Marvin Hamlisch, celebrated Broadway composer, died yesterday at the age of 68.
I first heard the soundtrack to the Broadway classic 'A Chorus Line,' which he scored, in 1988, on the tape deck of my mom's GMC Jimmy. We were driving from our home in central Massachusetts to New London Connecticut, where I used to catch the Cross Sound Ferry to see my father on Long Island.
It's tempting to see this introduction, particularly at such a young age (I was eight years old), to the steamier and gayer side of Broadway as my mother's way of subtly supporting her already burgeoning gay son.
With the benefit of hindsight however, I suspect she was simply desperate to hear anything that wasn't another repeat of Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, and 'A Chorus Line' was the only tape within easy reach. Remember, this was a time before iPods and a cassette tape only held about an hour and a half of music at most. A child can happily listen to those ninety minutes over and over, long past the point where an adult might be tempted to steer her SUV into a bridge abutment.
I don't remember when exactly I fell in love with the music from the show, although it was not on that first listen. Of course, as a boy in the 80's I was a bit scandalized and titillated by the classic 'Dance Ten, Looks Three,' better known to most people as the 'Tits and Ass' song, and it was probably this taste of the forbidden, that brought me back to the cast recording initially.
By age ten I was completely obsessed with the show, and one of my fondest childhood memories is of the day my folks surprised me with 3rd row seats for the touring production when it came to Boston, our closest "real" city.
I suppose ten years old could be considered rather young to be listening to a show about the perils and triumphs of being a struggling Broadway actor. 'A Chorus Line' talks frankly about love, heartbreak, struggle, adolescence, failure, and even puberty. Mr. Hamlisch's music was a tapestry on which the lives of the characters were woven in the air of my room as I quite literally played the tape to death. I think I went through two before upgrading to a CD.
As a creative and, although I didn't quite understand it yet, gay, boy growing up in the late 80's and 90's, I looked up to the characters in 'A Chorus Line.'
These were people living out their dreams and having a life more fabulous than I could imagine. They were fit and healthy, while by early adolescence my life had come to revolve around each new sadistic twist and turn living with Tourette Syndrome inflicted on me. Plus, some of them were living open gay lives, and I didn't have actual gay role-models in my life or in the media. But most of all, to me they represented what it meant to be an adult, at a time when I felt like I'd be caught in the false dawn between childhood and adulthood forever.
Of course, regardless of how I felt at the time, somewhere along the line I grew up.
However, they never did. My friends in 'A Chorus Line' still sing about emerging from their own adolescence, still marvel that other guys got hard-ons in class, still lust over Robert Goulet and Steve McQueen. As characters, they are fixed points in time and space. AIDS, Cats, 9-11, a broadway musical about Spiderman, it all remain forever over the horizon for them. They are timeless, and yet as much a product of their age as Marvin Hamlisch's brilliant score.
It goes without saying that I am not a fixed point in the universe. Somewhere along the line, the characters of 'A Chorus Line' went in my mind from being indelible symbols of adulthood, to seeming young and naïve. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't make me love them, or the show any less. However, I know actual dancers and actors now, and in particular I know what their lives and careers are like. From my vantage point beyond the horizon, I can all too easily imagine what may have waited for them beyond their last curtain call, for both good and ill.
As a child, the characters in 'A Chorus Line' were people who seemed to know everything. They were worldly, and lived in the grandest city on Earth. They lived lives worthy of song.
Now I see them as Sisyphean figures in the pursuit of a nearly impossible dream.
To the boy I was, 'A Chorus Line' represented a distant vision of freedom and fabulousness. To the man I've become, it's the struggle to maintain dreams against the odds. This is what good art is supposed to do, act as a mirror for our own souls.
Strange (and so very gay) as it may seem, Mr. Hamlisch crafted the notes that helped define my childhood and in doing so, he helped shape who I am today, not only as queer person, but in all aspects of my life. Some part of him lives on in all of us who his music touched, and perhaps that's the greatest legacy an artist can hope for.
Although I'm sure the Tony and Pulitzer awards he won for 'A Chorus Line,' not to mention the Emmy and Grammy he won for other celebrated works, didn't hurt one bit.