One Singular Sensation

It is not often that watching the Olympics and contemplating musical theater combine to produce insights into English studies. Watching the Olympics is inspiring to me, as you know from my last post. Over the past year I have been developing an unexpected soft spot for pop culture and American musical theater, all thanks to Marvin Hamlisch. You might recognize his work: scores from ‘A Chorus Line,’ ‘The Sting,’ and ‘The Way We Were’ are a few. Marvin Hamlisch died this week, which thrust his work and my contemplation of his contributions to our community to the front of my imagination.

Imagination and creativity is extraordinarily rewarded in Pittsburgh. Talent and accomplishment are valued and nurtured here. The town is incredibly supportive of effort and embraces diversity of expression. By diversity I mean variety – sport, dance, music, business innovation, science, visual art, theater, and literature. You might think all communities are like this, but having lived many places I know Pittsburgh is truly different. There is a very high standard of personal creative expression and interaction that is the norm, and even the expectation. The folk here are catholic in their tastes, demonstrative, and fearless when it comes to artistic and creative expression. It feels like living in an artists’ colony with 200,000 creative souls in residence.

My home town bursts with creative spirit, pride, and generosity for everybody’s contribution to the rich cultural life of the city. There is infectious enthusiasm for living room poets and garage bands, but no arm-chair quarterbacks. Every one ‘mixes it up’; successes big and small are noted.  Imagine how a talented like Marvin Hamlisch is regarded. The community’s love for Marvin, as everyone here knows him, is more substantive than applause for a wonderful performance, or response to celebrity culture. Pittsburghers do not react much to a celebrity in their midst.  They do react to the willingness to engage with one another and share in all of the efforts that make up a thriving community. Work, particularly creative work, is celebrated; engagement and collaboration is almost spontaneous.

Sometimes ‘collaboration’ takes the shape of astonishing conversations, which is how the Olympics, English Studies, and Marvin Hamlisch converged. To connect the dots, tremendous examples of sportsmanship at the Olympic games have been the topic of many conversations. As you might guess, several Pittsburghers are among the Olympians. Pittsburgh also has a vibrant music scene.  A lot of my friends watching the Olympics with me are musicians who worked with Marvin. They talk easily about abstractions like how structure in musical scores must advance the action of a play or a film. My musical friends encourage me to write creatively while studying narration and character. They learned the importance of putting all elements in the service of the story from Marvin, who was as generous with his talents and abilities as anyone else in our community. I used to wonder why someone with 3 academy awards and so many other accolades would choose to work in Pittsburgh, when they would be welcomed anywhere.

The Pittsburgh attitude might be the point; here BRAVO for performance is incredibly sincere. Effort is embraced for the joy it gives, not just for the laurels that sometimes adorn it. I have learned so much by trying my arm in the creative process, thanks to Marvin’s inspiration. Just like competition in the Olympics puts a special edge on athletic achievement, sharing creative work in performance, or welcoming comments and contributions is highly instructive. If you are studying English why not download the new Creative Writing Study Guide and try creating the art we are studying. Marvin put the ‘Popular’ in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Pops.’ Popular culture is made and consumed by us and our neighbors. Many of the authors we lionize as literary giants started their careers in ‘Pop’ culture. It is one singular sensation, just like Marvin, to be on the front lines advancing, experiencing, and appreciating art by making it. And for me, it is a touching way to remember Marvin Hamlisch, someone all Pittsburghers consider a neighbor.

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