For Hamlisch, showbiz 'pure luck'

Marvin Hamlisch is an award-winning composer, conductor and pianist who never used to think of himself as a performer.

"It wasn't what I was going for," said Hamlisch, best known for winning a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for the groundbreaking "A Chorus Line" (1975) and winning three Oscars in one night (1974) for "The Way We Were" (original score and song) and "The Sting" (adapted score) —only the second person to do so.

"But there's something lonely about sitting in a room and writing songs," Hamlisch said during a phone conversation from his New York home. "Winning three Oscars in one night got me into the public eye in a big way. It got me on TV. It got me on Johnny Carson. I discovered I really enjoyed it. It does a lot for your ego when you have an audience."

Since then, Hamlisch discovered he's comfortable schmoozing with folks between numbers, whether playing songs during his solo shows or conducting orchestras. He's currently principal pops conductor for six symphonies: The National, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Milwaukee, Seattle and San Diego.

When not in the symphony hall, he takes his one-man show — plus one of four guest vocalists he works with — on the road about 50 to 60 times a year. He'll be in Wichita tonight at the Orpheum Theatre with Broadway veteran Anne Runolfsson.

Hamlisch, who turned 66 in June, will perform a number of his compositions from movies and stage. He has 41 movies on his resume to choose from, from 1968's "The Swimmer" to last year's "The Informant" with Matt Damon. He also has possibilities from seven Broadway shows, from 1975's "A Chorus Line" to 2002's "Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical."

Hamlisch said his performance tonight won't just showcase his own music. He's also doing some Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers to create a "happy-go-lucky, upbeat evening of entertainment."

"One of the most important things I do is talk with the audience. Sometimes, I do a Q&A to find out what they want to know about music and what they like. I particularly enjoy a segment I call 'Rent the Composer' where audience members give me a title and I compose a song on the spot," Hamlisch said.

He remembers once coming up with music for a song called "Wichita."

"That was back when I was at music camp in Pennsylvania. I was about 17 and this girl wanted me to compose the music. She had already written 'Wichita! Wichita! Wichita! It's my family home / From which I will never roam.' She was from Kansas and seemed to know what she was talking about."

Hamlisch, a native New Yorker whose Viennese immigrant father was a bandleader and accordion player, was considered a musical prodigy by age 5. Shortly before turning 7 in 1951, he was accepted into what is now the famed Juillard School Pre-College Division to study and compose music. His first professional job was as rehearsal pianist for "Funny Girl," starring a then-unknown Barbra Streisand.

"I just fell into show business. I didn't know I wanted it. It was pure luck," he said, noting that his friendship and collaboration with Streisand led to composing for several of her movies and becoming musical director for two of her concert tours.

That fateful first rehearsal gig also attracted the attention of movie producer Sam Spiegel, who asked Hamlisch to play piano at his parties. Doing so helped to launch his versatile and successful movie-scoring career for everything from Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" to Meryl Streep's "Sophie's Choice" to the James Bond flick "The Spy Who Loved Me."

The much-honored Hamlisch is one of only 10 people to win all four major U.S. entertainment awards: Emmy (four), Grammy (four), Oscar (three) and Tony (one) —the so-called EGOT circle. But he is one of only two people — with Richard Rodgers of "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific" fame — in that small circle to also have a Pulitzer Prize.

Though nice, awards aren't what motivates him, he said.

What does?

"Music is a great communicator. It may be one of the best ambassadors we have between countries and cultures," he said. "Remember when Van Cliburn played some Russian music at the White House for (then Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev? The smile on his face showed we had subtly bridged a gap."