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Marvin Hamlisch, 68, the composer-conductor who died Monday in Los Angeles after a brief illness was a certified genius. From the age of seven, when he became the youngest student ever admitted to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, Marvin grew up to win both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his 1975 musical “A Chorus Line.” He also was awarded three Oscars, four Grammys, four Emmys and three Golden Globes.
Marvin embodied more than an impressive resume and long list of celebrity friends. He may have been the most self-effacing person of great achievement I have ever known.
We met by accident, if you believe in such things. My wife and I were with the musical comedy and cabaret singer Barbara Cook at a post-performance party when he walked in. She introduced us and for me it was admiration at first sight. Though we came from different backgrounds and life experiences — he a huge success in show business and me a Stage-door Johnny and musical comedy wannabe who “settled” for journalism because I had to make a living — we hit it off.
We attended movie screenings and Broadway shows — his and others. We ate together. He introduced me to some of his talented film and Broadway friends and because they knew I was Marvin’s friend, I guess they tolerated me in spite of our political differences.
He would frequently call, asking for my opinion on various issues. His mind was a sponge, constantly soaking up information.
Marvin was fun and funny. While he was shy before people he didn’t know, he would relax with friends.
One Thanksgiving, Marvin was to conduct an all-Irish show at The Kennedy Center in Washington. Among the performing artists was the Irish singer Mary Black, whom I had recommended to him. Neither had any holiday plans so my wife and I invited them to dinner. Marvin played football with our grandson in the backyard. As we drove him back to his hotel, we sang Broadway and classic rock and roll songs. Each spoken sentence in our conversation, reminded us of a song which we sang with gusto.
Recently he had a kidney transplant, which was known only to a few people. He told his wife, Terre Blair, he would rather die than be ahead of someone on a waiting list. He didn’t have to worry. A close friend donated one of his own kidneys. Terre said the new kidney was functioning well, but complications from an unrelated condition drove him into a coma from which he never recovered.
Few conductors have had the rapport with audiences that Marvin had. He could carry on conversations with adults and children and make the audience roar with laughter at his ad-libs. His comedic timing might have been honed from his role as an accompanist and straight man for Groucho Marx in the 1970s.
When he died, he was at the top of his game. A musical he had written, “The Nutty Professor,” based on the Jerry Lewis film, had just opened in Nashville to good reviews. He hoped it would go to Broadway.
Marvin was the principle pops conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony and Pops, Seattle Symphony and San Diego Symphony. He was also working on music for a film about the life of Liberace and numerous other projects.
Marvin once said he would like to “put something on earth that wasn’t there yesterday.” He succeeded.
A line from the Alan and Marilyn Bergman song “The Way We Were” — for which Marvin wrote the music, which was made famous by Barbra Streisand, for whom he was once a rehearsal pianist — seems a fitting epitaph to this musical giant: “So it’s the laughter we will remember. Whenever we remember, the way we were.”
Broadway and Hollywood have lost an irreplaceable musical masterpiece. Those who knew and loved Marvin Hamlisch, the man, have lost a part of our hearts and an irreplaceable friend.
(C) 2012 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.