Marvin Hamlisch, who died earlier this week at 68, might not have achieved the exalted status of a "household name," but he certainly deserved that sobriquet. The prolific and prize-winning composer's works won top spots on pop music charts and quickly earned classic status on screen, stage and television in a career than spanned nearly half a century.
His work did not go unnoticed. Hamlisch won three Oscars, four Emmys, four Grammys, a Tony, three Golden Globes and shared a Pulitzer Prize. He also was a well-received and highly-sought pops conductor, an accompanist for performers such as Groucho Marx and Barbara Streisand, and a passionate champion of government-supported arts education. Through it all, Hamlisch remained cheerful, accessible and personable, a man whose passion for music and art in all its forms never flagged.
Hamlisch's gift was apparent at an early age. At 7, he was a student at the famed Juilliard School of Music. At 19, he became a rehearsal pianist for Streisand when she performed in "Funny Girl." Not long after, he penned "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," a top 20 hit for Lesley Gore. Hit after hit followed.
He's probably best known for "The Way We Were," the tune from the Streisand-Robert Redford movie of the same name and for "A Chorus Line," the show that ran for nearly 6,200 performances on Broadway and that has since become a staple of theater round the globe.
Those signature successes tend to overshadow Hamlisch's other works — especially his tunes for films as diverse as the James Bond thriller, "The Spy Who Loved Me," "The Sting," which introduced the rags of Scott Joplin to much of the world, "Sophie's Choice" and "Ordinary People." In addition, there were other compositions for stage, screen and TV over the years. Successful as he became, he never stopped working.
He recently had completed, for example, scores for an HBO movie based on the life of Liberace and for a musical based on the Jerry Lewis film "The Nutty Professor." The latter opened in Nashville last month.
Hamlisch maintained a busy public schedule as well. He was the principal pops conductor for symphonies in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Dallas, Pasadena. Settle and San Diego. His ready wit, his warm embrace of the public and his talent endeared him to all.
Hamlisch did so many things in so many genres so well and so effortlessly that it sometimes seems that he never received the full acclaim he deserved. The truth is that he was a legend and certainly holds a place among the best and greatest composers of his age. In a phrase taken from one of his songs and sure to be used over and over again in coming days in testimonials and memorials to him and his enormous talent, Hamlisch was without a doubt "one singular sensation."