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Liza, Aretha, Barbra! Three Icons -- at Their Very Best -- Headline a Splendid Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch

Posted: 09/20/2012 10:00 am

"OH, the stories, I have. But... they'll have to wait. They make me too sad. Maybe later, when it doesn't hurt too much." That was Liza Minnelli onstage at the Manhattan memorial for the late and very much lamented Marvin Hamlisch.

  • SOMETIMES a memorial is just a memorial. Sometimes it is a joyful, bittersweet celebration of a life lived fully. And sometimes, it is art.

    The memorial tribute to composer Marvin Hamlisch earlier this week in the Jay Sharp Theater at NYC's Juilliard School was not just a memorial. It was joyful and bittersweet and it most certainly was art, in its highest form from a collection of the world's greatest pianists, cellists, violinists and singers.

    The evening began with Marvin's wife Terre, speaking eloquently, thanking Marvin's friends, urging the audience to contribute to one of her husband's great loves -- the Juilliard School. Her voice broke only once, toward the end, when Terre turned to the huge black and white portrait of Marvin that hung above the stage, "I love you, so much," she said, before exiting.

    And then the show began. And where to begin in even relating what happened onstage? What could be considered the highpoint of an event that consisted of nothing but highpoints? Was it Chris Botti's divine trumpet rendition of "What I Did for Love?"... was it pianist Lang Lang's rapturous overture from A Chorus Line?... cellist Carter Brey's theme from Sophie's Choice?... Maria Friedman's hilarious rendition of "Nothing" from A Chorus Line?... was it Dena DiGiacinto, Emily Fletcher and Hollie Howard's" "At the Ballet?" (Another Chorus Line classic.... Brian D'Arcy James' bombastic "At the Fountain" from Sweet Smell of Success? Maybe it was Itzhak Perlman?

    Or was it the legendary once-in-a-lifetime happening of Liza Minnelli, Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand, appearing on stage at the same event? (They did not appear together, which is perhaps all to the good. The roof would have come off the place and all the heads inside would have exploded.)

  • MISS MINNELLI looked and sounded at the top of her current form, wearing a sparkly blue Halston pantsuit. The same outfit, in fact, that she wore during her epic three-week run at Carnegie Hall back in 1987. That had been conducted by Mr. Hamlisch. Liza, who can sometimes be uncomfortably overwrought or cheery, struck the perfect note of melancholy (but not morbid) composure. She spoke briefly, and then sang a personalized rendition of "If You Really Knew Me." And she sang as if her life depended on it. She was singing for a beloved friend and not one gesture or cadence was out of order. Her performance said a lot about her relationship with Marvin (Liza was said to have been almost prostrate with grief when word reached her he had died.) And it spoke beautifully to her own art -- her ineffable ability to tell a story, to allow her audience to simply read what she means to convey from that impossibly expressive face. She was perfect.

    Barbra Streisand -- who actually closed the show, and was the impetus behind the tribute -- came on with the usual business of the stool to sit on, the end-table with the tea cup and water, and, in this case, a sheet music stand, from which she rather distractingly at times, read the lyrics to "The Way We Were" and "Through the Eyes of Love." (The stand obscured Barbra's face to a section of the audience. Thankfully, she didn't perform her numbers entirely seated!)

    Natch, the creamy buttah of Barbra's voice negated these nitpickings; at 70, rich velvet still resides in that throat. There was an audible sigh from the audience as she began the famous humming intro from The Way We Were. And she got the night's biggest laughs, talking about how she and Marvin bonded over chocolate donuts and their mutual hypochondria. ("I was always having these sinus problems, and Marvin said, 'Sinuses, of course. It's a Jewish thing!'") Barbra, who seems to have been dieting, was very blonde and looked remarkably fresh, all in black, with glittery pendants dangling down the front of her sweater. (Probably vintage pieces, well-researched, and lovingly purchased.)

    I have saved Miss Aretha Franklin for last, though she was the second legend out. There have been star entrances, and then there was Aretha on Tuesday night. Epic!

    Slooowwly she sashayed onto the stage, remarkably trimmer, exquisitely dressed in an ensemble of black and white. She gestured to Marvin's photo, she regally gestured to a gasping, whooping crowd. Suddenly, it was All About Aretha. She stood at the microphone and poured out "Nobody Does It Better," (the theme from The Spy Who Loved Me.) Well, nobody does it better than Aretha and the pull she exerted on the audience was a visceral thing. Many had never seen the legend perform live, given her fear of flying. And it was like, "Oh, my God, that voice is for real!"

    It sure was. And one number was not enough. After finishing Marvin's composition, she launched into a powerful gut-wrenching gospel song, "Deep River." It could have turned into an Aretha Franklin concert with very little effort, that's how electrified the audience was. And then, she bowed to Marvin's portrait, sloooowwly sashayed off stage, gave another salute to Marvin and another grand gesture to the audience. Then she was gone. She'd wrung-out that classy New York crowd, for sure. They don't call Miss Franklin the Queen for nuttin.'

  • IT SHOULD be noted, also, how beautifully each of these women, not one of whom is younger than 60, managed to convey the very best of their instruments, never pushing to recapture what time has inevitably altered. All three voices are more interesting, compelling and moving now. Life has taught them what practicing your scales never could. It's easy to be young and perfect. It's a triumph to maintain your art in maturity.

    And in the spirit of the evening, and in memory of Marvin, the man who couldn't say no to any request, big or small please find a way to donate to the Juilliard School. This was his wish, and he gave so much, we should give a little back.

 
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