Remembering Marvin Hamlisch: One singular sensation… and what he did for love
It was early 1989, and TV producer Terre Blair called her mother with the exciting news. “I’m engaged”, she announced. “I’m getting married to Marvin Hamlisch!” “Marvin Hamlisch?” the prospective mother-in-law replied. “You mean the boxer from Las Vegas?” “No, Mom. That’s Marvin Hagler,” Terre laughed. “Marvin Hamlisch is a composer; he writes songs, and he tours.” “Just what this family needs,” said Mom. “An out-of-work songwriter.”
Actually, by the time Hamlisch was 31, he had accomplished as much and certainly won more awards than most composers do in an entire lifetime. But the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award, as well as three Oscars and four Grammys, are part of his past. “I don’t know whether it’s my Type A personality, or the way I was raised, or what it is,” mused Hamlisch, “but there’s something in me that tends to only look forward, and not back.”
A clear example of that occurred after his wedding to Terre, which was attended by Liza Minelli, Carly Simon, Ann-Margret, and Roberta Flack, who serenaded the couple with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” “I have a house on Long Island, and when I was single, my office there had most of my memorabilia in it. When I got married,” recalled Hamlisch, “I decided to take down all the awards, all the photos, and just have a picture of my wife there and a nice little reproduction from the Museum of Art. So when I’m sitting there, looking at the piano, I’m not thinking about what I should have done, what I could have done, what I had done… I’m just thinking in terms of, now what can I do?”
The composer also believes all the acclaim can put a crimp in the creative process. “You never start out focused on trying to win an award or have something become famous. You just start out wanting to write something good, and I think what happens, unfortunately, is that the trappings of celebrity get in the way.” Hamlisch also has a new-found perspective on fame and fortune. “You know, when you’re a bachelor for 45 years, as I was, the things that make you happy tend to be entwined with the things that you do. If you do a good movie or have a hit song, you go, ‘Ooh, I’m happy!’ Any kind of happiness on its own, like walking along the ocean, or looking at a good piece of art, is never as good as the three Oscars.”
“But when I got married,” he continued, “all that stuff went into another category, so the three Oscars are real fine, but that’s a professional happiness. That doesn’t beat the happiness of waking up to your wife or sitting in the office with her or walking and talking with her or just thinking about her. Separating the music world from the ‘world world’ allowed me to get back to how I was when I started all this. And that’s what you have to do, I think, in order to do well. You have to always go back to how it was.”
How it was, for the writer of “The Way We Were,” was a Manhattan childhood that included being the youngest student ever admitted to the Juilliard School of Music. While still in college, he began working on Broadway shows, and composed the Lesley Gore hit “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.” Hamlisch’s burgeoning career truly soared when he scored a series of films, including “Take The Money And Run,” “The Way We Were,” and “The Sting.”
In 1974, Hamlisch began a year-long tour as accompanist and straight man to the legendary and, at the time, elderly Groucho Marx. “He was the grandfather I never had, a nice old Jewish man, not at all grouchy. A real sweetheart of a guy. But he was getting a little senile, and he used to tell the same joke over and over. He would say, ‘I bought an anklet for this girl, and I had it inscribed.’ I would ask, ‘What did it say?’ He would answer, ‘Heaven’s above.’ “ Was this joke told onstage or off? “Anywhere. Always. Constantly.”
During that tour, Hamlisch composed the score for “A Chorus Line”. The day before the play received its first New York press reviews in 1975, he approached its director/choreographer, Michael Bennett. “I asked him, what happens if we were wrong about the show, if it’s not as good as we think it is? Michael looked at me and said, ‘Have you done your best?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Do you think you’ve wasted any time?’ I said no. He asked, ‘Is there anything up there you’re ashamed of?’ I said no. He said, ‘That’s all you can do.’” The Pulitzer, Tony, and a record run on the Great White Way confirmed the duo’s belief that they had a winner.
Hamlisch is busy these days with commercial projects, but he seems more enthused with a symphonic work called “The Anatomy of Peace,” inspired by a book of that name. “I’m grappling with some big issues right now,” he says.
Fame and fortune has granted Marvin Hamlisch that opportunity, but to him, that aspect of his career is secondary. “You’re going to think this is really hokey,” he confided, “but I really don’t care if people remember I wrote ‘The Way We Were.’ I mean, hopefully, they’ll play it at a Bar Mitzvah here or there; that’s fine with me. But I just hope people connect me somehow with music that had a kind of integrity, and that was melodic. That’s all I care about. Forget awards, forget accolades. I started all this to write good music, and I just want to keep doing that.”
Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News.