Tuned In: The life of Marvin Hamlisch on ‘American Masters’

PBS series looks at late composer’s work and legacy

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The late Marvin Hamlisch, leader of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Pops for 17 years, conducted orchestras in multiple cities but his widow, Terre Blair Hamlisch, said Pittsburgh was his favorite.

"He had his strongest connection there," she said in an interview in August before a press conference for PBS's "American Masters" program, "Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love" (9 p.m. Friday, WQED-TV). "Sometimes he would think about slowing down in [the conducting] area so he could compose more but he would always say, 'I'll never give up Pittsburgh.'"

Mr. Hamlisch died in August 2012 at age 68, leaving a musical legacy that's explored in Friday's 90-minute "American Masters" production, from the success of "A Chorus Line" and the theme from "Ice Castles" to the disappointing receptions for Broadway shows "Smile" and "Sweet Smell of Success."

"Sometimes he would get frustrated about it if [a show] didn't receive the critical approval, but he kept writing," Mrs. Hamlisch said later during the PBS press conference. "He was all about the process. He just kept writing."

She asked him if he was frustrated about the response to "Sweet Smell," which interviewees in the film suggest was too dark to debut just six months after the attacks of 9/11.

"He said, 'You know what, different timing for different things. Things come back at different times when they're ready, when people hear it differently or when the timing is right,' " Mrs. Hamlisch recalled. "And I think he was very calm, but during that period, he said to me, 'I'm okay with this. I think people will remember me as the people's composer.' "

And that he most certainly was. Mr. Hamlisch was a world-class conductor and composer -- the film describes how he composed a song for "A Chorus Line" based on meeting the actress who would sing it -- but he was also an entertainer who could charm a crowd.

"The musical ability plus the ability to connect to people is rare," Mrs. Hamlisch said. "But if you think about it, he was the personal pianist to Groucho Marx at a very young age, so he had that exposure to Groucho Marx for comic timing."

As for the musical aspect, Mr. Hamlisch heard music everywhere.

"If he heard the wind or a breeze in the trees, he could tell you what note it was," Mrs. Hamlisch said. "He could tell you the [note made by the] screech of a tire"

Mrs. Hamlisch said at heart her husband was a composer first and foremost.

"That's what he was born to do," she said. "He said to me, 'I am the luckiest person in the world because I get to do what I love.'"

At the time of his death, Mr. Hamlisch was in an extraordinarily prolific period, Mrs. Hamlisch said. He had finished the score to HBO's Liberace movie, "Behind the Candelabra" and he'd found a collaborator in Rupert Holmes, who wrote the lyrics for "Music in my Mind" -- a song on a CD in Mr. Hamlisch's 2012 children's book, "Marvin Makes Music" -- and for a stage adaptation of "The Nutty Professor."

The "American Masters" program, written and directed by Dori Berinstein, includes interviews with Mr. Holmes, singer Lucie Arnaz, "Sweet Smell" star John Lithgow, music producer Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand and Mrs. Hamlisch, who recounts her courtship with Mr. Hamlisch (her housekeeper set them up).

"Marvin announced we were engaged in Pittsburgh, so my entire marriage has grown with the Pittsburgh Symphony," Mrs. Hamlisch said. "We got married in '89 so this was a concert before he took the Pops directorship. He was performing and I was in the balcony and he pointed up and said, 'That's the lady I'm going to marry.' Still today there are people who have subscriptions who come up to me and say, 'I was there when he did that.'"

She recalled the PSO's January tribute concert to her late husband.

"They announced his name and all the audience had to hear was the word 'Marvin' and, I've never experienced anything like it, I looked out from behind the curtain and there was everyone standing," Mrs. Hamlisch said, her voice wavering with emotion. "They were holding each other and crying and the musicians stood and turned and looked at his picture. There was such profound, deep love in that hall for Marvin Hamlisch.

"All I could silently tell myself, tell Marvin, was, this is how much you were loved," she said. "It was really deep. The ... I couldn't catch my breath because I've never felt the kind of feeling I felt in that concert hall. That's how special Pittsburgh was."

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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