Sweet Smell of Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch is not a “cookie filled with arsenic,” to quote one of the million quotable lines in Sweet Smell of Success , the noir musical he’s adapted from the 1957 movie. He’s more like a cookie filled with Oreo cream.

Double stuff me, Sidney.

When Marvin Hamlisch was 16, he wrote a Top Ten hit song, “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” for Lesley Gore. Thirteen years later, in his first attempt at a Broadway show, he wrote A Chorus Line and won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. That was two years after he won three Oscars for The Sting and The Way We Were .

Like most prodigies, Mr. Hamlisch is conditioned to show off. He’s not embarrassed by big, extravagant, virtuosic melodies. And like Mr. Hamlisch’s nicely cushioned physical appearance, his music feels easy and comfortable. You feel that if you sat on his lap, you’d have a happy seat; the same with his tunes.

It’s a refreshing trait for a composer to have in this era of new musicals that try to conceal the very showiness that makes theater.

It also makes Mr. Hamlisch an interesting composer for the dark, jagged story of J.J. Hunsecker’s seedy gossip underworld in Sweet Smell of Success , the adaptation of the Ernest Lehman– Clifford Odets–Alexander Mackendrick film that starred its producer, Burt Lancaster, and flopped in 1957, but developed a second life as a classic noir ode to “21” and reference point to the life and career of Walter Winchell, whom it effectively buried.

The musical, with music by Mr. Hamlisch and lyrics by Craig Carnelia, opens, March 14, at the Martin Beck Theatre on West 45th Street.

Like his best music, Mr. Hamlisch is unapologetically broad and open. He tells old theater stories that start, “And then Liza told me, ‘Marvin …. ‘” He makes puns. Liz Smith called Mr. Hamlisch “Seinfeld with a baton.” His speech is theatrical, like the way he says “thrilling”-a word he seems to like particularly-as a three-syllable utterance, ” tha-rill-ing .”

Now Marvin Hamlisch is 57 and living with his wife, Terre, in Manhattan. He’s spent most of his professional life in Hollywood scoring films or conducting pops orchestras in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. It’s been nine years since Mr. Hamlisch wrote a Broadway show, the adaptation of another film, Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl .

“I would have loved to have written something serious,” Mr. Hamlisch said recently in his Park Avenue apartment, dressed in a blue gingham shirt and khakis, and wearing a watch with a bright red wristband. Next to him was a small table covered in glass-menagerie pianos. He was not wrapped in thought like some neurotic artiste, but like the showman he is, pitching his latest work.

“But the only things coming on my desk were funny things,” he continued. “I really wanted to do something gritty. In the last 20 years, you get the sense that by ‘musical,’ we mean musical comedy. But there’s musical comedy, and there are musicals. Musicals can be serious, too.”

“I was intrigued and thrilled about working with John Guare,” he said. “And then I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled to be working with Nick Hytner. And though I didn’t know Craig Carnelia, it was wonderful working with him. So it’s been a wonderful process.”

Wonderful! And thrilling. And strangely not banal.

Sweet Smell of Success has two musical languages, the lush romantic language of the love story between a piano player named Dallas and J.J. Hunsecker’s sister Susan-a plot line that playwright John Guare has modified slightly from the original movie script-and the gritty vaudevillian language of Hunsecker’s gossip empire.

As he has in most of his career, Mr. Hamlisch seems coziest in the romantic language, typified by numbers like “I Cannot Hear the City,” Dallas’ jazzy torch song, and the show’s big love ballad, “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off,” sung by Dallas and Susan. This is the number that reminds the audience of Mr. Hamlisch’s real strength as a composer, which is what you might call the neurotic love ballad (as in “What I Did For Love” from A Chorus Line –or even, if you really think about it, “The Way We Were”). On the other hand, when Mr. Hamlisch turns to the darker themes in the score, like the frantic “I Could Get You in J.J.”, a Kurt Weill–ish number sung by a desperate chorus of press agents, he becomes somewhat more off-the-rack.

Like A Chorus Line , Sweet Smell of Success explores the underbelly of the grit beneath the glamour, though unlike A Chorus Line , Sweet Smell provides the audience with no redemption. There is no show-stopper, no big Broadway number of the kind that every songwriter wants to write. (As in “BUM , They’re playing OUR SONG / Bah-bah-bah-BUM , They’re playing OUR SONG” from his 1980 hit show with Carole Bayer Sager, They’re Playing Our Song .) But like any good Broadway composer, Mr. Hamlisch has humbled himself for the sake of the book.

“You have to be true to the material,” he said. “If a story suggests a show-topper, then you write one. But this is all one piece. Sometimes a great ending can be in the cumulative effect. The cumulative effect of West Side Story is beautiful, and they’re all dead.”

