A genius, but funny with it — the way Marvin Hamlisch was

The gifted composer, who died this month, was known for his humour, but he longed to be taken more seriously

By John Nathan, August 16, 2012
Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch

There is a vague and unscientific theory that attempts to explain why some new melodies are instant hits while others miss by a mile. It is unscientific and vague because the theory is mine. But it might give a clue as to why, when some melodies are heard for the first time, the thrill of discovery is often accompanied by a sense of familiarity; a feeling that a tune is so right that it feels slightly strange you had not thought of it before the composer. You have to have talent to come up with an original tune that feels familiar. To do it as often as the great, and now late, American composer Marvin Hamlisch, takes genius.

Hamlisch was part of the long line of mostly Jewish composers who immeasurably enriched America’s greatest cultural gift to the world, the musical. And in that group of musical theatre maestros, he was probably the most diverse talent of all.

He got the genius gene from his father Max, a musician who, like Hamlisch’s mother Lily, arrived in America as a Viennese refugee on the run from the Nazis. It was that gene that got seven-year-old prodigy Marvin into New York’s Juilliard School. They taught Mozart; Marvin practised pop. And he ended up writing the kind of song that would stop you getting out of the car if you happened to have parked before it was finished.

For to cut short a song as beautifully constructed and sung (by Carly Simon) as Nobody Does It Better would be barbaric. Written for the 1978 Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, it was probably the best Oscar-nominated song never to win an Oscar. That it lost to Last Dance from the movie Thank God It’s Friday is a whole bowl of wrong.

Still, by then Hamlisch had already won his three Oscars, for The Way We Were (best score and best song) and The Sting (best adaptation). Astoundingly, he received all of them on the same night in 1973. And along with Richard Rodgers he was the only man to win all of America’s great performance awards — the Tony, Oscar, Grammy and Emmy — plus a Pulitzer Prize.

But here’s the thing about Hamlisch. He was never taken as seriously as his serious talent deserved. It was his own fault. If his father Max gave him the genius gene, his mother Lily gave him the gift of the gab. At concerts, he could not stop making wisecracks. It made him a chat show darling, but when I met him three years ago before a two-night gig in London, he said that there was a time when he wanted to be taken as seriously as Stephen Sondheim. “It didn’t feel good,” he admitted. “For many years it was a big, big problem. People thought it was wonderful that I could play the piano. But they loved me because I was funny. I loved it, too, because I knew that being funny was me. But, inside, there was this turmoil.”

His death this month — at the much too young age of 68 — will probably change all that. Unsurprisingly Marilyn and Alan Bergman who wrote the lyrics to The Way We Were, and Barbra Streisand who so memorably sang it, have spoken with great affection about their friend and collaborator. “When I was with Marvin, I felt like I was home”, said Streisand of the man she first met when he was a rehearsal pianist for her breakthrough show, Funny Girl.

But the composer who wanted to be taken seriously would have been gratified to see that the more dispassionate critics are already talking about him in terms of greatness. True, the musicals he wrote in the 1980s and 1990s never saw the earlier Broadway success he achieved with A Chorus Line. But it has long been obvious that the show’s score, like many of his film scores, will never date. And, for a work of art, not becoming dated is as good a definition of greatness as any.

When we met, I was ready to twist his arm to get him to say which of his works he was the most proud. I expected the normal reluctance. But he was surprisingly candid. And his answer revealed something of the man behind the showbiz persona that was usually displayed at his concerts. “You know which song I love?” he said. “At the Ballet.”

The song is a melodically complex number from A Chorus Line that dips movingly into the childhood of the characters who sing it. It is not an obvious contender for my cod-theory of what makes a song a work of genius. But it captures the spirit of a show about the talent and ambition of those who want to be make it in musicals.

“I’ll tell you why,” he continued. “If I had not been picked to do The Way We Were, Henry Mancini would have done it, or Michel Legrand. They would have done great songs that would have been sung by Barbra Streisand. It would have been fine. And if I hadn’t done The Sting, someone else would have done it. A Chorus Line is different. I think in all modesty, I was the right guy at the right time to do it. I was a hungry 29-year-old. I had won Oscars, done what I wanted to do in terms of movies, but there was this thing in me. I’m a New Yorker. I wanted to do a show.”

There is a suggestion here that he had not conquered Broadway as completely as he would have wished. But the body of work across stage and screen speaks for itself. And Hamlisch was working as hard as he ever did, right up to his death. His latest musical, The Nutty Professor, is being tried out before an expected run in New York. So his loss is not just about the death of great composer, but about the loss of what was yet to come.

Last updated: 3:00pm, August 16 2012