Monday, August 20, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch's Funeral and Wake.

All they talked about was his character, even though his other accomplishments in this life were vast.

He had the ears of the world’s leaders in politics, the arts, culture, education and religion. He had collected every popular artistic award possible and probably every community service commendation. He had more than a few iconic songs that everyone in the world knows, and he helped create one of the greatest and, at the time, revolutionary pieces of musical theater in history.

But this was the quote that hit me.

“When you were with Marvin, you liked yourself better.”

Maybe this quality was why, aside from his talent, that he was able to secure all this real world achievement, because performance art needs collaborators, and if people want to work with you because you make them happy to just be around you, perhaps there’s a great life lesson learned there.

But can one even learn this kind of kindness? This kind of innate rejection of the Me, Me, Me Syndrome that so many insist is necessary to make it in this business? Or is it just a magic combination, that genius and character can suddenly make an appearance in a human being. One whose character is as great as his genius when his genius is off the scale?

Here’s a story I heard:

If he detected an unhappy person in a room, he would personally find out how to put them at ease and make them feel included. No matter how small that person’s role in whatever proceedings were happening. He would, himself, go get some water or a tissue or whatever. He’d take that person aside.

He saw other people. In the room. They were as important, to him, as he himself was.

For preacher’s kids like me, this sounds very much like the image that’s presented of Jesus. But this memorial service was a synagogue. I had this same deja vu at a synagogue in Columbus, Ohio.

And now, here in this giant open room, a Manhattan upper east side temple, the person they were describing, if I were Catholic, was a capital-s Saint.

He was a genius who preferred playing to the folks in the cheap seats. To draw them into the arts.

His wife, Terre, told us that if she was stressing over something, and losing sleep, he’d jump up and down on the bed at six in the morning, writing and singing whole musicals about the problem, refusing to quit until both were cuddled together in convulsive laughter. (If I did this to Jimmy, just call homicide. First, for me. Followed by the person who dared me to do it).

The feeling of loss was palpable. It was so sudden. It came so unexpectedly.

Jim and I actually ran into him only a few weeks ago outside of 54 Below. We were headed to the open mic, which means it was Sunday afternoon..

The normally jovial Marvin seemed distracted and stressed; out of sorts. Jim congratulated him on the good word coming out of Nashville -- people are liking his musical adaptation of “The Nutty Professor,” which he is / was doing with Jerry Lewis. He mentioned the Liberace movie and mumble, “lots of work. lots of work.” And then he hurried off.

Jim remarked to me, “He didn’t look good.” No. He didn’t.

Temple Emmanuel-El.

The place was packed. Oy, and what a place.

2500 people at least. Tall 20-story ceiling. Stained glass windows.

When we arrived, we joined our friend Russ Weatherford, and, at the door a boy said to us, “Center aisle.” He handed us a piece of paper. Now, at Catholic funerals, you usually get a little program. Who’s gonna speak, sing, etc.

This looked like a mimeographed copy of some lyrics. Something you might hand out at a 1980 rehearsal. “What I Did For Love.”

I thought, this is perfect. I had heard of a volunteer choir....

We made our way to the center aisle, but there was a line. Then Jim saw some empty seats over on the left, so we went back over the entered aisle left. Got up to the empty seats and there was a rope and security guard. Oops.

Suddenly, a woman we did not know came over and waved us in, “It’s okay.”

What was this VIP seating? No. It was family. How this woman knew our faces or even knew that we were included as family, I’ll never know. It was like a magic trick. Or maybe she let anyone in who asked.

We sat down. Suddenly, Jim saw Donna McKechnie there in the center aisle. He signaled her over. Her face broke out is a big grin and she joined us, me in the middle.

This was the GREATEST place to be.

A Chorus Line. Donna was there at the start of it all. She played an iconic role in his show. She danced an iconic dance.

“Look!” she said, leaning in front of me, Jim on the other side. “I just found this picture.”

I saw people on there I couldn’t identify. 70s style long hair. Clothes a little loud and flowery. Sideburns. Jim named them all. But one I remember.

Michael Bennett. The man who conceived it all. Who died of AIDS before the Crixivan suddenly started saving us. .

“Do you remember,” Jim asked Donna, (my sides were starting to sweat from the two bodies pushed up against mine, leaning across me), “I was in California and I called you and said I was coming to New York. And you said, ‘I have an extra ticket to A Chorus Line.’ And I asked, “What’s that?’ It was maybe the third performance. After it was over, I couldn’t move! I think you didn’t get the job.” [Meaning her character not getting the job. She played a star auditioning to be in the chorus of a show because she’s out of work and she’d rather just dance in the chorus than do nothing.. In the earliest incarnation, she doesn’t get the job.. They changed it, eventually. Audiences needed to see the win. We love her too much for her to fail.]

