The Oscar and Pulitzer winning composer Marvin Hamlisch talks to John Nathan about fame, ego and why he’s resigned to not being taken seriously
Marvin Hamlisch only has half an hour to talk. But he is one of life’s talkers and he says more in half an hour than a radio DJ in an entire afternoon.
He has arrived in London to perform at the Pizza Express jazz club in Soho — a two-date visit too brief to be described as “whirlwind”. It will be an evening of song and stories, he promises. “The audience is going to hear stories that they’ve never heard before, and some of them are pretty damn funny,” he says, ever Mr Showbiz.
He cannot help himself. There was a time when Hamlisch tried being the serious composer, commanding the kind of reverence that a man of his achievements deserves. He has not only won all the major American performance awards — Tony (for A Chorus Line), Oscar (three of them in one night), Grammy and Emmy — but a Pulitzer too, making him one of only two people, along with Richard Rogers, to have scooped the lot.
Not that he is necessarily happy about being funny. “I didn’t feel good,” he says. “I kept thinking, ‘Stephen Sondheim is taken seriously because he’s serious.’”
But seriousness does not come easily to a man who cannot help rolling out wisecracks. The Oscars came in 1974 at the age of 29 — two for The Sting and one for the Streisand classic The Way We Were. That was when he became a chat-show darling. He would sit at the piano cracking jokes and making light of the precocious talent that won him a place at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School for arts and music at the age of seven.
“For many years it was a big, big problem,” admits Hamlisch, who traces his serious side back to his father, Max, an accordionist and band leader, and his funny side back to his mother Lily. They were both Viennese and emigrated to America to escape the Nazis. “My father was a smart musician and my mom was very funny.
So I got the best of both people. The dichotomy was that I was getting booked on talk shows because I was funny. I mean, yes, it was wonderful I could play the piano, but they liked me more because they knew I was funny. I loved that because I knew that was me. But I lived with this inner turmoil.”
The composer was getting more attention for his jokes than his music. People were laughing, but it did not feel good. So Hamlisch decided to cut out the funny stuff at his concerts — or cut it down. “I brought the joke-level down to, like, three,” he says. And that’s when he stopped enjoying performing.
“I wasn’t having a good time. For me, talking kept the concert fresh. I could play The Way We Were 90 times in a row, but without talking it got stale.”
So he put back the chat and life is better. “Now, when people tell me I could have made it as comedian, I think: ‘That’s good. They like that.’”
Perhaps it’s what Hamlisch calls the dichotomy that explains his ability to change musical forms. His 50 or so movie scores have set the tone for films that are comic or tragic. He has scored spoofs such as the Naked Gun movies and tearjerkers such as Sophie’s Choice.
Then there is arguably the greatest Bond tune of all time, Nobody Does it Better. Of the nine Oscar nominations he has received, that one is probably the best song that did not win. His latest score is for the Matt Damon movie The Informant!, which is released next month.
Is he pleased with it? Very. It is one of the pieces that, for Hamlisch, had a real eureka moment.
“The director Steven Soderberg wanted the music to be funny. And it is. But I did the film from the point of view of the bad guy [Damon]. So he gets all this happy-go-lucky music.”
It is the kind of jaunty score which would be forgettable if it was not married to the story about a company executive who turns out to be an incompetent spy for the FBI. But that is the thing with movie writing — the music exists to serve the narrative. And for a big personality like Hamlisch, that is a discipline that does not fit so easily with his Mr Showbiz personality. It must be hard to suppress an ego that wants to say “look what I can do”.
“Sure,” he answers. “I’m not Jewish for a hobby. Sometimes you suppress it or, sometimes, if you get the right film, you can go nuts. In The Sting there’s only about 16 minutes of music. People remember it because most of the time no one is talking. It’s not background. In The Way We Were there are 53 minutes of music — that’s a lot of music. You may have only heard eight or nine minutes of it because people are talking all the time. I used to kid around with Streisand and tell her to stop talking over my music.”
If you really twist his arm, he will admit to his favourite composition. In the past he has said the question is like asking a mother which of her children is her favourite, but today he is in the mood to choose.
Apparently, there are those who think his best music was written for They’re Playing Our Song, the show based on his relationship with the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. Hamlisch would not be so impolite or self-deprecating as to disagree with them, but there is the sense that he does not think they have much taste.
“You know which one I love?,” he asks. “It would be 'At the Ballet' (from A Chorus Line). And I’ll tell you why. 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. If it’s going to be sung by Barbra Streisand, it’ll be 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, young 29-year-old. I had won my 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.”
So that showbiz thing still in him?
“Oh yeah,” says Mr Showbiz. “Don’t worry."