Arts & Culture

Hamlisch offers vital audition advice

5 min read

The multigifted and much-admired musical composer Marvin Hamlisch taught a master class in the New College Theatre on “The Art of the Audition” recently (April 9) under the auspices of Learning From Performers. The class was arranged by Thomas Lee, the series program manager. The following day, the composer of “A Chorus Line” was a special guest in a class on the history of the Broadway musical.


The topic Hamlisch chose for his class, the dreaded audition, is not surprising.

Major composer and Pops Orchestra conductor Hamlisch has won three Oscars, four Grammys, four Emmys, three Golden Globes and a Tony, but he still remembers his first audition, at the Juilliard School. He was 6 years old. From then until he was 17, he had to show up for a yearly audition, ominously called “The Jury,” in order to keep his precious scholarship to the prestigious school. Each one, he recalls, was agony. Much later, the experience was still with him: After winning three Oscars in one year, 1974, he left Hollywood to write “A Chorus Line,” which ran for 15 years on Broadway, a show whose entire subject is an audition.

“The one thing schools don’t teach you is how to audition,” Hamlisch said to the audience in the New College Theatre. Consequently, he designed the master class specifically so that the students would get to perform, listen to notes, and then incorporate the coaching into a second performance of their songs.

Preparing two songs for the event were three students, chosen by OfA for their interest in a theatrical career: Tom Compton ’09, a music concentrator, last seen in this year’s Hasty Pudding show as Roy L. Pain; Rachel Flynn ’09, who studies religion and dramatic arts; and Arlo Hill ’08, a literature concentrator who will play the title role opposite Flynn in “Sweeney Todd,” opening April 25.

Hamlisch’s recommendations can be practical, esoteric, or both. He told Compton to take his hands out of his pockets while singing, adding his favorite phrase. “You have to up it up. You are not going to lose a role for being too much.” As a teacher, Hamlisch has a gentle and direct way of zeroing in on what will make the most difference the fastest. He sent Compton to a room to “get to the ‘money’ notes faster” even if, he said, the lyrics no longer make sense.

Of Flynn, the next singer, Hamlisch queried the class, “‘How many notes does she have? How high can she go?’ That’s what they want to know.” He listened to her sing, told her to control her vibrato and hit the high note right on. She went off to work on it.

After listening to Hill, a tenor, for a couple of measures, the composer told him to transpose his song from the key of C to the key of D: “If you want to kill with that, work it up to D major —that’s a range most people don’t have. Sing in whatever key is your baby.” Hamlisch stepped over to the piano and pushed it up a key. On the spot, Hill sang the new version. Hamlisch was right, of course. It killed.

And the maestro’s farewell message to the students: “See you on Broadway!”


Some Harvard students have a front-row seat on Broadway this semester with “American Musicals and American Culture,” a new half-course in the Core taught by Carol J. Oja, the William Powell Mason Professor of Music. And recently (April 10), they got to see a Broadway legend when Hamlisch, composer of one of these iconic musicals, was a special guest in the class.

“Musicals are central to our cultural heritage,” Oja said. “They not only represent an abundance of brilliant talent, but they also resonate with some of the central themes of their eras. Issues of race and ethnicity, gender and politics, national identity and foreignness permeate this tradition.”

Considering the course’s historical focus, it was particularly appropriate to have Hamlisch as a visitor: “His ‘Chorus Line,’” Oja noted, “was a landmark as soon as it appeared.” Indeed, the musical ran for more than 6,000 performances on Broadway and won 12 Tony Awards.

Oja pointed out to her class that the first phase of Hamlisch’s career took place in Hollywood, where he wrote the score to “The Swimmer” and more than a dozen other films, including “The Way We Were” and “The Sting.”

It was only after this string of Hollywood successes that he was summoned to Broadway by Michael Bennett to write “A Chorus Line,” based on Bennett’s own concept. Hamlisch explained to the class that he always asks himself when he starts to compose: What is the point of the singing? Where does it fit in the show? But in this case, at least at first, he said, there was no show. The first rehearsal was a transcription of 24 hours of interviews with dancers. The show was developed in a series of workshops in New York. “It was a completely original idea of Michael Bennett’s,” he said.

Hamlisch regaled the class with a host of other Broadway anecdotes, some going back to his own childhood. To the delight of the class, the showman concluded his appearance with a rousing rendition of “Dance Ten, Looks Three.”