But Hamlisch quickly established there was little about his talent that was ordinary: He could perform the song in any key the admissions committee requested — and he was but 6 years old.
By the time he was 30, the former prodigy — the youngest student the prestigious New York school had ever admitted — was a wunderkind composer for Broadway and Hollywood, whose contribution to American
Hamlisch — winner of three
A showman as well as a versatile composer, Hamlisch conquered an early fear of performing to become a draw on the nightclub circuit and later was principal pops conductor for several major symphonies, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony and San Diego Symphony.
Last month he conducted the Pasadena Symphony and Pops, which named him its principal pops conductor in 2011, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was set to announce his appointment to its pops podium next week.
Like Rodgers — the only other American composer to rival Hamlisch in the number of top awards — and Gershwin, Hamlisch "left a very specific … original mark on American music and added to the great American songbook with works he himself composed," said Paul Jan Zdunek, chief executive of the Pasadena Symphony Assn.
Hamlisch, who would sometimes remark that his last name began with "ham" for a reason, charmed audiences with his ad-libs and improvisational agility. He routinely included in his concerts a short segment he called "Rent-a-Composer," in which he composed and performed songs based on the audience's usually outlandish suggestions.
"The world will remember Marvin for his brilliant musical accomplishments, from 'A Chorus Line' to 'The Way We Were,' and so many others, but when I think of him now, it was his brilliantly quick mind, his generosity, and delicious sense of humor that made him a delight to be around,"
Although he could easily have rested on his laurels, Hamlisch continued to write for movies, most recently for
He was working on another Soderbergh project — a film about Liberace, starring
"He didn't want to waste a moment," said
Marvin Frederick Hamlisch was born in
By age 5 he could play songs on the piano by ear after hearing them on the radio. He was a mischievous student in elementary school until a piano was wheeled into his classroom and he became the accompanist for school plays.
Hamlisch began giving public recitals in his teens but vomited violently before performances and finally gave up when "it became obvious it was going to kill me," he told Newsday in 1974. Enamored of show tunes, he focused his energies on composing and first heard his music performed before an audience when he was the music counselor at a girls' camp at Lake Geneva, N.Y.
One of his camp songs, "Travelin' Man," was recorded by
A few years later Hamlisch was asked to play the piano at a party for Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel. The party changed his life. Three days after the event, he surprised the producer with a complete score for a dramatic movie Spiegel was planning to make called "The Swimmer," based on a John Cheever story. Spiegel hired him on the spot. Hamlisch submitted the score to his teacher at Queens College, who accepted it in lieu of the string quartet Hamlisch was supposed to write for a class assignment. He graduated from Queens in 1967 with a degree in music.
His work for Spiegel on the 1968 movie jump-started a prolific career composing for films. He produced music for more than 30 movies, including director
At the same time he was writing for Broadway and penned the music for "Minnie's Boys," a musical inspired by the Marx Brothers' career. Though the play was a flop, he toured with
His year for the record books was 1973, when he co-wrote the music for "The Way We Were" with Marilyn and
Hamlisch shared the Oscar for best original song with the Bergmans and also won the Oscar for best original dramatic score. At the same Academy Awards ceremony, he won an Oscar for his adaptation of
When the composer got up to receive his third Oscar of the night, he quipped, "I think we can now talk to each other as friends."
He stormed Broadway the following year, 1975, when "A Chorus Line" opened to generally glowing reviews.
The backstage musical conceived, choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett and based on the book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante ran for more than 6,000 performances. It became the longest-running production in Broadway history until it was surpassed by "Cats" in 1997. It also won nine Tonys, including best musical score for Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban.
Several of the Hamlisch-Kleban tunes became hits, including "One" and "What I Did for Love," which has been recorded by
It was one of only seven musicals to win
Despite the many honors Hamlisch earned, he remained highly susceptible to self-doubt. As he wrote in his 1992 memoir, "The Way I Was," he was crushed by a negative comment in an otherwise enthusiastic review of "Chorus Line" by the
A self-described "square," he rarely went without a suit and tie and wore thick black-framed glasses that inspired
His next Broadway outing was in 1979 with Neil Simon's "They're Playing Our Song." With music by Hamlisch and lyrics by
He had collaborated with Bayer Sager on "Nobody Does It Better," the theme song for the 1977 James Bond movie "The Spy Who Loved Me." It became a hit for singer Carly Simon.
He also wrote the score for the 1986 Broadway production "Smile," based on the film comedy of the same name. It closed after only 48 performances, sending Hamlisch into a long depression during which "all I could do was eat myself up alive," he told the
In 1989 his marriage to television reporter and producer Terre Blair after a long-distance courtship made life rosy again. "She redirected my freneticism," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1992. She survives him.
His other film work included scores for the Oscar-winning films
He ventured into classical music with "Anatomy of Peace," a composition based on a 1945 book by Emery Reves and performed by the Dallas Symphony in 1991.
But he acknowledged that his chief joy was writing popular music. "The biggest thrill you can have is to tell people one of your songs," he once said, "and have them be able to hum it."