PBS special explores Marvin Hamlisch — 'the people's composer'

Published December 24, 2013 1:16 pm

Television • He won Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys and a Pulitzer — but had no big ego.
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Marvin Hamlisch was one of the most successful composers of the 20th century. And, apparently, one without ego.

"I thought he was one of the most charming, funniest, most genuinely, organically talented people I'd ever met," said Lucie Arnaz, who starred in Hamlisch's "They're Playing Our Song" on Broadway.

At the age of 29, Hamlisch became only the second person to win three Oscars in one night — for best original dramatic score ("The Way We Were"), best original song score and/or adaptation ("The Sting") and best original song ("The Way We Were"). Not only was he nominated for another nine Oscars, but he won four Emmys, four Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize for "A Chorus Line."

The only other person to win all five awards was Richard Rodgers.

He was a child prodigy who didn't want to become a concert pianist. A man who could sit down and write the melody for "Nobody Does It Better" the minute Carole Bayer Sager suggested it.

"The thing that made it look like it wasn't genius sometimes is how freakin' easy it was [for him] to just sit down and trust his instincts," Arnaz said.

"If he heard the wind or a breeze in the trees, he could tell you what note it was," said his widow, Terre Blair Hamlisch. "He didn't hear like we would hear a screech of a tire. He would hear it with the note, the exact note of it. It's an E-flat. It's this. It's that."

Dori Berinstein, who directed, wrote and produced the "American Masters" biography "Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love," said that "everyone I interviewed" told similar stories. Among those interviewed for the documentary were Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Quincy Jones, Robert Klein, John Lithgow, Melissa Manchester, Ann-Margret, Donna McKechnie, Idina Menzel, Tim Rice, Carole Bayer Sager, Carly Simon and Joe Torre — just to name a few.

No matter what Hamlisch wrote, "he was egoless about it and if it wasn't right for the show, the show always came first," Berinstein said. "It wasn't about — what great music can I write that's going to be a hit and get me world recognition? It was always about the show and the artists and how to make that artist shine. I heard that over and over again."

Arnaz recalled that during rehearsals for "They're Playing Our Song," she was "stumbling over something in one song." She assured Hamlisch she could get it, but he offered to adjust the key.

"I said, 'Oh God, no. Marvin, I can learn how to do this,' " Arnaz said. "He said, 'What do you think? I'm married to these notes?'

"He was egoless about exactly how it was going to come out. If the song works in the show, the show's going to be a hit, and everybody is happy. It's a win-win. But he didn't take it personally, which was great. Neither did Neil Simon [who wrote the script]. I mean, the geniuses don't."

Hamlisch's life and career were not one unending string of success. He struggled with flops and failures.

"I've seen the documentary," Arnaz said, "and it's very funny. And it makes you cry."

It also shows that Hamlisch struggled after huge early success.

"But I think if Marvin was here, he'd make some sort of a joke about it and write a song about trying again and again," Arnaz said. "It's very inspirational for everybody just the way 'Chorus Line' was inspirational for normal people. You didn't have to be a dancer trying to get a job. It was about people trying to be accepted and being allowed to do what they love to do."

His widow said that, even in failure, Hamlisch remained positive.

"He said to me, 'I think, Terre, I'm OK with this. I think people will remember me as the people's composer.' "


Twitter: @ScottDPierce —

Hamlisch TV tribute

The "American Masters" documentary "Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love" airs Friday, Dec. 27, at 8 p.m. on PBS/Channel 7.



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