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BWW Special Coverage: The Genius of Marvin Hamlisch - What He Did, He Did For Love


PBS will close the 27th season of its critically-acclaimed American Masters series with a look at the life of one of stage and film's most prolific composers when Marvin Hamlisch: The Way He Was (working title) premieres on December 27, 2013. He was one of only two PEGOT winners ever, receiving a Pulitzer, four Emmys, four Grammys, three Oscars, and one Tony Award over the course of his distinguished musical career.

His legacy lives on in unforgettable musicals like A Chorus Line, They're Playing Our Song, and Sweet Smell of Success, and in the scores of classic films like The Way We Were, The Sting, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Sophie's Choice. Few were as gifted and as generous of spirit as Marvin Hamlisch, and now, filmmaker Dori Berinstein takes us behind the baton for an intimate portrait of this incredible artist.

A press conference to announce the documentary took place in Beverly Hills with a panel that included Berinstein, actress Lucie Arnaz, and Hamlisch's wife, Terre Blair Hamlisch, moderated by American Masters Creator & Executive Producer Susan Lacy,

To create the documentary, Berinstein conducted interviews with family members, friends, and celebrated colleagues saying, "Everyone I interviewed talked about how Marvin would sit down at the piano and just feel what the music should be. He was egoless about it. The show always came first. It wasn't about what great music he could write that was going to be a hit and get him recognition. It was always about the show and the artist, and how to make that artist shine. I heard that over and over again."

Arnaz called him "one of the most charming, funniest, most genuinely organically talented people I've ever met," and Blair Hamlisch added, "he was declared a genius at a very young age, and that kind of genius comes with a lot of layers. It comes with a childlike enthusiasm and a joy, and I think if you look at the history of that you'll find that it's complex."

Arnaz offered her own insight into Marvin's genius. "Before he died, he had written a book for children called Marvin Makes Music, and it is the true story of when he was a child and everything he heard sounded like a song to him; the sound of falling rain, lemonade..."

Blair Hamlisch smiled, "If he heard the wind, a breeze in the trees - he could tell you what note it was. He could tell you about the screech of a tire. He didn't hear like we would hear the screech of a tire. He would hear it with the exact note of it. 'That's an E-flat,' he would say. He could hear a fly like a 747."

While they were putting together They're Playing Our Song, Arnaz said that Hamlisch taught her so much, not only about how she should think of herself as a singer, but about how he wasn't attached to the outcome. "I was doing pretty well but I was stumbling over something in one song and the second time through this little area he asked me if I was having trouble navigating it in my voice. I said no, no I'll learn it. He said he could adjust the key for me, and I insisted, oh no, Marvin I can learn this and he joked, what do you think? I'm married to these notes? It doesn't matter Lucie. But I said I can hit that and he said, I don't care if you can hit it, I chose you because I like your voice and everybody's voice is different. Some are bassoons and some are violins and some are cellos, and you have to appreciate your voice. If the song works in the show the show's going to be a hit and everybody is happy and it's a win-win. But he didn't take it personally, which was great. Neither did Neil Simon. The geniuses don't."

When asked about whether he ever had challenges in his creative process, Blair Hamlisch remembers that he struggled while working on the Steven Soderbergh/Matt Damon film, The Informant. "Marvin had trouble breaking that one open and it was taking him longer than usual to complete the score. When it finally opened up for him was when he decided to write the score from the point of view of Matt Damon's bi-polar character and how he saw the world. All of a sudden the FBI was scored as kazoo players. The music could have gone a lot of ways but he chose the point of view from inside Matt Damon's head and he saw the FBI invading it as kazoo players. That's what he heard."

He was also known as a generous man, though few, including his wife, knew just how far his generosity stretched. She says, "After he died, we received tens of thousands of letters. I had no idea. I was married to him for 23 years and he didn't even tell me how many people he was helping. His generosity to others was amazing, and humbling."

His kindness also came as a surprise to Berinstein as well. "I was blown away by his giant heart and the stories," she said, "not just from celebrities and colleagues he worked with but literally stories like Marvin would get in a cab and, by the time he was uptown, he had committed to doing a benefit for the cab driver's son who was ill and needed money for surgery. Those stories were constantly coming out of the woodwork."

"It sounds cliché but it's true," his wife said. "He helped that many people. He found doctors for people. He helped children who were sick. He paid medical bills. It wasn't until recently that he turned around in the car and said, do you think people realize I never say no?"

She also hopes that one day people will get to hear some of her husband's unpublished works. "His library is floor to ceiling music. When we were going through his things we found the first musical he ever wrote, to The Glass Menagerie, and I believe it pre-dates 'Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows.' I believe he was 15 years old. Two musicologists have looked it over and said that the sophistication... it's incredible."

She also said that while her husband enjoyed doing film, his love was theater. "We have some wonderful clips of Marvin talking about that," says Berinstein. "With film it's shot," she explains. "He's in a room by himself and he's working with something that is done and he has to create a body of music that supports what is there. And with theater, he talks about how he's part of the creative team that is shaping it from the ground up. He's working off of a blank page and I think for Marvin that was really thrilling."

When asked how the biography might inspire other up-and-coming artists and what Hamlisch would say about his own body of work his wife paused and then replied with a final story. "He has a portrait that was just accepted in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. (it hasn't been hung yet) and they asked him which piece of music he wanted to have painted in his hand. He said, 'I think people will be surprised, Terre, because I chose 'What I Did for Love.' I think Marvin would want you to know that what he did, he did for love."

For more Los Angeles Musical Theatre news follow @MusicalsinLA on Twitter.

Photo credit: Marvin Hamlisch. Courtesy of Len Prince ©2012
Lucie Arnaz and Terre Blair Hamlisch: Rahoul Ghose/PBS

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