The Famous Door

Marvin Hamlisch, Pussy Riot, and the Perils of Judging by Appearances

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There’s something wrong with the way the three women of Pussy Riot have been portrayed in much of the coverage of their arrest and sentencing last week, and the same thing is wrong with the way Marvin Hamlisch, the pop composer, was conceived for decades prior to his death this month. The issue is the tyranny of profiling by physical appearanceby simplistic presumptions about sex and ethnicity. Pussy Riot and Marvin Hamlisch have nothing to do with each other, except for the fact that some of what we think we know about them is a product of how their appearances have been perceived. We know them, in part, not for the way they are or, in Hamlisch’s case, for the way he was, but for the way they look.

In the words of writers David M. Herszenhorn and Andrew Roth in The New York Times, the trio of members of Pussy Riot (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich) “hardly cut the image of dangerous criminals.” During their trial, Herszenhorn and Roth pointed out, “Tolokonnikova, who has a four-year-old daughter, traded concerned glances with her husband.” In a later reaction story on the case, Herszenhorn ogled with patronizing sympathy for the “diminutive, girlish defendants” who “have been treated as dangerous criminals.”

Yet, being dangerous is the very ideal of political protest, whether it takes the form of punk-rock performance art or fire-bombing. Without danger to entrenched conventions and the society that protects them, there is no point in protest. Without danger, punk rock is just noise and fashion. The women of Pussy Riot can and should be defended on many grounds, but their dress sizes and cuteness are not among them. Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich were not guilty of perpetrating dangers we could recognize as crimes. Still, innocence does not lay in girlishness any more than guilt lay in being big, ugly, and male.

Over Hamlisch’s long career, his image as a gawky nebbish, a good Jewish boy who fulfilled his mama’s dreams, has been inextricable from his reputation as a composer. I’ve always found this troublingin fact, a little offensive. Shortly after Hamlisch died, I was talking about him after a show at Joe’s Pub, where I had been seated at a table with three people I had never met before, and the guy next to me repeated Hamlisch’s first name in a mock-Yiddish accent: “MAAH-vin!” Then, he said something I’ve heard expressed one way or another, countless times over the years: “He looked like a nerd, but what a genius!”

The flaw in that syllogism is the “but.” After all, Hamlisch’s outsized nerdiness has contributed mightily to the conception of him as a composer of “genius,” as Bill Clinton described him at Hamlisch’s memorial service in New York. Hamlisch’s music, on its own, makes a different case. Hamlisch, working with the lyricist Edward Kleban and the director Michael Bennett, wrote one genuinely fine and important Broadway show, A Chorus Line. For that alone, Hamlisch deserves to be remembered with admiration. At the same time, the bulk of his output as a songwriter and composer of film scores was much, much less distinguished. The song for which he is best remembered, “The Way We Were,” is an exemplary work of middle-of-the-road, adult-contemporary schmaltz. What else has Hamlisch written as demonstration of his genius? A long list of deliciously syrupy, but utterly conventional movie love themes: “Nobody Does It Better” (from The Spy Who Loved Me), “Life Is What You Make It” (from Kotch), “The Last Time I Felt Like This” (from Same Time, Next Year), and I don’t know how many more like them. Plus, more than 30 film scores (for everything from The Swimmer, the adaptation of the Bernard Malamud story, released on film when Hamlisch was 24 years old, to The Informant!, from 2009), and a series of stage musicals of decreasing distinction. Hamlisch said his “idol” was the Columbus of the middle of the road, Johnny Mathis.

The music Hamlisch created was not easy to make. Yet his music was always easy to listen to, and, after Chorus Line, rarely more than easy-listening music. If one of the things a genius does is to change the way we think, listen, look, or feelto provide us with something that might, at first, be hard to takeHamlisch may not have been a genius, but only looked like one. 

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