Marvin Hamlisch, the classically trained pianist who composed the music for shows including “A Chorus Line” and movies including “The Way We Were,” winning show business’s most sought-after awards by the armloads, has died. He was 68.
The recipient of three Academy Awards, four Grammys, four Emmys, two Golden Globes and one Tony, Hamlisch provided the music for Barbra Streisand’s 1994 concert tour, the Neil Simon show “The Goodbye Girl” and more than 40 movies that also included “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People,” and Woody Allen’s “Bananas.”
Only Hamlisch and Richard Rodgers, the American composer who died in 1979, won at least one Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Tony and a Pulitzer Prize. Hamlisch shared in the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “A Chorus Line”; Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II shared a piece of the 1950 award for “South Pacific.”
“From the time I could play the piano, I remember trying to write tunes,” Hamlisch wrote in “The Way I Was,” his 1992 memoir, written with Gerald Gardner. “They were in my head, and I would just sit down and start noodling. Next thing I knew, I had written a melody.”
Known for his tireless drive, Hamlisch was principal pops conductor for symphony orchestras in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Dallas, Seattle, San Diego and Pasadena, California, and previously spent 11 years as pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. According to his website, he was working on a new musical, “Gotta Dance” and planning to write the music for a Steven Soderbergh film about Liberace, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
In 2007, he joined Rod Stewart and Patti LaBelle among the performers in New York City at the 60th birthday party of Stephen Schwarzman, the founder of Blackstone Group LP, an event that fueled the movement in Congress to raise taxes on executives at private-equity and venture-capital firms.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1975, a year after winning three Academy Awards for his contributions to “The Sting” (1973) and “The Way We Were” (1973), Hamlisch discussed the challenges of writing music for film.
“Let’s say music is needed for only 43 seconds of film,” he said. “You have to score it so it is an entity, so it won’t bother anyone when it ends so quickly. Or if a song runs 2 minutes and 45 seconds, but the titles run a minute longer, you have to arrange that song so it doesn’t get repetitious. It means being like a tailor with a piece of cloth, lengthening it a bit here, taking a tuck there, and adding a button when needed.”
Marvin Frederick Hamlisch was born on June 2, 1944, in New York City, the second of two children born to musically inclined immigrants from Vienna, Max Hamlisch and the former Lilly Schachter. As Hamlisch told it in his memoir, his father sensed in the mid-1930s that it was time for Jews to leave Europe and arranged for him and his wife to escape Austria by way of Liechtenstein and Switzerland, arriving in the U.S. in 1937.
A professional accordionist, Hamlisch’s father saw musical promise in his only son and sent him to the Juilliard School in Manhattan shortly before he turned 7 for piano training.
Hamlisch said he realized early on, after one year at Juilliard, that he wasn’t cut out to be a concert pianist, not least because he felt sick to his stomach before every performance.
For junior high school, Hamlisch attended Professional Children’s School, where his classmates included Christopher Walken and Leslie Uggams and the boyfriend of a young Liza Minnelli, for whom Hamlisch wrote some songs.
With Marvin Liebling, who would become his brother-in-law, he wrote his first hit, “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” for Lesley Gore. Hamlisch and Liebling followed with a second hit for Gore, “California Nights.”
Hamlisch was hired by Buster Davis to be assistant vocal arranger and rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl,” which introduced Hamlisch to Streisand. Playing piano at a private party held by producer Sam Spiegel, Hamlisch landed the job of scoring “The Swimmer” (1968), starring Burt Lancaster. He then scored Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” (1969).
With lyricist Johnny Mercer, he won his first Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for the original song “Life Is What You Make It,” from “Kotch” (1971).
Along the way, he found time to earn a bachelor of arts degree from Queens College in New York.
Sweeping the music categories at the 46th Academy Awards in 1974 made Hamlisch, at 29, the first person to walk away with three Oscars in one night. He won for best original dramatic score for “The Way We Were,” best scoring for the ragtime accompaniment of “The Sting” and best song for the title number of “The Way We Were,” with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and performed by Streisand, the movie’s co-star.
Arriving at the microphone for his third acceptance speech of the night, Hamlisch began: “I think we can talk to each other as friends.”
Hamlisch’s roll continued with “A Chorus Line,” the Broadway smash that ran for 6,137 performances from 1975 to 1990. Hired by director Michael Bennett, scoring the lyrics of Edward Kleban, he composed songs including “What I Did for Love” and “One (Singular Sensation).” In addition to the 1976 Pulitzer, the show won nine Tony Awards, including one for the Hamlisch and Kleban score.
Back in Hollywood, Hamlisch took on the music for the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” and, with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, came up with “Nobody Does It Better,” the Carly Simon hit that was nominated for the Academy Award for best song.
Hamlisch and Sager became a couple while continuing as collaborators, their relationship inspiring Neil Simon to write “They’re Playing Our Song,” which ran on Broadway from 1979 to 1981.
Two professional flops followed. Poor reviews and weak attendance spelled an early end to the 1983-1984 London bow of “Jean Seberg,” a musical based on the American actress and political lightning rod who took her own life at 40. “Smile,” a Broadway musical spoofing beauty pageants, lasted just 41 performances in 1986-1987.
In 1989, Hamlisch married Terre Blair, a television interviewer. In a 1992 interview with People magazine, he credited her with “bringing out all the good things in me. I found myself quieting down, becoming more understanding of what life means.”
To the Tony, Grammys and Oscars he won in the 1970s, Hamlisch added his two Emmys in 1995 for “Barbra Streisand: The Concert,” another in 1999 for “AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies” and a fourth in 2001 for his musical direction of Streisand’s “Timeless: Live in Concert.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at email@example.com