a very people person. Ed Kleban hardly did anything after Chorus Line. Every time I'd bring him something to write he'd say, 'This isn't going to be as good'. And I'd say, 'Ed, you gotta write: you're a writer'. That's how I feel about me."

If London loves The Goodbye Girl he wants to tour it in Europe and Australia and then maybe the United States. Wisely, he won't go back to Broadway without an advance word of mouth and a major box-office name. He's convinced The Goodbye Girl was always a good idea they initially got wrong. "Listen. A bad idea will never be good, no matter who does it. There are shows which could have music by Beethoven, lyrics by Shakespeare and books by God, but if they're a bad idea they can't be fixed and you've got a lemon. But if you manhandle a good idea, then you feel terrible. You think, 'I missed a golden opportunity. I blew it.' In this situation now, I think we got it right".

'The Goodbye Girl' is in preview at the Albery Theatre, London WC2. Booking: 0171-369 1730