It was a packed house at the Temple Emmanu-El synagogue in Manhattan yesterday when friends and admirers of Marvin Hamlisch said good-bye to the celebrated songwriter. Former President Bill Clinton called Hamlisch a “great, giving genius.” Sir Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony Corp., called him “the merriest of minstrels.”
Hamlisch, 68, suddenly died after he collapsed from a brief illness.
Hamlisch’s talent was blossoming by age 7 when he gained acceptance into the Julliard School of Music.
In a career that spanned over four decades, Hamlisch won virtually every major award: multiple Oscars, four Grammys, four Emmys, a Tony, three Golden Globes, and is best known for the torch song “The Way We Were.”
Other guests included ex-Yankee manager Joe Torre, Kelli O’Hara, Ann-Margret, Raul Esparza, Robert Klein, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, Richard Gere, Tony Danza, Kathie Lee Gifford and Diane Sawyer and her husband Mike Nichols, the film and stage director. Idina Menzel sang “At the Ballet.”
His funeral was held at Congregation Emanu-El, a prominent Manhattan synagogue where legendary songwriter George Gershwin’s funeral was held in 1937.
Speakers, including composer Richard Kagan, cosmetics executive Leonard Lauder and socialite Lily Safra, described a friend always willing to help a good cause, who was a bashful philanthropist and a devoted Yankee fan who would ask for the latest scores before stepping onstage.
A choir that included fellow composers, lyricists and musicians such as Lucie Arnaz, Rupert Holmes and Sheldon Harnick, sang “The Way We Were” and “What I Did for Love.” Statements of mourning were read from President Barack Obama and former first lady Nancy Reagan.
One of the most decorated composers in entertainment, Hamlisch was already famous as an all-around wunderkind when he began work on “A Chorus Line.” A child prodigy, he was accepted into Julliard at the age of six—the youngest child ever to be welcomed by the august Manhattan institution. His first Broadway job was as rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl” starring Barbra Streisand—a professional relationship that would last his entire life. Producer Sam Spiegel hired him to play piano at his parties, where he made connections, leading to his writing his first film score, for “The Swimmer” starring Burt Lancaster. Many more film scores followed.
It seemed his fate to brush up against show business legends while on his way up the ladder. He wrote songs for Liza Minnelli, worked with Judy Garland and was accompanist and straight man for Groucho Marx during a 1974-1975 tour.
Hamlisch was drafted by Bennett and paired with the fussy, eccentric lyricist Ed Kleban, a former executive at Columbia Records with no previous theatre credits. It was an odd couple pairing if there ever was one, but it produced a timeless result. The score was episodic, with each song telling the life story of one or more characters. The show included two modern classics: the hopeful “What I Did for Love,” which Kleban and Mr. Hamlisch reportedly wrote under protest, as they considered it a commercial “sell-out” number; and “One,” the show’s finale. It’s throbbing, hop-step opening vamp is one of the best known theatre anthems in musical history, and is known to millions.
His musical scores, though intricately conceived, never drew attention to themselves. They served to compliment the on-screen action, not overwhelm it — enhancing each gesture, each glance, each moment of drama. That subtle approach allowed him to be something of a musical chameleon, easily gliding from searing dramas to off-beat comedies and making him a close collaborator to a diverse group of directors, such as Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh and Alan J. Pakula.
Perhaps his greatest collaboration was with Barbra Streisand, for whom he penned the signature love anthem “The Way We Were.” He wrote the score for her 1996 film, “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” He also served as musical director and arranger of Streisand’s 1994 concert tour and the television special, “Barbra Streisand: The Concert,” for which he won two Emmys
In a 2010 interview with Broadway World, Hamlisch said he drew on the lovelorn masterpiece “My Funny Valentine” to write the theme song to “The Way We Were” because he wanted to capture the highs and lows of romance.
“It was all almost like a very yin-yang sort of movie,” Hamlisch said. “I wanted to write something that was uplifting and positive. On the other hand, there is a tremendous amount of bitter-sweetness to that film — and bittersweet romance — so, it’s a real duality. And that’s why I think the song — though it’s in the major mode — is quite sad.”
Hamlisch’s deft touch can be felt in the scores for such diverse films as “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Ice Castles,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas,” “Save the Tiger,” “The Informant!” and his latest effort, “Behind the Candelabra,” an upcoming HBO film about the life of Liberace.
Hamlisch was still actively working, conducting the Pasadena Pops at the time of his death.
He is survived by his wife of 26 years, Terre, who took the podium and shared memories of a man whose “life force was huge.” He was likely to cheer her up in the morning by jumping on top of the bed and performing an entire musical – complete with music, lyrics, all the parts and the dancing chorus – “to the disbelief of myself and our dogs.” Terre as will many members of his family, friends, and fans will miss this great mistral.