9:25 AM CDT, August 7, 2012
Marvin Hamlisch, the composer of "A Chorus Line" and a prolific Broadway and Hollywood figure known for his accessible, toe-tapping melodies, thick glasses, love of silky strings and ebullient if nerdy personality, died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 68. Jason Lee, a family spokesman, announced the death and referenced a brief illness, but gave no other details of the cause of death.
Hamlisch is, of course, best known for writing the score to the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "A Chorus Line" in 1975 but also penned the 1979 musical “They're Playing Our Song” (loosely based on his own relationship with Carole Bayer Sager) along with other shows like “The Goodbye Girl” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” and enjoyed a prolific career as the pops conductor of several American orchestras. Most recently, he had been working on a new musical version of Jerry Lewis's “The Nutty Professor.” The Tennessean reported that Hamlisch had written 20 songs for the new show, which is trying out in Nashville.
The composer also is known for such American standards as “The Way We Were” and “Nobody Does It Better,” both movie theme songs (the latter from “The Spy Who Loved Me”). He is one of a very select group of people to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award. In Hamlisch's case, those awards have come in multiples.
His first hit (composed when he was 21) was the song “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” recorded by Lesley Gore, but Hamlisch found his niche scoring movies. His work on adapting the music of Scott Joplin for the movie “The Sting” was widely acclaimed and accounted for one of Hamlisch's three Oscars. And Hamlisch also wrote the music for films as disparate as “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People” and, in 2009, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”
Hamlisch, who was born in New York City in 1944, appeared many times in Chicago, often to raise funds for groups like Roosevelt University or the Ravinia Festival. “Sweet Smell of Success' tried out in the city before heading to Broadway in 2002. So did “The Goodbye Girl” in 1992. Neither were big successes.
Hamlisch spoke frequently of his desire to prevent the erosion of arts education in public schools.
“It's the average public school kids that I'm most worried about,” Hamlisch told the Tribune in 1997, while making his case in Chicago. “The really talented kids who get to go to the special music schools will be fine. They're on their way. It's the other kids we've got to worry about. I've done research on this, and every single study shows what a difference arts classes makes to kids' lives.”
But no show revealed Hamlisch's talents as powerfully as “A Chorus Line.” More avant-garde composers would have forged an experimental score, prehaps better matching the neuroses of the dancers whom Michael Bennett interviewed. Had that been the case, few would have seen the show. But Hamlisch understood that the demands of the commercial arena meant that such material had to be combined with an accessible, melodic suite of songs. Hamlisch penned one of Broadway's greatest scores, highlighted by the pizazz of “One,” the beauty of the ballad “At the Ballet,” and the bouncy, celebratory melody of “What I Did For Love." "A Chorus Line" played on Broadway for 6,137 performances.
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