Marvin Hamlisch, 68, remembered by theater collaborators

Marvin Hamlisch, who died Monday in Los Angeles at 68, was one of the most honored composers in the theater world, and one of the hardest working.

From his songs for “A Chorus Line,” which opened in 1975 and ran on Broadway for close to 15 years, to his most recent score for “The Nutty Professor,” which debuted in Nashville in July, Hamlisch never seemed to put his pen down. He moved with impressive alacrity between composing jobs and conducting appearances with pops orchestras around the country.

Carole Bayer Sager worked with Hamlisch on several projects, including the musical “They’re Playing Our Song,” which was based on their personal and professional relationship.


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“His mind went a thousand and fifty miles an hour and so did his fingers,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “He could transpose music in one second. And he could pick up a melody he’d never heard if you just sang it for him.”

Sager dated Hamlisch for a few years in the late ‘70s, and their sometimes stormy life together inspired Neil Simon to write the book for “They’re Playing Our Song,” which opened on Broadway in 1979. But “our relationship was nothing like what Neil wrote -- ours was much more Jewishly neurotic,” Sager said.

Kay Cole, who was in the original cast of “A Chorus Line,” said in an interview that Hamlisch “could make the toughest environments enjoyable. He always had a joke and he could see the bright side of life.”

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She recalled that when she rehearsed the song “At the Ballet” from “A Chorus Line,” Hamlisch kept asking her to sing her part higher and higher. “I enjoyed hitting those high notes.

“I think because he had such brilliance at a young age, he was able to make everyone feel very comfortable,” she said.

Hamlisch won a Tony Award for his work on “A Chorus Line” and shared the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The musical, which originated at the Public Theater in New York, ran for more than 6,100 performances on Broadway. The musical was revived on Broadway in 2006.

John Lithgow won a Tony Award in 2002 for his role in “Sweet Smell of Success,” for which Hamlisch wrote the score.

“It was my first Broadway musical and I was terrified,” Lithgow wrote via email. “But his exuberance, humor and support swept me along and caught me up with everybody else. I’d never worked with anyone with less self-doubt and more musical facility.”

“Marvin loved using music to make people laugh,” the actor added. “At the drop of a hat, he would sit at the piano and brilliantly improvise the last sentence he had heard, switching briskly between the styles of Sondheim, Gershwin and Andrew Lloyd Webber -- rhymes and all.”

Hamlisch’s other Broadway scores include “Smile” and Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl.”

Hamlisch’s most recent stage work was the musical adaptation of “The Nutty Professor,” directed by Jerry Lewis, that debuted in July in Nashville.

Hamlisch recently appeared with the Pasadena Pops in July at the L.A. Arboretum, alongside Michael Feinstein. The Pasadena Pops had scheduled two September appearances with Hamlisch, including a gala performance.

Hamlisch is survived by his wife, Terre.


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