Scoring movie soundtracks, writing Broadway musicals, penning Top 40 pop hits, conducting and composing full classical symphonies for orchestras, accompanying Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand and Groucho Marx – you name it, Marvin Hamlisch has done it. Not only has he done it, but this award-winning, world-renowned composer/arranger has a list of accomplishments that would make three or four musicians combined glow with pride.
Consider a sample of Hamlisch’s credits: he’s scored films such as Save the Tiger, The Sting, Ice Castles and Sophie’s Choice; he’s topped the charts with songs like “Nobody Does it Better” and “The Way We Were”; and perhaps his most-acclaimed achievement, he wrote the songs (with lyricist Ed Kleban) for A Chorus Line, the longest-ever running Broadway musical.
Marvin was born on June 2, 1944 in New York City. At seven, he became the youngest student ever to attend Julliard School of Music. But while he was studying Bach and Beethoven, he discovered he had a talent for making up his own songs. In time, he came to prefer the fun and creativity of songwriting to the intense classical piano competitions that used to wrack his nerves.
Encouraged by his first hit, Lesley Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops and Roses,” written when he was a mere 20, Hamlisch turned to composing full-time and soon found himself in Hollywood, where his first assignments included scoring early Woody Allen films, Take the Money and Run and Bananas.
In 1974, Hamlisch became a household name when his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime material for The Sting yielded a million-selling hit, “The Entertainer.” A year later, he swept the Grammys and the Academy Awards with “The Way We Were,” a song he co-wrote with his frequent collaborators Marilyn & Alan Bergman.
More successes followed with movie scores and Broadway shows such as A Chorus Line and They’re Playing Our Song, the latter written with his then-companion Carole Bayer Sager.
Sadly, Marvin Hamlisch passed away on the morning of August 6, 2012 after a brief illness. He was scheduled to be in Nashville only days later for a showing of The Nutty Professor, a Broadway-bound play he scored that stars Jerry Lewis. The following interview took place in the fall of 1995, just after Hamlisch stepped off stage from conducting a special Rodgers & Hammerstein concert with the Pittsburgh symphony. He will be enormously missed, and we are all so grateful for the music he left us. What a gift.
I’ve read that when you begin a song, you like to start with a rhythm. Can you elaborate on that?
What I like to begin with really is if a lyricist has a title, or an idea for a song. It’s hard for me to just sit down at the piano and noodle along and come up with something. But when you are given a gift of a title like “The Way We Were,” which is such a great title, you’re off and running. Certain titles are just very, very strong. Sometimes a lyricist might have an idea for a song, maybe they don’t have a title but they have a feel for it. So I like to do it that way. I also work best if the lyricist and I are in the room together.
Using They’re Playing Our Song as an example, can you describe the first steps you take when writing a musical?
I think, number one, the most important advice I can give someone – because I’ve made this mistake (laughs) – is if you’re going to write a musical, it’s very important that you absolutely love that musical. And that the reason you’re writing it is because you really love it as opposed to the reason you’re writing it is that even though it’s not a great idea, you have a possibility of getting it on. There are a lot of people around who can get things on. There aren’t that many who can love what they’re getting on. So if you’re going to have to make a decision one way or the other, go for the one that says, I love doing this and I must get this out of my system, as opposed to, I’m not really crazy about this, but they’ve got the millions of dollars for it, so we might as well do it. In the case of They’re Playing Our Song, it was a situation in which we had Neil Simon and a very funny book. Carol [Bayer Sager] and I basically tended to write a song almost every weekend, and we would think almost chronologically. We started with the first song and went on. That was probably the easiest show I’ve ever written in my life, but I didn’t have the sort of total commitment and love of it that I had for A Chorus Line. Though, having said that, so many people come up to me all the time and tell me how much they loved They’re Playing Our Song.
Tell me about writing A Chorus Line.
I was very blessed on Chorus Line with a lot of things. First of all, I knew that Michael Bennett was a genius, so I felt very confident. If you walk in and you know the director’s brilliant, you figure to yourself, if I make a mistake, he’ll tell me I made a mistake and he’ll get me back on track. Number two, he’d put me with a brilliant lyricist that I really adored. That’s a very important thing. I think you have to like the person who writes the lyrics, not just like his work, but that you genuinely like him. Although it didn’t hurt Gilbert and Sullivan any (laughs). But the way that the show was written is that it was a very character driven show. It wasn’t written in the normal way where you write everything then come to rehearsal. We may have gone into rehearsal with maybe one song, and as the show was put into workshop, we just kept coming up with new ideas for it.
We recently spoke to Jerry Herman [who wrote Hello Dolly] and he talked about trying to capture the sense of a character musically.
Absolutely, I think that’s something that show composers do innately. If you ask a costume designer what they do first, they tend to think, where’s the setting, what’s the period of the piece, then they get all the books about Paris 1930 or whatever, and that’s how they see it. In a way, that’s what composers do. They have to dress their characters in the musical language of the period. It’s trying to get a certain rhythm of the characters so that when you go in and out of dialogue, you don’t feel like two people have sung as opposed to one. It’s a continuum. I think that one thing that’s happened that’s a big difference between the shows of today and the shows of before – I think that in the really great shows, whether it be Carousel, Oklahoma or My Fair Lady, there was an importance that was put on to the music and lyrics. There’s been a total change, and it’s not a change for the better, whereby now the book of the musical has become much more important than the score. A show can now come out with a book that people care about with a so-so score and be a big hit. But a show that comes out with a wonderful score and a so-so book, I don’t believe is going to be a hit.
Why is that?
People care much more about the characters in these shows. They care about whether there’s a song they can take away from the theatre, but if there’s not, it’s forgiven.
What do you think makes one of those melodies that people can take away from the theatre?
I think there are two things. Most good melodies have a certain yearning quality to them and a certain leap towards something. They tend to be melodies that look upward and try hard (laughs). They keep searching. “If Ever I Would Leave You” is a good example (sings the upward reaching melody). But I also think there’s magic between a good song and the person who does it. “Some Enchanted Evening” – when Ezio Pinza did that, it was perfection. I truly believe that as much as I love “The Way We Were,” and I think it’s a great song, but I also think that if it hadn’t come from a movie and Barbra Streisand hadn’t sung it, it would’ve been a great song that no one ever heard. There’s a marriage between song and performer. A good song doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to hear it. It just means it’s a good song.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t write like anybody. Try to find your voice.
—By Bill DeMain