Friday, August 10, 2012

Marvelous Marvin Hamlisch: One Singular Sensation

Don’t get me wrong: the late Marvin Hamlisch was an extraordinary talent. But he has left some lyricists feeling at least a tad disgruntled.

Hamlisch was a musical prodigy who entered Juilliard at six, then attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts (made famous by Fame) along with good friend Liza Minnelli. At twenty he got his first Broadway gig, and four years later he composed the first of many film scores. In 1974, still not yet thirty, he achieved an extraordinary trifecta at the Oscar ceremony. That was the year a nude streaker (remember those?) sprinted across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, leading presenter David Niven to quip, “Probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings."

The streaker was not easily forgotten (even though TV tactfully showed him only above the waist), but I also remember a fully-clothed young musician with big hair, big glasses, and a big grin bounding up to accept three Oscars that night. Hamlisch was honored for his dramatic scoring of The Way We Were, and the film’s title tune was named Best Original Song. In marked contrast to his schmaltzy score for The Way We Were was Hamlisch’s delightfully droll reworking of Scott Joplin’s ragtime repertoire for The Sting. His version of such Joplin rags as “The Entertainer” not only won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Score but also helped boost Joplin (who died in 1917) to new status as a national treasure.

Hamlisch hardly rested on his laurels. In 1975 he was part of the creative team that launched A Chorus Line. It would become the longest-running production in Broadway history, the winner of nine Tony Awards and (in a rare coup for a musical theatre piece) the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Thereafter he stayed busy as a composer of film scores, pop songs, and Broadway shows, while also serving as music director for such luminaries as Barbra Streisand. He also signed on as the principal pops conductor of so many symphony orchestras (Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, San Diego, Buffalo, Dallas, Pasadena . . .) that his frequent-flyer mileage must have been astounding.

Here’s the gripe, though: like all too many composers of popular tunes, Hamlisch sometimes forgot that a song is only as good as the lyricist behind it. There’s a 2008 documentary film called Every Little Step that chronicles both the making of the original A Chorus Line and the casting of its 2006 Broadway revival. Because A Chorus Line is a about the agony and ecstasy of a theatrical audition, it’s fascinating to watch actual performers auditioning for the central roles. Viewers also learn a lot about the creative process behind the show. One of Hamlisch’s great on-camera anecdotes involves the last-minute discovery that a key song needed to be retitled so as not to spoil its central joke. The anecdote hinges on the song’s clever lyrics, and Hamlisch never once stops to acknowledge that those lyrics were not his, but were rather the contribution of the late Edward Kleban. (Similarly,“The Way We Were” of course depended for its success partly on the poignant lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman.)

In the late 1970s, Hamlisch was romantically involved with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. Out of their relationship came a so-so Broadway musical, They’re Playing Our Song. It acknowledges how much a composer and a lyricist need one another, even when their personalities are miles apart. I hope that, amid the thrills and accolades that marked his life, Marvin Hamlisch occasionally stopped to remember that lesson.


  1. A nice remembrance of a very talented man. My favorite of his many scores is 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me. (Of course!) This makes Mr. Hamlisch one of only seven men to compose the score to a James Bond movie. A very appropriate number, considering.

    Talented people do sometimes seem to forget their equally talented co-creators. Stan Lee is an example - though I think he's learned it's not a good thing to leave out credit considering how much of Jack Kirby's and Steve Ditko's (and other's) ideas went in to the creation of those famous Marvel super heroes.

    When it came to these wonderful songs - Mr. Hamlisch was definitely not the "One Singular" force behind them. Thanks for shining the spotlight on those other musical talents.

  2. You are very welcome, Mr. Craig. By the way that song from "A Chorus Line" I mentioned above ended up being called "Dance Ten, Looks Three," which is the song's opening line. I won't mention the original title, the one that spoiled the joke, but it's easily uncovered!