Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012)
by Richard Kraft
I first met Marvin Hamlisch when I was 12 years old. I had just escaped my hometown of Bakersfield on a family trip to Los Angeles when we spotted the young composer crossing the street. My brother David and I breathlessly squealed out to our folks to stop the car. Like yelping hounds we dashed into the clothing store he had just entered and cornered him, manically barking, “Mr. Hamlisch, Mr. Hamlisch, we love your music!”
Hamlisch was taken aback that two young kids not only recognized him but were squealing at him like he was all four Beatles combined. Being the mensch he was, he indulged us. “Oh, do you know me from the Academy Awards?” (He had just won 3 Oscars in one night for THE STING and the song and score to THE WAY WE WERE.) “No,” we shot back, “we loved you WAY before that…we snuck a tape recorder into a drive-in theater to record your score to TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN when we were little.” It wasn’t quite clear how much littler we could be since I had barely started junior high.
He was surprised and flattered. I went on and on telling him we had once snuck into a college extension class to watch him sit at the piano and improvise how he scored films based on suggestions from the audience. I foamed at the mouth about the genius of his score to THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHLETE (“Soooo much better than the music in THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES!). I ended my gushing with the backhanded compliment, “You really are going to be big one day!”
For someone who had just pulled the Oscar hat-trick, he was good humored about it and agreed to sign a scrap of paper. “It’s nice to know someone really cares about film music,” he said.
Over the next few years he really did get big through his great film and Broadway scores and songs. He actually became only the world’s second PEGOT—winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
From the very beginning of his scoring career, Marvin Hamlisch was different. His score to the incredibly strange and haunting Burt Lancaster film THE SWIMMER touched upon a clean, direct lyricism. It was like he showed up on his first scoring stage fully formed, knowing exactly how to evoke drama out of a deceptively simple tune.
Despite its glorious score, THE SWIMMER sank at the box office. It wasn’t until his work on Woody Allen’s first two features that Hamlisch’s brilliance became well known. For TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, Hamlisch covered a gamut of crime story and prison film clichés, making Allen’s deadpan insanity that much richer by playing it perfectly straight. But the most noteworthy aspect of the score is its tender love theme that served as the emotional spine of the film. While the structure of the movie is very loose and broad, there is a sweet heart that beats within it underscored beautifully by Hamlisch.
For their next collaboration, BANANAS, Hamlisch took a much wackier approach. His bullet-accented mariachi Main Title serenade is one of the few opening credit sequences that evokes laughs exclusively because of its music.
Hamlisch’s scoring career took a major turn when he adapted Scott Joplin’s rags for George Roy Hill’s THE STING in the same year he composed the song and score for Sydney Pollock’s THE WAY WE WERE. It wasn’t just that he won a fistful of Oscars in one night for those accomplishments—it was that he deserved them. Intellectually, Joplin’s rags shouldn’t have worked. Historically, they were from the wrong era. But Hamlisch’s extraordinarily tasteful adaptations captured the spirit of great cons and greater friendships. And rarely in the history of cinema has a song better encapsulated the entirety of a motion picture than the tune created by Hamlisch and lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman for THE WAY WE WERE. Adding in Barbara Streisand’s perfect performance, the movie and its music became inseparable.
Now Hamlisch really was the King of Hollywood. While he continued to craft wonderful scores for a number of films, including THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE and FUNNY LADY, Broadway came calling. Hamlisch’s roots were as a rehearsal pianist in New York, so it was only fitting that he would capture all of the backstage angst, passion, hopes, and broken dreams in his Tony and Pulitzer-prize winning score to A CHORUS LINE.
For the stage Hamlisch used his own experiences, particularly his relationship with lyricist Carol Bayer Sager, to create Neil Simon’s wonderfully witty THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG. Other strong theatrical scores by Hamlisch include THE GOODBYE GIRL, SMILE, and THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS.
Back in Hollywood, Hamlisch continued to create iconic film scores. The faltering James Bond franchise was rekindled in no small part through Hamlisch’s score for THE SPY WHO LIVED ME and its chart-topping song, “Nobody Does It Better”.
ICE CASTLES was an unapologetic tearjerker about a blind ice skater. For it Hamlisch composed a gloriously unabashed love theme that was classic in approach yet of its time in execution. Marvin really was that: a throwback to the great tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley who still resonated to the sensibilities of a contemporary audience.
Of all the dimensions of this multi-dimensional artist, the most overlooked was that he was a brilliant dramatic composer. His score to SOPHIE’S CHOICE was heart-achingly elegant.
He adapted Pachelbel’s Canon for the Oscar-winning ORDINARY PEOPLE and provided arrangements for Steve Martin’s brilliant PENNIES FROM HEAVEN!
In recent years my partner, Laura Engel, and I had the good fortune to represent Marvin. A favorite moment was when Steven Soderbergh asked Marvin to score THE INFORMANT! The filmmaker had temped the film with Hamlisch’s score to BANANAS and wanted Marvin to capture that same gonzo spirit in his film. It was an incredible score and a great bond formed between Marvin and Soderbergh.
Marvin was just in Los Angeles to start work on Soderbergh’s latest film, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA with Michael Douglas as Liberace, when he was rushed to the hospital the night before the first session. Earlier in the week Hamlisch’s new stage musical THE NUTTY PROFESSOR had opened in Nashville.
He died a few days later.
Marvin Hamlisch lived an extraordinary and celebrated life, which was abundantly clear to those who attended his funeral including stars (Liza Minnelli, Richard Gere), theater legends (Mike Nichols), and the former President of The United States (Bill Clinton). The news of his death caused the world to pause and reflect upon how much his music affected each of us on a personal level.
Marvin was always a mensch. It makes perfect sense that even after his passing he had one more gift to give to the world. On Novermber 8, Dial Press will be publishing posthumously MARVIN MAKES MUSIC, Hamlisch’s first children’s book. It was a nervous young Marvin who has to overcome his fears of auditioning for a prestigious school by getting swept away by his love of music. It was based on his own true-life story since Hamlisch, at age six, was the youngest person ever accepted into the Julliard.
Laura and I will forever cherish the times we got to spend with Marvin, hearing his endless stories of showbiz (for cryin’ out loud, he was Barbra Streisand’s rehearsal pianist on FUNNY GIRL and Groucho Marx’s comeback accompanist at Carnegie Hall). He would regale us with movie and theatre gossip accompanied by his horse-like, bellowing laugh.
And I will forever cherish the times I have spent watching his films, going to his plays, attending his concerts, and listening to his music. His style was highly romantic and full of life and humor, very much like the man himself.