Marvin Hamlisch was one of the most successful composers of our time. He could sit down at the piano and rattle off a tune in a nano-second. Or he could labor over a melody for days.
Though he died at 68 in 2012, he left evergreen songs like The Way We Were, Nobody Does it Better and Through the Eyes of Love. He scored films, Broadway shows and TV themes. What he did and how he did it is the subject of Dori Berinstein’s documentary for PBS' American Masters, Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love, airing at 9 p.m. Friday.
He heard music in everything, says his wife of 23 years, Terre Blair Hamlisch. “If he heard the wind or a breeze in the trees, he could tell you what note it was. He could tell you the screech of a tire. He didn’t hear like we would hear a screech of a tire. He would hear it with the note, the exact note of it. ‘It’s an E flat. It’s this. It’s that.’ He could hear a fly like a 747,” she says.
Hamlisch was declared a genius when he was a child. By the time he was 31 he had earned four Grammys, an Emmy, three Oscars, a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize.
When I interviewed Hamlisch a few years ago he said the source of his music was as much a mystery to him as to anybody else. “It’s hard to explain exactly where the music comes from,” he said.
“Sometimes you meet people who are multilingual and they’re able to very quickly go into any language. In the same way – I'll be thinking about a scene but the language I go into is the music. That’s my second language. I'll be thinking about what I want [the songs] to say, but in the meantime it’s being translated musically,” he said.
He wrote his autobiography because he wanted people to know there is something more important in life than success, he told me. As an example, he remembered returning to an empty house the night he won the Oscar for The Way We Were.
“I came home and I emptied the cat litter. I was so alone. There was something so alone … All those wonderful moments are only moments in your life, but they are not the foundation on which you live.
“I was very alone and that success turned into going to Broadway – which was my first love – with Chorus Line. And I went there and again had this major success but the reviews were deadly for me. Just awful.”
Two flops followed, Jean and Smile, and Hamlisch fell into an even deeper depression. Death had taken his parents and his A Chorus Line colleagues Michael Bennett, who had created the show, and Edward Kleban, its lyricist.
“I never felt more isolated and more alone. The pillars of my family life were falling apart,” he said.
Then fate took a hand. His housekeeper and a friend’s housekeeper put Hamlisch in telephone touch with Terre Blair, who was 14 years younger and lived on the other side of the continent. They carried on a phone romance for months and Hamlisch proposed without ever having met her.
Hamlisch credited her for resuscitating him. “If I had a conversation with God and said, ‘This is exactly what I need.’ He would’ve brought me this woman,” he said.