On Monday, composer Marvin Hamlisch died in Los Angeles, after a brief illness. A “singular sensation” himself, Hamlisch won three Oscars, four Emmys, four Grammys (including one as Best New Artist), one Tony, plus the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (The only other person to ever win those five awards was Richard Rodgers.) After some success in 1960s pop music, Hamlisch saw breakout success in 1974, with his Oscar hat trick for The Way We Were and The Sting, which revived interest in Scott Joplin and led to that composer’s Pulitzer recognition.
Hamlisch’s first Broadway score was A Chorus Line (1975), which not only secured his fame but also the future of Joe Papp’s Public Theater, the Shubert Organization, and Broadway itself, which was beginning to lose ground in Times Square to blue movies and exploitation flicks. The composer’s other theater scores include They’re Playing Our Song (1979 with Neil Simon and Carol Bayer Sager), Jean Seberg (1983 in London with Julian Barry and Christopher Adler), Smile (1986 with Howard Ashman), The Goodbye Girl (1993 with Neil Simon and David Zippel), and Sweet Smell of Success (2002 with John Guare and Craig Carnelia), for which he received his second Tony nomination. His latest show, The Nutty Professor (2012 with Rupert Holmes), just opened its Broadway tryout last week in Nashville.
I was fortunate to cross paths with Hamlisch twice. The first was in 2002, when I moderated a panel at New Dramatists with the three writers of Sweet Smell of Success; the second was in 2006, when I performed in Juilliard’s world premiere centennial commission of his song “Let Me Go Where’er I Will.” Both times, I was struck by how creatively generous and self-effacing he was.