Hamlisch, Marvin (Contemporary Musicians)
"I think we can now talk to each other as friends." With those words, Marvin Hamlisch accepted his third Oscar of the night. On April 12, 1974, he won for best score adaptation ("The Sting"), best original score ("The Way We Were") and best song ("The Way We Were," with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman). Recordings of that music were later honored at the Grammy Awards, at which he was also named best new artist. He is the composer of the longest-running musical in the history of Broadway, two other shows, and hundreds of individual songs, and is, thanks to that memorable Oscar evening, one of the best-recognized song-writers of our time.
Hamlisch grew up with melodic songs in New York City, since his father was an accordionist whose band of fellow Austro-Hungarian emigres played Viennese and American popular music. He was trained at the Juilliard School of Music (Pre-College Division) after a successful audition at the age of seven in which he transposed "Goodnight Irene" on the keyboard. He has often credited both Juilliard and Queens College of the City University of New York with both his musical education and his early career, since both were flexible schools that allowed him to work as an accompanist and song-writer. He told the New York Times in 1983 that "despite a wild absentee record,. . . the teachers [at Queens] bent over backwards not to make it difficult for me. My first movie score, for The Swimmer,' was accepted by my teacher, Gabriel Fontrier, as a class project in place of the required string quartet." Hamlisch's first professional songs were written for Liza Minnelli when they were in high school, and his first major hit, "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," was recorded by the equally youthful Lesley Gore. He combined his musical education with professional training in arranging and orchestration from the celebrated "Bell Telephone Hour" conductor Donald Vorhees while working for three years as a rehearsal pianist on that NBC show. He later described that experience as "terrific . . . because you're doing different music every week: Lena Home, Edward Villella, Leontyne Price." At 18, Hamlisch served as assistant to famed vocal arranger Buster Davis for "Fade Out - Fade In" and the Barbra Streisand hit musical comedy "Funny Girl."
Following his score for "The Swimmer" in 1968, Hamlisch relocated to Hollywood and quickly found success in all of the varied jobs of providing music for films. He scored, arranged, orchestrated, or supervised music for many comedies, among them Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run" (1969) and the contemporary dramas "Save the Tiger" (1973) and "Kotch" (1971). His song from the latter, "Life is What You Make It," with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, earned Hamlisch his first Oscar nomination. Hamlisch created music and orchestrations for his first Broadway show, "Minnie's Boys" (1970), a tribute to the Marx Brothers, and toured as pianist and straight man for Groucho Marx between film assignments.
"The Way We Were" was not only a succesful title song for the Barbra Streisand bittersweet comedy film, it was also a major recording success for Streisander first million-selling single. But that song of the year was not Hamlisch's only hit of the year. His arrangements of the rags of turn-of-the-century composer Scott Joplin for the Paul Newman/Robert Redford comedy, "The Sting" (1973), won major awards and had sales of over three million albums. Hamlisch's lush orchestrations of the piano rags has been credited with reviving interest in Joplin's music, which has regained its rightful place in American music and has since been re-published and recorded in its original versions.
These multiple awards were eclipsed in 1975 when "A Chorus Line" won all of the available Tonys and Drama Critics' Circle awards and became only the third musical in history to be granted a Pulitzer Prize. From the first previews at the Public Theatre in May to the Broadway opening the next fall to the audience that saw the still-running show last night, there is no question that "A Chorus Line" is a brilliant combining of text, music, and movement. Clive Barnes, who began his New York Times review with "the conservative word for 'A Chorus Line' might be tremendous," described Hamlisch's contribution as "occasionally hummable and often quite cleverly drops into a useful buzz of dramatic recitative." The show, which recreates the audition process through a series of solos and group songs, depends on the "recitatives" that Hamlisch supported with his music. From the exuberant "I Can Do That" to the three concurrent female solos that make up "Everything's Beautiful at the Ballet" to the opening dance routine that begins the show in the middle of a bar, Hamlisch's music was considered perfection. Two songs became popular outside of the show's context. The finale, which presents all of the characters in the show for which they are competing, became succesful as "One Singular Sensation." The anthem of the show, set as a personal finale for the dancers, "What I Did for Love," became a hit single for Jack Jones, Johnny Mathis, and Andy Williams, among many other pop singers. It is performed as a general lament for the love of a person, although in the show it refers to sacrifices made for love of performance. Ironically, it became the most popular song for auditions for many years. "A Chorus Line" is still running on Broadway, has been seen in over twenty countries on stage, became a motion picture (1985), and has been recorded by Columbia. For many members of the audience, Hamlisch's score represents the Broadway musical.
