How Composer Marvin Hamlisch Strutted His Soul

Marvin Hamlisch — a tribute. Behind his CPA exterior lay a soul that strutted like a peacock. He had a piano with 88 keys and a mind with 888 opinions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Twenty years ago, Woody Weingarten talked with composer Marvin Hamlisch, who just died at age 68. This is a slightly edited version of the tribute he filed shortly after that one-on-one interview.

Marvin Hamlisch dresses as if he’s first in line for a sale on invisibility.

The composer’s gray, gray suit looks like it had been pressed only minutes ago. His crisp pink tie attempts to disappear in the pale same-hue shirt on which it reclines. Although his black slip-ons are perfectly buffed, they somehow don’t reflect the light.

Behind that CPA exterior, however, is a soul that struts like a peacock.

Marvin Hamlisch, who by the age of 31 had won three Oscars and a Pulitzer, talks at first like a mama’s boy.

His eyes twinkle from behind rimless glasses and his thick lips curl into an industrial size grin when he describes Lilly.

“I had two wonderful parents,” he begins an interview in a San Francisco hotel suite, but when asked if he has a favorite anecdote, he draws laughter with a quick one-liner: “My mother was a Jewish anecdote.”

“She was the ultimate Jewish mother,” he continues. “When my father came home, she had a meal ready. 'Eat, eat, eat.'”

Lilly and Marvin’s father, Max, taught their boy prodigy to love his music and his Jewishness. Because both had fled Nazi terrorism in Europe, however, they suggested he downplay his heritage.

But Marvin Hamlisch advertises his ethnicity. Like Barbra Streisand, whom he’s worked with, he has his original nose. Like Sandy Koufax, Hall of Famer who also balanced his background against his career, he won’t work on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

Marvin Hamlisch has a piano with 88 keys and a mind with 888 opinions. Ask him a simple question and his mouth starts a marathon.

On cultural lines, for instance: “I feel ecumenical. I don’t like thinking of things being Jewish, Moslem, whatever. A piano is a piano — here, in China, in Tibet. Music is universal. I’m writing for everybody.”

Regarding his best-known creation, Chorus Line, the composer says he particularly enjoys when someone refers to it as “classic Hamlisch.”

In most other instances, Marvin Hamlisch hates to look back. So the man whose career hit a low when his musical Jean bombed in New York not long ago has climbed a new rocket, one with dual exhaust.

First, he’s peddling The Way I Was, a 234-page autobiography from Scribners written with the aid of Gerald Gardner.

It’s unlikely to become a smash because there’s no sex or violence, no kiss-and-tell sizzle.

“I have no desire to talk about old girlfriends,” Hamlisch says. “Why would I want to hurt my wife, to hurt myself, with that crap.”

Besides, he comments, “I hardly ever dated anybody. I had no high school sweethearts because I was working — zoom, off to here; whoosh, off to there.  My mind was always on one thing: ‘Get to Broadway.’”

Writing a book is a learning experience, he says. “It’s very cathartic. You let yourself off the hook for your mistakes.”

Hamlisch’s other new venture is a $7 million show, a musical adaptation of Neil Simon’s Goodbye Girl for Broadway.

“We haven’t had a musical-comedy in a long time,” he says, “and we’ve got comedy up the wazoo.”

Hamlisch worries, though, about the future of big-time theater. “I pray that Broadway will be here a generation from now. Look how many are not going to the theater. It’s too expensive. It’s becoming elitist entertainment. It costs $65 a person, plus dinner, plus parking — if everything goes right, if you get your car back, if you don’t get mugged.”

It’s becoming tougher and tougher, too, to find backers for shows. “Revivals are great for producers,” he notes. “They can raise the $5- or $6 million in a second. But for a new show, you have to audition, you have to play music out of context for very rich people. It’s a degrading way of working.” 

Once things get under way, however, everybody lightens up. “I’m a team player, part of a mosaic. I like it when the whole thing works,” says Hamlisch, who contends that “everything I write is in pencil. I’ll change anything —until we open.”

As for what he wants out of it all, it’s not money, it’s not fame. “My writing will give me, God willing, a legacy,” he says.

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