Revisiting a feature on the late Marvin Hamlisch
-- Mark Meszoros | Entertainment@News-Herald.com | @nhfeatures
Marvelous Marvin Hamlisch
Composer felt ‘The Sting’ of music at early age
It was at the ripe old age of 5 that renowned composer Marvin Hamlisch first showed he had more than a few musical bones in his body.
However, it wasn’t he who was taking piano lessons but instead his older sister.
“When the teacher would leave, I would be able to go to the piano and emulate what she was learning, so people realized I had a good ear for music,” Hamlisch, 57, said during a recent telephone interview.
His father, an accordionist and bandleader, had him taking lessons soon after. At 7, Hamlisch earned admission into the famed Julliard School of Music. Although Julliard had divisions for different age groups, Hamlisch was one of the youngest ever to be admitted.
Despite his talent, he wasn’t destined to become a great pianist. It wasn’t for fear of crowds, either.
“I didn’t love the idea of playing pieces that other people could play better than I could,” he said. “You were always up against someone else who had recorded it and done it better.”
That’s how Hamlisch became focused on composing, something for which he also showed a knack at an early age.
“You can teach certain fundamental skills of writing, but you can’t teach that first spark, that thing that sets it off,” he said.
Of course, there are a lot of talented people out there, so even for a Marvin Hamlisch, it helped to know people. He knew Liza Minelli, who helped him land jobs as a rehearsal pianist for theater productions and a television show, “The Bell Telephone Hour.”
“And that really got me into show business,” Hamlisch said.
Best known for writing film scores, Hamlisch owes his break to his own gumption — and to being in the right place at the right time.
He received an offer to play piano at a party. It was the kind of gig he normally would have turned down.
“But it was for this very famous producer, Sam Speigel, who had done ‘On the Waterfront’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ so I thought I’d better say yes,” he said.
Wise move. At the party, Hamlisch learned Speigel was looking for someone to score an upcoming film based on the John Cheever story, “The Swimmer.” Hamlisch decided to take his shot.
“I read the book and came to him with my idea of what the main title would be,” Hamlisch said. “I did that totally on my own, and he totally flipped for it.”
The job of scoring “The Swimmer” was followed by many others. Hamlisch said his favorite score in terms of how it worked within the movie is the one for Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy, “Bananas,” while the scores for “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Way We Were” are his favorites in general.
“The Way We Were,” released in 1973, is a romantic comedy starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. The latter, at first, didn’t like Hamlisch’s title song, but it became one of her biggest hits. And, not only did the song win an Academy Award, but so did his entire score.
Streisand obviously changed her tune on Hamlisch, who served as musical director and arranger for her 1994 U.S. concert tour.
“She’s a real perfectionist, which is something I really like. I think she gets a real raw deal for being a perfectionist,” Hamlisch said. “Really, I think the reason we work so well together is we’re both perfectionists.”
Hamlisch’s second Oscar came for the music to “The Sting,” released the same year. The music wasn’t Hamlisch’s. Instead, the rags of Scott Joplin provide the movie’s musical component. “The Entertainer” is basically synonymous with the movie, thanks to Hamlisch.
He said there were many, many great Joplin numbers from which to choose.
“The part where you earn your keep is deciding what pieces to use,” he said.
Hamlisch’s proudest achievement was composing the music for “A Chorus Line,” which opened on Broadway in 1975.
“That was the thing I had always wanted to do … so when I got my opportunity, I wanted to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” he said.
Hamlisch won a Tony Award for “A Chorus Line,” an honor which he said beats his Oscars.
Although Hamlisch holds the position of principal pops conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., he is partnering with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra for a quick swing through Ohio. The three-city tour will include a show Sunday in Mentor, which will kick off the new season of the Mentor Performing Arts Concert Series.
Although Hamlisch has plenty of his own compositions from which to choose, the concert’s first half will consist tunes written by the likes of Cole Porter and Giacomo Puccini. The second half, on the other hand, will be all Hamlisch.
“Sometimes you get beaten up for the fact that you’re doing your own stuff,” he said. “I don’t like to get that criticism, so this is the easiest way to get around it.
“And I enjoy playing other music. I really do.”