Marvin Hamlisch Changed My Life

How Composer's Singularly Sensational Music Touched Me

Singular Sensation: Even a 9-year-old could see Marvin Hamlisch’s world-changing talent.
getty images
Singular Sensation: Even a 9-year-old could see Marvin Hamlisch’s world-changing talent.

By Eileen Reynolds

Published August 08, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When I first heard the music from “A Chorus Line,” I immediately declared it the best musical ever written. This was perhaps a bold claim for a 9 year old to make: I didn’t know who Marvin Hamlisch was, or that the musical had won him the Pulitzer Prize, or that it had been the longest-running show on Broadway. But I’d been weaned on classic show tunes written by midcentury greats like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Loesser, and “A Chorus Line” hit me then the way it must’ve struck its original audiences in 1975 — as a revelation. It was racy; it was heartbreaking; it was filled with song and dance numbers about what it meant to sing and dance.

As a kid who’d spent an unusually large amount of time thinking about the traditional romantic comedy musical formula — a few yearning duets by couple A and couple B, an all-sing or two and then a dramatic turn before intermission — my mind was blown. This was something different altogether.

My aunt had the original Broadway cast recording on a battered old cassette tape, and on road trips, my cousins and I begged our parents to play it over and over as we sang along from the back seat. In retrospect, I think our initial enthusiasm for the show had a lot to do with Edward Kleban’s whip-smart lyrics, which were the raunchiest we’d heard. With the car windows open and the music blasting, we could get away with belting out lines like “But I felt nothing / Except the feeling that this bullshit was absurd!” And, as if that weren’t enough, there was also an entire song all about the finer parts of the female anatomy. It was hard to believe our good fortune.

“A Chorus Line” is the sort of masterpiece that comes along once in a lifetime for most artists, and yet for Hamlisch it came early in a dizzyingly prolific career. As has been widely reported this week, Hamlisch was one of only a few artists to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, and he alone shares with Richard Rodgers the distinction of snagging all of those plus a Pulitzer. (Rodgers won for “South Pacific,” another musical that was a game-changer in its own era.) After heading off to Juilliard’s preparatory division at the tender age of 7, Hamlisch got his professional start as a rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl” and went on to pen scores for dozens of films and musicals. Ice cream trucks and young piano students probably wouldn’t be playing “The Entertainer” today if not for Hamlisch’s score for “The Sting,” which almost single-handedly rescued ragtime pianist Scott Joplin from obscurity.

Among other accomplishments, Hamlisch was the master of the power ballad: His ability to churn out emotional showpieces like “What I Did for Love,” “Nobody Does it Better” and “The Way We Were” is undoubtedly what made him a such a good partner for Barbra Streisand, with whom he worked on numerous tours and films for decades. But my favorite Hamlisch works, such as “At the Ballet” from “A Chorus Line,” are subtly wistful without such a big helping of schmaltz. “Just For Tonight,” from “They’re Playing Our Song,” the musical Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager wrote about their own troubled relationship, is an often-overlooked gem in this category.

Another person with his talent for tearjerkers might have situated himself more firmly in the pop world, but Hamlisch remained musically and culturally omnivorous — as comfortable doing “Avinu Malkeinu” with Streisand as he was leading groups of elite classical musicians. He was also a tireless advocate for arts education and gave the keynote address at the 2002 Music Educators National Conference.

But can any of his other achievements top “A Chorus Line”? Where would the world be without “One,” the opening chords of which are just about as recognizable as the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? My opinion of the musical hasn’t changed much since I was 9, even if I now giggle a little less at the sex jokes. Hamlisch’s melodies have stuck with me: I’ve even caught myself humming “I Hope I Get It” as I left a job interview. When I read that Hamlisch died this week, I thought first of those first blissful days singing in the back seat of the car.

I spent this morning watching a 2011 ShalomTV interview in which Hamlisch talks amiably about his Jewish identity, telling the story of his parents’ escape from Vienna and recalling fondly his mother’s habit of circling all the Jewish holidays on her calendar at the beginning of the year. As charming as ever, he deftly rebuffs host Mark S. Golub’s florid praise, says he has no idea whether his music sounds “Jewish” and jokes about everything from the weather in Israel (every time is the “wrong time” to visit, he says) to his love of charoset. Turning to the piano to show how he came up with the music for “The Way We Were,” Hamlisch is in his element. Watching this, it’s hard to believe that he’s gone.

To paraphrase a memorable “A Chorus Line” lyric, his gift was ours to borrow.

Eileen Reynolds has written about the arts for publications including The Believer and newyorker.com. Her work has also been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.