The Jewish genius that is haimish Marvin Hamlisch started at Juilliard, when at age 6, he became its youngest student to snap a piano to attention at the mere tickling of its ivories.
Tickle me, Marvin: Audiences have been ever since, as the 66-year-old and his 88-key musical companion have 86ed the notion that classical and contemporary don't jibe.
Just listen to the chorus of hosannas hailing him as composer of "A Chorus Line," still stepping to the stage very much on its toes, some 30 years after it snared the Broadway footlights and audiences' hearts at the same time.
He can do that: Hamlisch is in evergreen eternal company with Richard Rodgers, the only two tunesmiths to have accomplished Oscars, Tonys, Grammys, Emmys and Pulitzers, which "Chorus Line" may prize more than any other award it's captured.
And now that "Chorus Line" has its starting lineup on stage at the Philadelphia Forrest Theatre, through Jan. 4, as part of the Kimmel Center Broadway series, where a motley mix of protean performers are put through their paces, proving that dance 10 looks three times as good as anything else on stage.
The way they are at the Forrest is much like the way they were when the "Line" first formed at the Joseph Papp's Public Theatre as a workshop and worked its way into Broadway magic for 6,137 performances, ending its original run nearly 20 years before last season's revival.
What they've done for love is exactly what Hamlisch has done — with a theme song hummed by his father, Max, a Viennese Jewish émigré, who accorded his son a familiarity with music through his own talent as an accordionist.
"It's in the blood," says Hamlisch.
Well, he's no Lawrence Welk, that musical prodigy son of his, but what Marvin Frederick Hamlisch hit on was a love for pop that popped up at his audition for Juilliard.
"I played them 'I'm Yours,' " he says of the "Hit Parade" hit.
And he was, even though "it was not what they expected me to play for an audition."
But then, the unassuming Hamlisch is used to doing the unexpected. His concert gigs are aglow with gags. "Audiences don't expect as much comedy as I do. I like that I'm able to go in and out," dancing between the black-and-white keys of classical and contemporary, and even lighting into the holiday with his own composition, "Chanukah Lights," part of his holiday concert this Saturday night at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center in Marlton, N.J.
Yet, as composer of more than 40 films — including "Sophie's Choice," "Ice Castles," "Take the Money and Run, "The Way We Were" and "Ordinary People"– this extraordinarily talented composer conducts himself — as well as he did buddy Barbra Streisand's orchestra for her first farewell tour — based on a conceit that being down-to- earth is the only way to fly.
Soon he's leaving on a jeté plane: "I want to do a ballet score next," says the artist, whose "Everything Is Beautiful at the Ballet" raises the barre in "Chorus Line."
Tutu much? Somehow, this conductor of a band of prominent symphony orchestras nationwide, and a longtime happy husband and father, marries music and mitzvot merrily. His acclaimed "Anatomy of Peace" was a piece of the Marvin metronome that ticks with topical concerns amid the timely life he leads.
He finds time for it all, longing for nothing — even his Long Island Hall of Fame membership is a point of pride for a music man who knows he can go home again.
Home is where the Hamlisch is, and that means the Theater Hall of Fame, in New York, too, which he'll be inducted into at the end of January.
And if he has a song in his heart — Hamlisch notes that his next movie will be "The Informer," coming out next fall — he also opens it for others, doing benefits as befits a man who composed the theme for National Philanthropy Day.
These days, he knows full well how music can salve the savage breast — his post-Sept. 11 concerts were calendar musts for those seeking a day away from the daze of national trauma — taking the sting out of the human stain.
Music as Relief
"Music can bring solace to us," and nobody does it better than the composer who contends that "the best ambassadors we have are musicians."
The music mirrors his eclectic accomplishments, and "Chorus Line" limns what everyone does for love. "It's very empathetic," he says, explaining its applause-inducing appeal. "People see themselves in the roles."
Hamlisch eventually saw his way past the disappointment when his last musical, "Sweet Smell of Success," didn't smell as good as it sounded. "I still say that the music I wrote for that is the best I've done for musical theater," he says. "I don't know what went wrong."
All right, what happened with his acting career? After all, this is the man who made his debut in the visceral "Valley of the Dolls" — did he peak with "Valley"?
Beyond "Valley of the Dolls," he's done some other roles — playing himself in "Caroline in the City" — but one place in which he proudly shares the field with others is Yankees Stadium, where his love for the New Yorkers isn't anything new to those who know the kid from Long Island and his baseball longings.
"Oh, it hurts," he says of the lamentation of loving the Yankees and watching them not get past third base this past season.
"The best teams we had were those playing under Joe Torre, a good friend," he says, as paean — and in pain for the team losing the mythical manager.
Surely, there must be something to take the sting out of "The Sting" composer's pain? Something that will make him feel they're playing his song when the team takes to the field anew? Not even "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," the pot of gold he wrote for Leslie Gore?
"No," sighs the fan. "Nothing can take away the hurt."