Memories of Marvin
An Interview with Todd Ellison
Todd Ellison, Music Director of The Philly POPS, served as Marvin Hamlisch’s Music Director and considers the legendary composer a mentor and inspiration.
How did you meet Marvin Hamlisch?
The first time we met was in 2002 when I was working on the show A Class Act about A Chorus Line’s lyrist Ed Kleban. Marvin was going to write the opening number. I went to his home and he was like the Tasmanian Devil! He seemed to be in a constant rush and his mind worked faster than anybody else’s. He almost came off as brusque and I thought, as I left with song in hand, “Well, I met Marvin once and that’s great.”
But, you did meet again. How did you reconnect?
In 2009, Marvin was doing a version of The Nutty Professor with the brilliant lyricist Rupert Holmes (known for “The Piña Colada Song”) along with then-84-year-old Jerry Lewis directing. Marvin needed someone like me to help pull it all together.
How did things go this time?
Marvin and Rupert wrote a really good score with clever songs, witty lyrics, and catchy melodies.
Within my first hour there, he was teaching the company a song and told me to take over teaching the parts, but there was no piano part, just a melody with chords which I’d only heard him play for a few minutes! But, I found my way through it and it turns out, he was in the back, watching, the whole time. It was a big test!
He excitedly announced to everybody: “This guy is ME, 40 years ago. I’m so glad you’re here!” Then, he wanted me on all of his projects.
What came next?
A musical version of the movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. Ultimately, the writers had it shelved, so we took The Nutty Professor to Nashville in 2012 for pre-Broadway tryout. That summer, Marvin passed away.
What are some of your favorite memories of Marvin?
We had a lot of good times. We’d go to lunch and he’d tell fascinating stories. He was the youngest student ever admitted to Juilliard at age six. His best friend in high school was Liza Minnelli, which helped propel him into the showbiz world. The first night he spent away from home was in a guest room at Judy Garland’s house. He had an unbelievable life.
His memorial service at Julliard was like the greatest ‘70s variety show you’d ever seen. Everyone he’d ever worked with was there… Barbra Streisand, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Aretha Franklin, Chris Botti, Liza, Lang Lang. He worked across generations. It was the end of an era.
What are some highlights of the music in today’s show?
This is special: we have two songs that have never been heard by this large of an audience – one from The Nutty Professor and one from Ballroom.
We’re lucky to have four Temple University students singing “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line and a medley of early Lesley Gore pop hits. Marvin loved new talent.
We have a movie sequence, including music from Sophie’s Choice, his last movie The Informant!, and The Way We Were (with a twist).
Marvin brought ragtime craze back into fashion, so I’ve also put together an arrangement of Scott Joplin rags and I’ll be playing the piano with orchestra.
This is a show of my favorite pieces of music that he wrote, not just the big hits, but those which show off his range and his talent.
What’s your favorite song of Marvin’s?
“What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line because it sums up his life. Everything he did was for music.