Mr. Hamlisch grew up on West 81st Street, the son of an accordion-playing father. At Juilliard, which he entered at age 6, he was gunning to be the next Horowitz. But then, at age 13, it happened: Mr. Hamlisch attended his very first Judy Garland concert. “That was it ,” Mr. Hamlisch said. “I heard her sing ‘San Francisco’ and I went, ‘I gotta get into this business.'”

He attended the Professional Children’s School on West 60th Street. Surrounded by precocious showbiz talent, Mr. Hamlisch thrived. He wrote hit songs; his best friend dated Liza Minnelli. “We were all a troupe together,” he said. “We had all these child stars, and I would write school shows for them.”

It hardly mattered that rock ‘n’ roll was just taking off; Mr. Hamlisch was tuned into something different. “There were two rock stations in those days, but there was another station that played just shows,” he said. “I listened to that. Damn Yankees , Pajama Game –they had a tremendous effect on me.” He saw Gypsy eight times. “I couldn’t get enough of it,” he said. “Wow! I just loved shows. I loved the anticipation of an audience. When you see ‘Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets’ and all the sudden this dance would come, and all the sudden you go ‘Oh, my God!’-and the next thing you know, you’d be clapping like a crazy person. You just can’t get that on a three-minute record, and you don’t really stand up and cheer in a movie. Well, you do in your soul; when you see Singin’ in the Rain , you go ‘clap-clap-clap’ inside.”

Mr. Hamlisch graduated Juilliard and got a job as assistant vocal arranger for composer Jule Styne’s Funny Girl , starring Barbra Streisand. Playing piano at a party, he caught the attention of producer Sam Spiegel and got his first assignment: to score a film, The Swimmer , Frank Perry’s adaptation of the John Cheever short story. From there he wrote the music for two of Woody Allen’s early movies, Take the Money and Run and Bananas . Then came The Way We Were and the inevitable “The Way We Were” (“Memmm-ries … “), sung by Barbra Streisand. Then The Sting , for which he rearranged Scott Joplin’s rags despite the film’s anachronistic time period (1936) and helped to restore the ragtime composer’s popularity. Both films won him Oscars.

Called back to New York by choreographer Michael Bennett, Mr. Hamlisch wrote the music for A Chorus Line , a paradigmatic show about aspiring dancers waiting for that one big chance. A Chorus Line started at the Public Theater and, with its pared-down aesthetics, seemed to draw strength from its rejection of showy sets and costumes. It was held together by Mr. Hamlisch’s deceptively simple score. And when the show needed a show-stopper, Mr. Hamlisch produced one, the Musical Hall of Fame number “One.” (“One! Singular sensation, every little step that you take / One…. “)

But Mr. Hamlisch seemed more beguiled by Hollywood than Broadway. After A Chorus Line , he scored 30 more films. He was hot. He made appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson .

In 1975, while living in Los Angeles, Mr. Hamlisch was paid a visit by Groucho Marx’s secretary. “She taps on the window, and she says she thinks it’s good for him that maybe he should have someone come and play some of his songs,” Mr. Hamlisch recalled. “You know, he was really going into his old age. So I went over, and there he was. Very funny with the cigar, the whole thing, whatever. They had the sheet music, and I played his songs and he sang.”

Groucho Marx liked the exchange so much that he kept Mr. Hamlisch on to play at his parties. Then he seemed to enjoy himself so much that it was decided there should be a tour. “They were doing this to, quote, ‘keep him young, keep him going,'” Mr. Hamlisch said. “Because basically he was just in a big house and falling away by himself.”

Groucho and Mr. Hamlisch toured the country, appearing at colleges-“He came alive. All the girls wanted to touch him,” Mr. Hamlisch said-and finally Carnegie Hall. “He would say to me, ‘I just bought an anklet for my girlfriend.’ And I would go, ‘What did it say?’ and he would say, ‘Heaven’s above.’ Like that. Ba- dum -bum. But he would remember every lyric. He would do ‘Lydia’-and you know ‘Lydia,’ that’s like a seven-page song-and he never forgot the lyrics.”

Sweet Smell of Success is Mr. Hamlisch’s first musical since The Goodbye Girl in 1993. He said he’d sifted through a lot of material before becoming entranced by the motif of New York noir. “What attracted me was the language, the musical language of the 1950’s,” he said. “The jazz, the bands-and New York at that time is so gritty.”

Now he’s writing music for Nora Ephron’s first play (“a show with songs”), Imaginary Friends , about a fictional meeting between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. And he’s negotiating a possible deal to compose a musical version of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway with his Sweet Smell lyricist, Mr. Carnelia. “I love it,” Mr. Hamlisch said. “It’s a bug, and I’ve got it. When I see a really good musical or a really great show, I am just tha-rilled .”