Hearing the news of Marvin Hamlisch’s sudden passing, I am suddenly awash in the sound of his music and the flood of tears unleashed by its memory. There are movies that would not have been the same without it, and a Broadway musical that will never be forgotten for it.
But what Hamlisch perhaps played best was the human heartstrings, plucking at our emotions one by one, ranging across the octaves of sadness and joy, letting the feelings resonate for as long as he dared.
Three Oscars, a Tony, four Emmys, four Grammys — they seem now the briefest of nods, insufficient for a lifetime’s work of filling our films, Broadway musicals and TV shows with his artistry.
A composer who began his studies in earnest at age 7 at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, Hamlisch was, at heart, a piano man.
Playing for Broadway rehearsals paid the bills of the young composer and gave him the street smarts he would need to navigate the theater world.
The piano also defined some of his best work: He made the instrument seem to dance with his impossibly effervescent adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime for Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s fast-moving ’30s Chicago con in “The Sting.”
His skill at adapting other people’s music would win him one of three Oscars in 1974, a night that he owned, sweeping all of the academy’s music categories.
He also picked up song and original score Oscars for “The Way We Were,” starring Redford and Barbra Streisand. It was an acknowledgment by his peers that as adept as Hamlisch was in creating a sensation with one song, he had a facility for the many moods and interludes of an entire score.
Humanity was his muse, pop culture his guilty pleasure, and the music reflected his deep affection for both.
The Hamlisch style was expansive, not singular. It had as many faces as the movies that it enriched, its character and style as varied. It was laced with the ironic alongside Woody Allen’s own arched eyebrow in 1969’s “Take the Money and Run,” and it went bananas when Allen went “Bananas” a few years later.
Some critics would chalk up Hamlisch’s appeal to a kitsch factor. Others would argue he understood better than most how to ride the cultural zeitgeist. Regardless, his songs were consistently commercial, many of the movie themes spiraling into major hits.
“Nobody Does It Better,” sung by Carly Simon, with Carole Bayer Sager’s lyrics, stayed at the top of the charts for weeks. Filled with mournful regret, it anchored the 1977 James Bond thriller “The Spy Who Loved Me,” and captured the ambivalence of a country not yet ready to let go of Cold War-styled heroes but still divided and angry about Vietnam.
Movies came to dominate his life, but he never forgot that Broadway was his first creative home. He would return to the theater over the years. The Public Theater in 1975 would be the first stage for the seminal musical “A Chorus Line.”
He saturated the clash between a demonically brilliant director and the dreams of young hopefuls of James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante’s book, and Edward Kleban’s lyrics, in passion and pathos. It still stands as one of the longest-running hits on Broadway, and he shared the Pulitzer for drama in 1976 with his collaborators.
Hamlisch, who died Monday at age 68, loved the lighter side of things too, and he had a way of giving a shape as well as sound to a film’s sensibility. He turned sly with 2009’s “The Informant!,” right in step with Matt Damon’s wily whistle-blower.
He brought a prankishness to 2009’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” and went soft in just the right spots for Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino’s rocky romance in 1991’s “Frankie and Johnny.”
What he did so well was to wrap a film in the fabric of his music. In “Sophie’s Choice,” with Meryl Streep’s tortured Sophie slowly breaking, you can feel the pain of a child’s death, a mother’s impossible grief, in every note.
Hamlisch stacked up so many credits across so many genres it is hard to believe he ever stopped to breathe. You might think someone so driven, so prolific, would grow hard and cold from all the nights of trench warfare of any creative venture.
Instead, he thrived. By all counts he was a gentleman to the end. A quick smile, a kind spirit, a spine of steel. A man who never over-promised and always over-delivered. And yet he moved so effortlessly, so inventively, across film, theater and TV, he rarely made waves, at least not of the destructive sort, and as a result Hamlisch left as many friends and admirers as songs and scores in his wake.
In some cases, Hamlisch simply found the perfect note that would add another layer to the movie, musical or sitcom. At other times, his song is all that I remember. Almost nothing of 1978’s “Ice Castles” stays with me, but “Through the Eyes of Love” is playing in my mind as I write. It is Melissa Manchester’s voice and Sager’s lyrics that I hear. But everything else — the emotion, the rise and fall of the instruments as they follow the tonal shifts, the way it conjures up that time in my life, the people, the places — now that is the Hamlisch touch.