It was late in September 2010, on the campus of Los Angeles' UCLA, where the esteemed composer had been working on a revised production of his 1979 musical They're Playing Our Song. He and I were both on our cell phones in the lobby a few minutes before the show was about to start. As if by serendipity, we hung up at the same time. As we both were headed back into the auditorium, I couldn't resist the opportunity to extend my hand to one of the men whose work had inspired me to pursue a career in music journalism and in musical theatre. He more than graciously accepted my handshake and words of thanks, kindly signed a program for me, and disappeared into the crowd. Still, I couldn't help but sneak a glance at him at his seat throughout the second act, supporting his leads Jason Alexander and Stephanie J. Block onstage as Vernon Gersch and Sonia Walsk. The character of Gersch is a neurotic composer with an otherworldly gift of melody, embroiled in a tempestuous romance with a free-spirited lyricist. In other words, Marvin Hamlisch was watching Neil Simon's musical comedy version of his own one-time relationship with Carole Bayer Sager unfold. He appeared to be enjoying every moment of it.
Marvin Hamlisch died yesterday at the age of 68, and it's hard to imagine that the day has come where we won't hear more new melodies from this gifted music man. The EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and Pulitzer Prize winner performed magic each time he got behind the keys of a piano. He composed the ultimate melodic expression of a long-gone love with "The Way We Were," channeled the nostalgic joy of ragtime with his adaptation of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," and taught the world "What I Did For Love" about an artist's passion against all odds. He bottled pure pop exultation with songs like "California Nights" and "Sunshine, Lollipops and Roses," and captivated with film scores from his first, The Swimmer, to the last, The Informant!. No, Hamlisch didn't do it all alone, collaborating with lyricists such as Alan and Marilyn Bergman ("The Way We Were"), Ed Kleban (A Chorus Line), Bayer Sager (They're Playing Our Song, "Nobody Does It Better"), Craig Carnelia (the stunningly mature musical Sweet Smell of Success) and Howard Ashman (Smile). He had only recently completed work with Rupert Holmes on a new musical adaptation of Jerry Lewis' film The Nutty Professor, currently playing in Nashville with an eye to Broadway. Holmes described his friend's new score as "Hamlisch at his best, with a number of deeply touching and timeless ballads." That's what Marvin Hamlisch excelled at: creating open-hearted melodies that lodged in the brain, but pierced the heart.
Around 1976, Hamlisch and Tim Rice wrote a song called "The Only Way to Go" for the television film The Entertainer. "Don't dig any deeper, what you get is what you see," Bing Crosby insouciantly sang in one of his last-ever recordings, in the persona of a carefree soul nearing the end of his days. There wasn't a need to dig any deeper to understand the universal, emotional, heart-on-its-sleeve music of Marvin Hamlisch; we were gifted - and lifted - with we saw, and what we heard, from this versatile composer, conductor, producer and performer.
Rest in peace, Mr. Hamlisch. Nobody did it better.