Nobody Did It Better: Memories of Marvin Hamlisch, 1944-2012

The Oscar-, Tony-, Emmy-, Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning composer is dead at 68

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Marc Dimov / / Sipa USA

Marvin Hamlisch at the American Cancer Society Celebration Of Life Spring Benefit held at St. Regis Roof in New York City, May 24, 2011.

“I had to beg her to sing it.” The “I” was Marvin Hamlisch, the “her” Barbra Streisand, the “it” the theme song he had composed for her 1973 romantic drama The Way We Were. It would prove the most popular number for either of them. And when news of Hamlisch’s death yesterday, in Los Angeles, at 68 after a brief illness, spread to Americans of a certain age, “The Way We Were” was probably the song they automatically started humming in tribute to a protean pop composer.

In 1973 Hamlisch was 29, Streisand 31, and both had achieved early success — Barbra sensationally, as a recording artist and Broadway and movie star, Marvin as a musical prodigy. At seven he was the youngest musician to be admitted to Juilliard; 10 years later he was playing for Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli; and at 19 he was Streisand’s rehearsal pianist in her breakout show Funny Girl. For Lesley Gore he had written two pop hits: the perky 2/4 love song “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” and the Beach Boys-derived “California Nights.” At 24 he composed his first movie score, for The Swimmer, and found a dry, wry musical tone to match Woody Allen’s temperament in the comedian’s first two films as writer-director-star, Take the Money and Run and Bananas. He’d been Oscar-nominated for a song, “Life Is What You Make It,” written with the great Johnny Mercer. So Hamlisch was not some nobody proposing an anthem for Queen Barbra.

(READ the 1964 Barbra Streisand cover by subscribing to TIME)

How could Streisand have resisted, even briefly, “The Way We Were”? The lyric, by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, instantly conjures the ecstasy and frictions in the decades-long romance of Streisand’s movie character with Robert Redford’s: “Memories / Light the corners of my mind, / Misty watercolor memories / Of the way we were.” Hamlisch’s opening musical phrase is an instant hook for a pop diva; it taffy-pulls the word memories into a long, slow, minor-key elegy that allows the vocalist to inhabit the retrospective yearning for a complicated love. After the whisper of a bridge — “If we had the chance to do it all again, / Tell me would we? Could we?” — the melody explodes into a power-pop orgasm (“When we remember….”), then subsides into post-coital reflection of “the way we were.” Start to finish, a perfect Streisand ballad.

So she recorded the song, it became her first top-of-the-charts smash, and the movie was a hit, amassing six Academy Award nominations, including one for Streisand as best actress. On Oscar night, though, Hamlisch was the star. Not only did he win Best Dramatic Score for The Way We Were, and share the Best Original Song prize with the Bergmans, but his application of Scott Joplin’s elegant ragtime music to another Redford movie, The Sting, earned the composer a third Oscar in the peculiar category of “Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation.” All right, the use of Joplin’s turn-of-the-century rags in a movie set in the 1930s was mulishly inappropriate, but the film and the soundtrack albums had been immensely popular. And Hamlisch was on a roll.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s 1973 review of The Way We Were)

What do you do for an encore after winning three Oscars in one night? Compose the music for the signature Broadway show of your era. A Chorus Line opened July 25, 1975, and rang up 6,137 performances — the longest Broadway run until Cats slinked past it in 1997. The collective testimony of faceless dancers in a musical showcase for some big star (never seen), A Chorus Line won renown for Michael Bennett, its director and choreographer; but the songs by Hamlisch and Edward Kleban nailed all the ambition (“I Hope I Get It”) and drive (“I Can Do That”) of young artists who are both addicted to their discipline since youth (“At the Ballet”) and glumly aware of their slim chances at finding jobs (“Dance, Ten; Looks, Three”) in which they’d serve as anonymous backup to the headliner (“One,” a dark parody of the Jerry Herman song “Mame”). Hamlisch, seemingly spouting hit melodies at will, found a luscious gravity in his setting for Kleban’s “What I Did for Love”: “Kiss today goodbye / And point me toward tomorrow. / We did what we had to do. / Won’t forget, can’t regret / What I did for love.” Like “The Way We Were,” the song describes the mixed feelings in a backward glance at a grand emotion.

A Chorus Line helped make Hamlisch one of only two people (Oscar Hammerstein II being the other) to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, an Emmy and the Pulitzer Prize. The music-school dweeb was now a frequent talk-show guest, bantering easily with Johnny Carson. And with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, his girlfriend at the time, he wrote “Nobody Does It Better” for The Spy Who Loved Me; that number, which went to no. 2 in Carly Simon’s 1977 rendition, remains the definitively saucy theme song of the James Bond films. Hamlisch and Sager collaborated on other late-’70s hits with long melodic lines and bluesy bridges: “Break It to Me Gently,” a no. 1 R&B charter for Aretha Franklin, and “If You Remember Me,” a top-10 hit for Chris Thompson.

(LIST: All-TIME 100 Songs)

Hummable pop tunes are nice, but the kid from Juilliard had more serious loves: movie underscoring, Broadway composing and orchestral concert work. His symphony Anatomy of Peace, which premiered in Dallas in 1991, was based on a 1946 book by Emery Reves, a proponent of world federalism; the piece begins in cacophony and soars in hope toward universal harmony. Hamlisch also continued working as a movie composer, earning eight more nominations in the two decades between The Spy Who Loved Me and Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces but winning no more Oscars.

On Broadway, he was one of the few composers of his generation with both academic cred and platinum records. His score with Sager for They’re Playing Our Song (loosely based on the Hamlisch-Sager affair) propelled that Neil Simon musical to a two-year run, from 1979 to 1981. His finest later score was for another Simon project, The Goodbye Girl, with Martin Short taking the part Richard Dreyfuss had played in the 1977 movie, and Bernadette Peters the Marsha Mason role. That 1993 show bubbled with infectious melodies, but the time when Broadway songs became hit singles had long passed. The 1986 Smile and the 2002 Sweet Smell of Success, two other Hamlisch shows based on old movies, added little to the composer’s canon. His latest score, for a Broadway version of the Jerry Lewis (and Eddie Murphy) comedy The Nutty Professor, was trying out in Nashville when Hamlisch died. He is survived by his wife Terre Blair Hamlisch, a former TV news personality.

(READ: Corliss on the Hamlisch musical of Sweet Smell of Success)

Today, Streisand issued a fond farewell to the friend who “played at my wedding in 1998… and recently for me at a benefit for women’s heart disease…. [W]hen 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. Just last 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.”

Like so many prodigies, Hamlisch spent the first half of his too-brief life compiling a brilliant résumé and the second half replaying it. But for younger listeners with open ears, there is a rich oeuvre to be heard for the first time — so many fine songs to be registered in the mind’s iPod, so many ballads about first loves, lost loves and bittersweet memories. Decades after Rodgers and Hammerstein and other musical legends had died, Marvin Hamlisch was one of the last balladeers to the stars. In a certain form, and for a long time, nobody did it better.