I remember seeing an an old archival video in black and white. Well, god bless youtube. This won’t duplicate the experience, but it’s a record of The Number. For readers who don’t like musical theater, you may not get the style of music, but the message and the passion about needing to do the one thing in life that you love the most is universal. In her case, to dance. And watch Donna’s head snaps.

Surrounding us in the side aisles was a volunteer choir of 600. Great people of the theater were in that choir, including Sheldon Harnick, my favorite lyricist in the world.

When they sang, the sound came from all sides. Rich and thick. An aural blanket that became like water, warming us.

It was chilling. It was heavy.

It was angelic.

I turned on my video camera to catch the music. Again, can’t duplicate the experience.

“Everyone who talks about A Chorus Line relives it as if they discovered it themselves.” Heard afterwards.

If that’s not the mark of an effective show, what else is? And now here we were in with an overflow crowd of admirers. But it was a different scene, the day before.

The wake.. I know the term wake, but somehow, I couldn’t remember if I’d ever been to one, even as the son of a country preacher. I tend to forget funerals.

And, since I let Jimmy handle the schedule of events for our lives, i.e. he drags me around as if I were a dizzy professor husband, I didn’t realize we had two separate Marvin events on the calendar.

Marvin Hamlish's casket at the wake.

Marvin Hamlisch’s wake was at a small funeral home on the east side. (We never go to the east side--too many canyons and expensive stores). We entered the small hallway. Men in black suits, white shirts and identical blue/black ties directed us forward to a small gathering room. From the foyer, we could see a room filled with flowers, mostly yellow in color. Several combination bouquets featuring lollipops and rainbows.

Four or five rows of pews faced the casket, which was just a few feet to our right, meaning we were entering the side of the room. The back of the room was to our left, so we walked that way, to the back of the center aisle, waiting for our turn to approach the casket. There was one party at the casket. We were next.

I saw what looked like 10 or so family members sitting in the front row. All the kids were dressed nicely and their hair combed. They seemed like typical kids. A little squirmy, but quiet. At the piano was a skinny young black-suited guy with white skin and a mop of windswept black hair casually playing Marvin’s music.

“Can it be that it was oh, so simple then Or has time rewritten every line If we had the chance to do it all again Tell me, would we? Could we?”

(I was puzzled by all this, of course, because I was expecting a huge crowd. Hadn’t I read there was going to be a big service? With big crowds and celebrities?)

Ahead of us at the casket were three ladies. They were huddled together and crying. We were the only ones waiting. (Where’s the big crowd?)

Finally, it was our turn. I noticed that the pews were mostly empty. We walked up the aisle. Two of the ladies had left. The other one turned to us.

I’ve never seen a more radiant face. We met on a theater themed cruise about 10 years ago, Jim and Marvin both did shows. It was Marvin’s wife, Terre. Jim said he and Terre hung out a lot on that cruise, and laughed. Now, they were hugging each other and crying.

I remember meeting Marvin on that cruise, but Jim is the one with the social skills. I think I probably just stared at him, goon-jawed. I feel much more like Barney Fife than Andy Taylor.

I noticed the flowers on the casket. Small yellow buds that cascade together into pile of color. “I like the flowers.” “Oh,” she said. “Yellow freesias. Marvin’s favorite.”

Terre said, “Marvin would have like it if you sat for awhile and prayed. We didn’t really have a chance in L.A. and, well, you know L.A.”

Did she just make a joke? She did. I think I love this woman.

Then it dawned on me. She was greeting everyone and comforting them in THEIR grief.

We took a place in the back pews. I bowed my head and realized I didn’t really know that much about Marvin. Not really. Not who he was. But if who he was, personally, is anything like Terre...

I looked around the room. 10 people. Maybe 15. “It’s early,” Jim said.

We sat and watched people quietly stroll in, after signing the guest book. Some stayed. Some didn’t. Terre greeted them all and escorted them to the closed casket. .

Susan Lucci came in with her husband and they quietly sat in the second row. We knew Susan from having acted on All My Children (my one great screen credit -- a guy with his back to the camera, standing at a ticket counter--a favor from the producer, Jackie Babbin, to my parents who loved watching it at home. Jim was the priest who married Bennie and Donna).

At one point, I saw a man approach Terre. He pointed at the piano. She nodded and they said something to cute, skinny guy. They changed places.

He played a Marvin song. Not ostentatiously. Not with any flourish or pomp. The few of us who heard it listened quietly. After he finished the one song, he quietly got up, and windswept boy returned. I wondered if he was someone famous or of note. He probably was.

As we exited, I noticed a media-looking guy with a video camera, but he didn’t seem to be interested in us.

Jim eventually realize I’m an idiot and he explained that the funeral would be tomorrow.
I caught Jim Brochu talking to Marvin Hamlisch backstage,
after a performance of Zero Hour.
Here, they posed for a picture.
Jim told him, "Joan Crawford said to always be on the right when you have your picture taken."

