The Kindness and Genius of Marvin Hamlisch Endures

(PCM) Marvin Hamlisch passed away suddenly at age 68, and the worlds of music and musical theater are quite a bit darker because of it.

And so is my world, as I remember the many times over the past 15 years that we spent together having lunch and talking about his creativity and passion.

Mr. Hamlisch died on Monday, August 6, after a brief illness.

He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word, from the moment we met in Boca Raton, Florida, and in subsequent interviews.

When I think of that first meeting at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, I have to smile. Moments after greeting this writer for the first time he asked if I was hungry. I was surprised, since most people of his stature often expect everyone else to cater to them. Not Mr. Hamlisch.

“From the moment you set foot in my home my mother treated you like one of the family,” a tradition Mr. Hamlisch obviously kept going. “Within seconds she would fill the dining room table with a smorgasbord of Jewish delicacies that she spent hours preparing. My mom wouldn’t allow anyone in our house without feeding them.”

The gifted composer, who won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize, was also a New York born boy, whose mom, Lilly, fed his body and his musically-gifted father, Max, fed his soul. This stellar combination led the prolific, genius composer to his hat-trick of Oscars, four Grammy’s, four Emmy’s, a Tony and three Golden Globes, during a career that spanned more than four decades.

From his father, who played six musical instruments, Mr. Hamlisch said he received his musical gift. From his mother, he believed he received his sense of humor, practical nature, and passion for food. “My father always felt that I had talent and that I should be studying more and shouldn’t just cruise on my talent alone. He was wonderfully critical of my work saying, it was good, but I could do better. My mother kept saying, “Eat. Eat.” The combination worked.”

His parents, refugees from Vienna, who escaped to the U.S. before World War II, were always concerned about oppressed people, and they passed this on to their son and daughter, Terry. “As a child growing up in New York, every time the television was on about World War 2, my father stopped everything and we watched. This experience made me very aware of what it means to care about people who are persecuted.”

One might not think that a film and Broadway composer would be so involved in world issues, but Hamlisch’s travels took him to the far reaches of the world and he saw the vital importance of using his music to help people live together in peace.

He wrote two pieces that conveyed his global concerns. The first, Our Song, he described as an anthem for all countries. A true visionary, he recalled, that the first time he performed that song involved Palestinians holding hands with Israelis. The other was a symphonic piece called The Anatomy of Peace, which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and played at Carnegie Hall. It is based on a book and uses the orchestra to stand for the nations of the world.

“Music is truly an international language,” Mr. Hamlisch often said, “And I hope to contribute by widening communication as much as I can.”

In addition to working on improving the world, he was the principal pops conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He also conducted for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Pasadena Symphony and Pops, the Seattle Symphony, the San Diego Symphony. And he never stopped composing for films and Broadway.

He composed music for more than 40 films, including Sophie’s Choice, The Sting, Ordinary People, Chapter Two, Same Time Next Year, Take the Money and Run, The Spy Who Loved Me, most recently, The Informant.

He never slowed his work schedule. As recently as last month, Mr. Hamlisch was working on a musical adaptation of the Jerry Lewis comedy The Nutty Professor, for which he wrote the score. He was also working on a new Broadway musical called Gotta Dance, and had written the score for an upcoming HBO movie, Behind the Candelabra, about the life of Liberace.

In a career that spanned film, television, theater and recorded music, Mr. Hamlisch won seemingly every award available in each medium he entered.

He was a 12-time Academy Award nominee for his score and song contributions to films as varied as “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Sophie’s Choice” and a three-time Oscar winner for the score of “The Sting” as well as the score from “The Way We Were” and its title song, with lyrics by close friends Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Mr. Hamlisch won a Tony Award for his score to the musical A Chorus Line. That musical, which blended bouncy, brassy songs like One and Dance: Ten; Looks: Three with melancholy numbers like At the Ballet, also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1976.

Although he was constantly traveling for his work, Mr. Hamlisch was a doting husband to his wife Terre, of 25 years. In fact, he asked me to excuse him for 20 minutes before we began our first lunch so he could check on her. His wife had gone through oral surgery a few days before our first lunch and he was reluctant to leave her behind at their Manhattan home.

So, I asked him a few years ago during one of several lunches we shared at the Four Seasons in Palm Beach, what was the recipe for creating the music for such songs as The Way We Were and W hat I did For Love, two of my all-time favorites?

Mr. Hamlisch said he was fluent in a language called music. “So I am able to think in two languages. Someone asks me to think sad and I start thinking in the music language.”

So I asked at what point does all of the thinking turn into the notes? He replied: “That’s like asking a painter why he used a certain blue or asking a great chef exactly how much spice he adds to his broth.”

In fact, Mr. Hamlisch said his award-winning music is similar to his own mother’s Jewish cooking. “My mother used to make great recipes, and I’d ask her how much salt did she put in. And she would take the salt from the box, put it in her hand and say ‘it’s this much,’ as it went into the pot. I’d ask her how much that was, and she’d say, ‘I don’t know? I just know it takes this much to make it taste good.’ The more you compose, the more adept you become at hopefully coming up with good melodies. And when you don’t come up with good melodies, you hope that at least you have the where-with-all to do it the next time.”

Barbra Streisand, who worked closely with Mr. Hamlisch throughout his career and performed many of his songs, was devastated by the news, as were the countless of theater lovers who knew his gifts and talents knew no bounds. The two first met in 1963, when he was her rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl.

“I’m devastated,” Streisand said of his death. “He was my dear friend. He played at my wedding in 1998 … and recently for me at a benefit for women’s heart disease. The world will remember Marvin for his brilliant musical accomplishments, from ‘A Chorus Line’ to ‘The Way We Were,’ and so many others, but when I think of him now, it was his brilliantly quick mind, his generosity, and delicious sense of humor that made him a delight to be around. He was a true musical genius, but above all that, he was a beautiful human being. I will truly miss him.”

The feeling was truly mutual. Mr. Hamlisch and I spoke about Ms. Streisand at length many times. He was thrilled to reminisce about the 1994 concert tour he directed and conducted for her. He supervised the arrangements and orchestrations for the 63-member orchestra. He also wrote the music for more than 40 films, including two for Streisand, The Way We Were and The Mirror Has Two Faces.

“I think Barbra Streisand is one of the great women of all time,” Mr. Hamlisch said. “I have said to her and others that if you took away the fact that she has the greatest voice, she would still be a great woman. This is because she really cares about being honest, about loyalty, and aout doing the very best you can. I find her to be a wonderful person to make giggle, because when she giggles she lights up one’s heart.”

When all is said and done Mr. Hamlisch said he had two philosophies of life. The first is always ask for a second opinion, no matter what the situation, “because it can’t hurt.” The other philosophy he said, “is to make the most of your gifts and talents, where ever they take you “

He said he believed “that we are given a certain amount of time on earth and I think it’s important to try while you are around to really do the best you can. I don’t think you can do more than that.”

Mr. Hamlisch certainly did, and we miss miss him for his many gifts, and remember him for decades to come through the awe-inspiring musical legacy he leaves behind.

By: Debra Wallace

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