Pianist makes it personal with 'Play It Again, Marvin!'

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Tribute concerts to the memory of Marvin Hamlisch continue unabated in the nearly two years since the sudden death of the PSO Pops leader and award-winning composer. On Monday, for example, New York's Public Theater held a gala titled "One Thrilling Combination" -- a lyric from Hamlisch's Pulitzer-winning "A Chorus Line" -- with performances by stars including Pittsburghers Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter.

‘‍Play It Again, Marvin!’‍

Where: Kevin Cole and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $40-$105; or 412-392-4900.

What sets apart "Play It Again, Marvin!," a premiere event with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Saturday, is Kevin Cole. "This one's personal," says the pianist-composer who wrote and produced the program.

"This is going to be telling Marvin's story in a human way. For all his accomplishments, he's the guy you'd want to hang around with regardless of the accolades. I want people to know what he was like when he wasn't on stage."

To help him introduce his vision, he invited others for whom Hamlisch's legacy is personal -- frequent collaborators J. Ernest Green will conduct the concert, with guest vocalists Brian d'Arcy James, Maria Friedman and Sylvia McNair.

Mr. Cole, frequently seen on stage with Hamlisch during their eight-year collaboration, has been gathering material, and for the documentary "Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love," he arranged and performed a piano medley from three of his friend's favorite songs: the Oscar-winning "The Way We Were" and a pair from "A Chorus Line," "At the Ballet" and "What I Did for Love."

For this program, he delved even deeper. Terre Hamlisch gave him access to her late husband's vast library of arrangements, housed in Los Angeles. "I spent three days there, and I felt like Indiana Jones searching for gems," he says. "People don't realize that Marvin had one of the biggest music libraries of any 20th-century composer. I didn't get through it all, but I got through a lot."

One of those hidden gems is a song that didn't make it into the Broadway production of "The Sweet Smell of Success," which starred Mr. d'Arcy James. "It's called 'That's How I Say Goodbye,' and it's one of the most gorgeous, simple melodies that he ever wrote. It will tug at your heartstrings, and I think it will be a revelation to people."

The two men found a common bond as classically trained pianists who opted for the world of popular music -- Mr. Cole is renowned as an interpreter of Gershwin, among others. The program also will reflect a tie that bound the men as performers.

"We had that in common, that I always spoke to my audiences," he says. When they performed together, the gift for gab came in handy.

"We became like Abbott and Costello on stage. We'd have these little routines that were hilarious. He certainly was the master of the ad lib, so the audience becomes a part of the performance. It's not just watching you like a tiger in the zoo."

Hamlisch, who would have been 70 on June 2, could be a cut-up on stage. He loved birthdays and celebrations, Mr. Cole says, and was performing with the PSO one January around the time of the pianist's birthday. "Marvin would always arrange a birthday lunch, and he decided during a concert he wanted it to be at a certain restaurant, so there he was making a reservation, during the concert," says Mr. Cole, chuckling at the memory.

With the help of Mrs. Hamlisch, Mr. Cole has incorporated family videos and images that will remind people of the dynamic young Marvin Hamlisch, a lanky songwriter who would also make a great talk-show guest for Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" or accompany Groucho Marx at a Carnegie Hall concert.

Pittsburghers who attended Pops concerts conducted by Hamlisch know that if you put yourself in his hands, he would do anything to make sure a good time was had by all. As his friend put it, "You knew Marvin was in charge, and he would drive the bus for you."

On Saturday, Mr. Cole hopes to rewind the clock and remind us of the way we were when Marvin Hamlisch was playing our songs.

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