Mike Nichols didn’t write “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Blower’s Daughter” or “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” And he didn’t perform them (at least not to any great public renown).
But there’s little doubt that the celebrated film and stage director, who died Wednesday at the age of 83, helped embed these songs in popular culture. A master storyteller with a keen musical sense, he was doing the work of a so-called curator long before that job title became fashionable.
Nichols is probably best remembered among musicians for his prominent use of Simon & Garfunkel’s songs in his 1967 movie “The Graduate,” a then-maverick move that elevated the standing of that duo and led to Hollywood’s increased reliance on pop tunes in film soundtracks.
Thanks in part to its association with Anne Bancroft's indelible character, “Mrs. Robinson” -- Simon & Garfunkel’s second No. 1 hit after “The Sound of Silence,” also featured in “The Graduate” -- even went on to become a kind of modern standard, with covers by acts from Frank Sinatra to the Lemonheads.
A decade later, Nichols’ staging of the original 1977 Broadway production of “Annie” similarly established several of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s numbers, including “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” known to many today as the basis for Jay Z’s 1998 hit “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” Next month the song will reappear in a new film version of “Annie,” with overhauled arrangements by the pop producer Greg Kurstin.
In 1996 Nichols pulled from his experience in musical theater for “The Birdcage,” an English-language remake of the 1978 movie “La Cage aux Folles.” But instead of using Jerry Herman’s songs from a 1983 Broadway version of the story, Nichols interpolated tunes, including an original, by Stephen Sondheim – another indication of the director's strong taste.
You sensed the same strength of feeling from his dramatic placement of “The Blower’s Daughter,” an almost uncomfortably intimate ballad by the Irish singer Damien Rice, in Nichols’ 2004 film “Closer.” And as it did with “Mrs. Robinson,” the director’s push propelled “The Blower’s Daughter,” still Rice's best-known song, to an audience it might not otherwise have reached.
With Nichols' death, Hollywood and Broadway have lost a star. But music is down a friend.