When Aaron Lambert ’06 heard that Marvin Hamlisch — the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Grammy winner, composer of “The Way We Were” and all-around musical theater deity — was coming to Yale, he called his mother.
“She was like, ‘What? That’s crazy!'” he says. “And I was like, ‘It is! It’s absurd! Crap, I need to get myself together — this guy worked with Barbara Streisand.”
Undergraduates Lambert, Sarah Minkus ’08, Zak Sandler ’08 and Megan Stern ’08 were chosen to audition in front of and be critiqued by the Broadway legend. Sponsored by the Yale Undergraduate Musical Theater Company, Hamlisch’s Wednesday audition workshop was not so much a master class as a mastery of perspective.
“His perspective and the way he listened to people is way different from what ours would be,” Lambert said. “The things he thought were important are those things I should find important as well, because the person behind the table is the person that matters.”
After a rendition of “What Is It About Her?” from “The Wild Party,” Lambert chugged from his Nalgene and turned to Hamlisch expectantly.
“This is going to sound crazy,” Hamlisch began, “because we just heard a 10, but I’m just trying to get into the head of the director.”
The problem, it turns out, was twofold.
“First of all, you look like a lawyer,” Hamlisch said. “If you’re going to wear glasses, all I know is that Johnny Depp always has the best glasses. Ask one of the hipper kids on the block where you can buy that stuff.”
Then Hamlisch told a story about auditioning singers with Neil Simon, who went “ballistic” when a singer asked to start her piece over.
“Drinking all that water may make a director wonder if you can perform live,” he explained.
Elisabeth Schneider ’06, the YUMTC managing director whom Hamlisch publicly insisted was going to change the world one day, said that Hamlisch’s emphasis was on helping the students who auditioned showcase their talent, rather than change the way they sang.
Hamlisch responded with a, “What the hell are you doing with the other song?” to Sandler’s second piece, “One Song Glory” from Rent, and told Minkus that her first audition piece, from “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” was the most boring piece of music he had ever heard.
“His suggestions were really great in terms of altering things to make yourself look as good as possible in that instant,” Minkus said. “It’s wonderful to work with undergraduates, because it’s a two-way street: I talk and they actually listen and learn,” Hamlisch said.
(Lambert, for instance, did not wear his glasses to his audition for Yale’s production of “The Wild Party.”)
In the future, YUMTC Secretary Jessica Bian ’08 said the group plans to host more musical theater related events, including a conducting workshop next month, a musical comedy writing workshop in the winter, and, if all goes well, another audition workshop in the spring.
Hamlisch praised YUMTC, a relatively young group on campus, for helping to maintain interest in an art form he loves.
“Though I’ve made Maalox very rich,” Hamlisch said, “all of you should still want to be in show business because it’s still exciting to see the kind of shows that just get to you.”
Minkus, for instance, grew up in a home where show tunes formed the perpetual soundtrack and her only request for a fourth birthday present was a trip to the next state to see “Les Miserables.” Though she called the musical a “horrible show for a four-year-old to see,” Minkus’ parents still own hours of home video of her belting out numbers from the production.
Minkus has always been a performer, though she said Yale offers many learning opportunities, all of which she wants to pursue.
Hamlisch was not so accommodating.
“If your dream is to be in show,” Hamlisch said, “then you must be in show.”
A flustered Minkus walked in now for her second attempt, as if on cue, perusing books of Broadway standards. Hamlisch asked her what she was going to sing.
“Whatever you want,” a now wary Minkus responded.
“That’s what I like to hear!” Hamlisch said. “Your call.”
“Is ‘On My Own’ too cliched for you?” Minkus asked of the staple from her childhood favorite musical.
“Cliche … cliche … what IS cliche?” Hamlisch pseudo-philosophized to belly laughs from his audience members, who numbered close to 50, despite the fact that only four students were auditioning.
He sat down on one of the Pierson common room’s dark wood chairs — because of a broken string in the Pierson music room, the workshop had to be moved — and noded to Minkus.
“Hit it kid,” Hamlisch said.
And she did.