Obituary: Marvin Hamlisch / Award-winning and beloved composer, conductor Charismatic maestro
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Marvin Hamlisch was considering the re-emergence of a song from his past when he summed up his life in music.
"The truth of the matter is as a composer, you hope you're going to leave something behind besides the American Express bill," he said in 2010. "So that makes you feel you've succeeded on some level to at least have some sort of a legacy. I always say, you go into the elevator, you hear your music, you have to be perfectly happy."
Mr. Hamlisch, 68, composer of "The Way We Were," "A Chorus Line" and that 1965 hit, "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," left music and memories for the ages. The charismatic leader of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops since 1995 died Monday of an undisclosed illness in Los Angeles.
Michael Bielski was still processing news of the death of his close friend Tuesday when he said that the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops 2012-13 season would go on as programmed but no other decisions had been made. Mr. Hamlisch had been set to conduct four concerts, including the Sept. 29 opener featuring "Glee" 's Matthew Morrison.
"He was, is, a close friend. Sometimes you forget because he's such a warm person, you forget he's Marvin Hamlisch," said Mr. Bielski, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's vice president and chief operating officer.
PSO English horn player and jazz pianist Harold Smoliar, who shared Mr. Hamlisch's love of baseball, said of his friend, "He was a mensch."
Mr. Hamlisch's music prowess put him on a lofty list among only 12 people to have earned Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and a Tony. He is one of only two to have won those honors and a Pulitzer Prize; the other is Richard Rodgers. The Tony and Pulitzer came for "A Chorus Line," while he was embraced by Hollywood for his work on movies including "The Sting," "The Way We Were" and "Sophie's Choice."
He also charmed fans as a conductor all over the world, including Heinz Hall, where since 1994 audiences have witnessed his joy of music and musicianship. His presence attracted some of Broadway and pop music's biggest talents to Pittsburgh, including Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Barbara Cook, Bebe Neuwirth, Burt Bacharach, Shirley Jones and Neil Sedaka.
His friend Barbra Streisand, a collaborator in songwriting and concerts, told BroadwayWorld.com that she was devastated at the loss of the friend she first met in 1963, when he was her rehearsal pianist for "Funny Girl." "When I think of him now, it was his brilliantly quick mind, his generosity and delicious sense of humor that made him a delight to be around," she said. "Just [Monday] night, I was trying to reach him, to tell him how much I loved him, and that I wanted to use an old song of his, that I had just heard for the first time. He was a true musical genius, but above all that, he was a beautiful human being. I will truly miss him."
Liz Callaway, the Tony nominee who starred in "Sunset Boulevard" for Pittsburgh CLO recently, was due to join Mr. Hamlisch in a gala for the Pasadena Symphony and Pops next month. She was planning her trip there when she looked at Facebook and saw the news.
"I talked to him maybe five months ago. He didn't do email. You would get him for 30 seconds, and it was almost like a tornado. Marvin, conversation, and that would be it," she said by phone, noting that he and his wife, Terre, had recently moved near her family in Westchester, N.Y.
"He had so much energy, and he was such a great entertainer. I don't know how he's going to be replaced with all the symphonies he works with because no one has that kind of personality."
An outpouring of condolences and anecdotes came from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians, who kept pace with his ever-changing programs, a habit he sometimes referred to as "Cuts R Us."
"The power failure at Lincoln Park just before our last show with him was about to begin brought to the fore all the best in him: his ability to think on his feet, making up words and music just for the occasion," said PSO violist Penny Brill. "He held a flashlight for the soloist while our pianist of the evening played something unplanned for the audience. The experience was a special treat for everyone in the hall that night."
The multifaceted creator-entertainer was transformational for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's fortunes, Mr. Bielski said.
"Pops has been around since Arthur Fiedler back in the 1930s created it for the Boston Pops -- he turned it into an experience for our audience. And it was no longer just a pops concert, it was a show, it was an event. It was something you not only looked forward to coming to, you left talking about it because you know that you have just experienced something.
"The people that come to our pops concert, that is their Pittsburgh Symphony experience. We are a great orchestra and we tour around the world and we have a great music director and great artists come in and play, but all sorts of populations come in and hear what they want to hear, whether it be Fiddlesticks or Pops. And I think what Marvin allowed to happen ... was audiences not only experienced his greatness and his world, but opened up audiences to the Pittsburgh Symphony. To me, that was a gift in terms of keeping the Pittsburgh Symphony alive and strong for this community. He's really one of kind."
Besides Pittsburgh, Mr. Hamlisch was principal pops conductor for orchestras in Milwaukee, Dallas, Pasadena, Seattle and San Diego. He was to be announced to the same position with the Philadelphia Orchestra and also was due to lead the New York Philharmonic during its upcoming New Year's Eve concert.
When in Pittsburgh, he was energetic in community outreach and especially generous with music and theater students, with whom he donated his time, expertise and tough love.
"America's lost a national treasure," said Ron Lindblom, associate vice president and artistic director of the Point Park Conservatory of Performing Arts. "It's just heartbreaking and shocking; I saw him 90 days ago. I hope our students know how fortunate they were to have been able to spend time with him."
In January, the conductor was hospitalized briefly after he felt faint during a Heinz Hall concert and left the stage at the end of the second half of the performance. He was said to be feeling better and joking that evening.
Mr. Hamlisch was scheduled to fly to Nashville, Tenn., this week to see a production of his musical "The Nutty Professor," his spokesman told AP. He had been at work on a musical adaptation of the Jerry Lewis comedy, and he was also working on a new musical, "Gotta Dance" and was writing the score for the HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra," about the life of Liberace.
Mr. Hamlisch was blessed with perfect pitch and an infallible ear. "I heard sounds that other children didn't hear," he wrote in his autobiography.
The native New Yorker was a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and Queens College. He attended Professional Children's School, a New York junior high school where his classmates included Christopher Walken, Leslie Uggams and the boyfriend of a young Liza Minnelli, for whom Mr. Hamlisch wrote some songs. His first hit came when Lesley Gore recorded "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," which resurfaced in the 2009 film "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." Early film scores include the Woody Allen films "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas."
"What I Did for Love" is a Hamlisch composition that could describe his career in music. The song is part of the acclaimed "A Chorus Line," the longest-running show on Broadway until surpassed by "Cats" in 1997 and the fifth longest-running Broadway show ever.
Broadway theaters will dim their lights at 8 p.m. today to honor Mr. Hamlisch, who also composed the score for the musical "They're Playing Our Song," loosely based on his relationship with Carole Bayer Sager.
"Marvin Hamlisch's accomplishments in the theater and film worlds are legendary," said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League. "He left an everlasting mark with the groundbreaking 'A Chorus Line'"
Mr. Hamlisch had already conquered Hollywood when he came to Broadway. He was the composer of movie scores including his Oscar-winning score and song for 1973's "The Way We Were" and his adaptation of Scott Joplin's music for "The Sting," for which he received a third Oscar.
Mr. Hamlisch was nominated for Emmy Awards seven times, winning four. The first two, in 1995, were for HBO's "Barbra: the Concert," where he took the prize for individual achievement in musical direction, as well as achievement in music and lyrics, shared with lyricists Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, for the song, "Ordinary Miracles."
In 1989, Mr. Hamlisch married Terre Blair, a television interviewer. In a 1992 interview with People magazine, he credited her with "bringing out all the good things in me. I found myself quieting down, becoming more understanding of what life means."
First Published August 8, 2012 12:00 am