The Marvelousness of Marvin Hamlisch

My “to do” calendar for this June 2 boasts a whopping seven potential people for me to write about today, including two bona fide vaudevillians and a performing “freak”; I may or may not get to some of those others, but I had little internal debate about moving the much later Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012) to the top of the list.

I prioritize Hamlisch because he was a crucial, influential link in the chain connecting those I think of as the old timers (but to many of you will be regarded more as “long dead historical figures”) and the present day and age. He was a member of the countercultural generation, but a lover of old school show biz, and was one of the prime exponents of hippie era vaudeville nostalgia I wrote about here and in my book No Applause. He was a highly unusual public figure, a sort of sui generis. Primarily he was a composer and musical accompanist with huge Broadway and Hollywood credits (the only person besides Richard Rodgers to have attained a PEGOT: Pultizer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), but he was also a kind of an ambassador for his kind of show biz, and a highly visible celebrity on television. When he first emerged, comedians liked to joke about his name (in the same way that people liked to joke about Engelbert Humperdinck’s, although Hamlisch was born with his) and his nerdy, uncool but loveable personality, which was not unlike that of Leonard Maltin. But you would see him on shows like Hollywood Squares, Mike Douglas, Merv, and Dinah!

Hamlisch was a second generation musician and a child prodigy who started studying at Julliard when he was only seven years old. At 20 he became Barbra Streisand’s rehearsal pianist for the original Broadway production of Funny Girl, and thus began his charmed career. He later composed the music for her films The Way We Were (1973, including co-writing the hit title song) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). At this early stage in his career he also wrote a song (“The Travelin’ Life”) that was recorded by Liza Minnelli on her first album, and supplied two hits for Lesley Gore, “Sunshine, Roses and Lollipops” (1965) and “California Nights” (1967). Playing piano at parties thrown by Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel led to his composing his first movie soundtrack, the haunting score for the 1968 movie The Swimmer, which we wrote about here. Then he hooked up with Woody Allen, composing the soundtracks to his comedies Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971). The soundtrack for Flap (1970), which we wrote about here, was another of his early scores, as was Kotch (1971), starring Walter Matthau, directed by Jack Lemmon. Hamlisch would maintain the Lemon connection through The War Between Men and Women (1972), Save the Tiger (1973), and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975).

During these years, Hamlisch became part of the social set that hung out at Groucho Marx’s house, having worked on the 1970 musical Minnie’s Boys, resulting in his being hired as the accompanist for Groucho’s 1972 Carnegie Hall concert, the record album of which was cherished by Groucho fans and further enhanced Hamlisch’s fame. He also toured with the octogenarian comedian in the months thereafter.

In 1973, in addition to much we’ve already mentioned, Hamlisch became a household name when he adapted old Scott Joplin rags into the soundtrack for the smash hit movie The Sting, forever confusing audiences thereafter (the rags date from the 1890s and the turn of the century; the movie is set during the Great Depression).

Then, after the crazy years of 1973 when his name was on four movie soundtracks, and 1974 when he toured with Groucho and was constantly on television, came his 1975 Broadway debut with A Chorus Line and the film score for Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a relationship that would continue with the films Chapter Two (1979), Seems Like Old Times (1980), and I Ought to be in Pictures (1982), and the Broadway musicals They’re Playing Our Song (1978) and The Goodbye Girl (1993).

For a time in the ’70s his girlfriend and collaborator was Carole Bayer Sager, with whom he co-wrote the tunes for They’re Playing Our Song, and the title number from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), which he also scored. That year he also scored the music for Steve Martin’s legendary comedy short The Absent Minded Waiter. It’s hard to say what his peak is, right? He just kept peaking! Some of the other movies Hamlisch scored include Same Time Next Year (1978), Ice Castles (1978), Starting Over (1979), Ordinary People (1980), Gilda Live (1980), Sophie’s Choice (1983), Little Nikita (1988), The January Man (1989), Frankie and Johnny (1991) and The Informant (2009). And some really interesting musicals for the theatre: Jean Seberg (1983), an adaptation of Michael Ritchie’s film Smile (1985), a 2002 adaptation of The Sweet Smell of Success, and — wait for it — a 2012 adaptation of The Nutty Professor, directed by Jerry Lewis himself out of town in Nashville, of all places. His last score was for Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 Liberace bio-pic Behind the Candelabra, which I think is fantastic for, much like Liberace, Hamlisch was one of the very few people who attained great fame merely by playing the piano. (I anticipate rebuttals, but really, no: compared to singers, actors, dancers? A small fraction by comparison).

Marvin Hamlisch was taken from us way too soon at age 68! Like Irving Berlin, one of the few who enjoyed a comparable career, one would greedily have preferred a full century of this man! But, then again, he was so productive — he certainly achieved enough for anybody’s lifetime, and this would have been true if he had died in, say, the mid to late 1970s. Some sort of breathing episode is what killed him in 2012. If he were alive today, he’d be 78. Marvin Hamlisch’s very robust official website is here.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville AND neo-vaudevilleplease see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,