Marvin asked, "Why?"

"Because it means you always get your name first in the caption."

At which point, Marvin playfully wrestled his way past Jim to get on the right.

Marvin Hamlisch, Jim Brochu.

So, back at the funeral.

I sitting about halfway back in the huge spacious synagogue. I got Jim Brochu on one side. Donna McKechnie on the other. Down the row is Brian Stokes Mitchell -- who sat in our living room 16 years ago and heard the score from The Last Session -- I see Leslie Gore. Susan Lucci again.

I look up. It’s the biggest, most beautiful sanctuary I’ve ever seen in my life. (Is sanctuary a Christian term?) It manages to be majestic and restrained all at the same time. Every inch of the elaborate ceiling was detailed. And no pillars. No obstructed view, like in the big Gothic cathedrals.

There are two pulpits. One on each side. They look like balconies.

Everyone hushes at once. A rabbi steps out on one and sings mournfully in Hebrew. (I sang Hebrew when Michael Sugar took me to his synagogue in Los Angeles. They give you the lyrics written out with the English alphabet. I pronounced them like Spanish.)

Then, a rabbi on the other side says, “Our first speaker is president William Jefferson Clinton.”

Really? What? On video?

Nope. He walked into the room. He was right there. Took his place at the podium quietly and described the kind of person that’s rare in our world. A genius/virtuoso with a true heart. A humble man who walked with giants. A man who never said no. A genuinely kind person. “The rarest of combinations.”

Person after person got up, but my favorite was the family rabbi. “Marvin’s mother brought him to me when he was 15 and said, ‘My boy is gonna be the biggest composer in Hollywood.’” He continued, “She underestimated him.”

He loved talent. He nurtured talent. He gave money for music education, helping thousands of students. The room felt warm. I nodded off. Donna punched me awake. I’m glad she did. Hey, I got AIDS. I fall asleep a lot.

The choir sang “What I Did For Love.”

Everyone stood. There was no attempt at a master of ceremonies. We all just did it together.

“Love. Love is never gone As we travel on Love’s what we’ll remember”

Now, everyone’s singing. None of them are using the lyric sheet. They know the words.

I put my arm around Donna.

The song ends. No applause. Total quiet.

“Jews don’t applaud at a funeral.” -- Heard afterward. (Also heard that it’s not necessarily true, that it’s not a hard and fast rule). Well, it was this day. And no one gave us any rules..

Oh, people tried. Once or twice some, no doubt, Christian or heathen clapped. But it was met with deafening silence. I kept trying to control my own self.

Several weeks ago, they applauded at Celeste Holm’s funeral, in “the little church around the corner,” Episcopal. People loved Celeste, too. They told funny stories and laughed together. But, then the priest, at the end, invited us to give “One last ovation for Celeste”. It felt good to do that. To exult in the midst of the sadness.

But there was something very moving and profound about maintaining silence, too. I loved how the whole crowd seemed to know.

Looking around me, and judging from the stories, I think everyone was still in shock. It was the kind of mourning you have for someone who is so good, and so wonderful, and who is always so “unrealistically” positive, you take them for granted.

I mean, let’s face it. Someone that genuinely kind and good. Makes you feel a little guilty that you aren’t that way. And, yet, you so want to be them, that just being around them makes you feel you’re doing it.

They don’t announce themselves or parade themselves around. So, when they slip quietly out the back door, it’s only then that you realize what you’ve lost.

Being sweet and kind and nice. That doesn’t make good TeeVee. That’s why the Desperate Housewives make more money than anyone else on TeeVee.

He had a moral value, they said.

“He never said no.” He said yes to every charity invitation. Every appeal for money, presumably.

“You liked yourself better when you were around him.”

Idina Menzel sang “Everything Is Beautiful At The Ballet.”

Again someone tried to applaud. A loud, ringing smack that got stopped dead in its tracks.

Eventually, the casket was hoisted by six guys and brought down the aisle. The family and close friends followed.

We filed out. It was raining.

We saw friends. We saw celebs being interviewed. Chris Matthews.

But there was no fanfare. No TA DA!!

Just mourning. Just silence.

The silence left by a man who was admired for his musical legacy and who was dearly and deeply loved.

What else could a person ask for?


Web said...

Did you ever figure out who the piano player was at the wake?

Steve Schalchlin said...

I did not.

cd0103 said...

That was the most moving tribute to a service I have ever read. I have tears rolling down my face.

Mage said...

Thank you dear you.

Harpers Keeper said...

Thanks for sharing this. For a midwesterner who only every knew his work it was a wonderful insight to the person he was.

Walk With Me - Tour Guides Protest - 08 07 21

I walked into a protest! But who? I didn't know, so I followed them around until I found out. It's the "live" tour guides ...