Sunday is the was the fortieth anniversary of Groucho's 1972 Carnegie Hall concert, preserved on the bittersweet LP An Evening With Groucho. (Actually, the recording draws on two concerts, one at Iowa State University.) Dick Cavett, who introduced the great man at Carnegie Hall, has reflected on the anniversary in his Times online column (read it here) and on All Things Considered (listen to it here). I'm marking the occasion by sharing the first two pages of the book I've been working on. It's a preface entitled "Overture," and it deals with the medley Marvin Hamlisch played at Carnegie Hall before Dick Cavett introduced Groucho Marx. (An Evening With Groucho is out of print, but available at archive.org, or right here.)
THE1972 LP AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO – a sad and joyous document with which all Marxists have struggled – begins with an Overture, performed by Marvin Hamlisch at the piano. Backstage, waiting to be introduced, is an eighty-two-year-old man named Julius Henry Marx. He has been in show business for nearly seventy years, and now he has made it to Carnegie Hall.
Hamlisch, still a few years away from A Chorus Line and his Pulitzer, may be in awe of the venue. Julius is in awe of nothing. With a grand flourish, Hamlisch launches into Beethoven – Allegro con brio, the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 21, the Waldstein. He hammers the insistent opening chords before a momentarily disoriented audience.
The Waldstein twinkles along toward its first release. Through parting clouds emerges a melody so intrinsic to us that we can hear the unsung lyrics: Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer! Did someone call me schnorrer? Hooray hooray hooray! It takes a moment to register, and then sweet applause. Behind their glasses, eyebrows, and moustaches, people in the audience have begun to cry.
“Hooray for Captain Spaulding” fizzles back into the Waldstein, and then erupts into a second movement, “Alone” from A Night at the Opera. This, too, is lovingly received, even though we will sometimes fast-forward this number, later on, when we watch A Night at the Opera in our living rooms. We will never watch it to hear Allan Jones sing.
Hamlisch slides elegantly back to Kalmar and Ruby. At last we are to meet him, the famous Captain Spaulding! Everyone says I love you.
Sitting in the audience is a very great man, thirty-seven years old, in some ways an heir to the legacy celebrated tonight. He will eventually make a film called Everyone Says I Love You, but that’s ages away. Tonight at Carnegie Hall he is sitting beside a radiant Diane Keaton.
We descend back into A Night at the Opera – “Cosi Cosa,” another lukewarm slab of Allan Jones. But then we catch on: “Cosi Cosa” is delivered this evening with a distinctive technical flourish, and the Carnegie Hall audience bursts into passionate applause, realizing what Hamlisch is doing here: He’s shooting the keys. At’sa fine.
He makes a triumphant return to Captain Spaulding by way of Beethoven, and then a coda: The unmistakable final spasm of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, to break our hearts, and to put the boys in company with the great art of the twentieth century.
The Marx Brothers are the Ghosts of Show Business Past, and some of us are haunted by them every day of our lives. To us, the jokes keep getting funnier, even though it’s been more than a hundred years since Minnie Schoenberg Marx gave birth to kings.