Hamlisch has created two other musicals for Broadway. "They're Playing Our Song" (1979), loosely based on his relationship with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, had a succesful run and national tour. It provided stars Robert Klein and Lucie Amaz with songs created to fit their conversational singing styles, but the title song, in which they, as a composer/lyricist couple, continually interrupt each other's thoughts to draw attention to their successes, won popularity as a jazz and pop instrumental. His third musical, "Smile" (1986), based on the satiric film comedy of that name, was less succesful. As in "A Chorus Line," Hamlisch set himself the difficult task of recreating an unsucessful performance eventn this case the amateurish sounds of a "Young American Miss" state-wide competition in California. He also wrote a muscialized biography of actress Jean Seberg for performance at London's National Theatre in 1983. He compared the risks of that project to "A Chorus Line" in an interview with New York Times' Stephen Holden: "A project like 'Jean' seems awfully risky to a producer. . . . I have to keep reminding myself that 'A Chorus Line' was initially considered weird and off the wall. It was 'A Chorus Line' that convinced me that if you give an audience a theatrical moment, whether it's funny or mean or satiric, they'll accpet it as long as it's theatrical. You mustn't underestimate an audience's intelligence." Hamlisch has written often of his desire to continue writing muscials for the stage.
Film continues to be a major focus of Hamlisch's career. In an interview written shortly after the multi-Oscar evening, he told Joyce Wadler that "you work just as hard on a movie that turns out to be a bomb as you do on one that's a hit, and when the movie's over, it's unemployment time. But if you're any kind of artist, money is not your objective; the biggest thrill you can have is to tell people one of your songs and have them be able to hum it." The James Bond thriller, "The Spy Who Loved Me," featured Hamlisch's hummable music and the hit single for Carly Simon, "Nobody Does It Better." His score for the highly acclaimed film "Sophie's Choice" was also a succesful recording in 1985.
Among his many scores for major television projects are settings of two dramatic masterworksohn Osbourne's Americanization of "The Entertainer" for Jack Lemmon in 1976 and Tennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire" for Ann-Margaret in 1985nd the theme for ABC's daily "Good Morning, America." Hamlisch himself has been the subject of television specials by the BBC and the Public Broadcasting Service. He has also written successful individual songsne, "Break It to Me Gently," became the number one record on the rhythm and blues charts in 1977 as sung by Aretha Franklin.
Hamlisch's third career is as a performer and conductor with orchestras around the country and in Europe, among them the New York Philharmonic, the Minneapolis Symphony, and the Cleveland and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Appearing most often for charity concerts, he conducts his arrangements of Joplin rags, the overture from "A Chorus Line" and other Broadway shows, and his film scores. He occasionally provides the audiences with what he describes as "the onslaught" of his own voice and provides narrations in his unadulterated New York accent. When he appeared at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops, conducted by Skitch Henderson, he performed new songs that critic Will Crutchfield thought "brilliant," and "he commenced a series of parody songs that had everyone in stitches."
Hamlisch, who commutes between the coasts, began to teach at Juilliard in 1986, offering an Introduction to American Musical Theatre. Whether creating music for theatre, film, television, or his own voice, Hamlisch has proven his ability to compose songs that everyone can hum on demand.
The Way We Were (soundtrack), Columbia, 1973.
The Sting (soundtrack), MCA, 1974.
A Chorus Line (original cast recording), Columbia, 1975
Sophie's Choice (soundtrack), Southern Cross, 1985.
A Chorus Line (soundtrack), Casablanca, 1985.
New York Post, April 6, 1974.
New York Times, May 22, 1975; June 17, 1977; March 16, 1979; May 13, 1983; January 26, 1987
Village Voice, November 3, 1975.