The latest installment in the superb “American Masters” series, “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love,” airing Friday at 9 p.m. may be an unwitting endorsement of helicopter parenting.
In the engrossing documentary about the irrepressible composer-conductor, his relatives joke that Hamlisch’s mother, Lilly, may have invented the style; Hamlisch got into Juilliard at age 6 (pre-college division).
Wildly successful by any creative or commercial measure, Hamlisch was truly a singular sensation, writing or co-writing hit songs (“Nobody Does It Better,” “The Way We Were”), Broadway musicals (“A Chorus Line,” “Sweet Smell of Success”), and motion picture scores (“Ordinary People,” “Sophie’s Choice”). The New York native is also one of only two artists in history to have won a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. (Composer Richard Rodgers is the other PEGOT.) He won three Academy Awards in one night.
AMERICAN MASTERS: Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love
To hear from those who knew, worked with, and loved him — the third group containing all of those in the first two as an apparent matter of course — that he was also a swell guy is a sweet coda for a brilliant career, that ended with Hamlisch’s death last summer, even as he was still at work writing new music and conducting various orchestras around the country.
Directed, written, and produced by four-time Tony winner herself Dori Berinstein, “What He Did for Love” presents a loving and intimate look at an artist who clearly lived for the music. His widow, Terre, jokes that Hamlisch’s priorities were “Music, the Yankees, and then me.” Another friend quips that musical notes, not blood, would seep out if Hamlisch’s veins were opened.
It is easy to see the joy and enthusiasm to which the star-studded cavalcade of talking heads attests in the many Hamlisch interviews and performances that Berinstein assembled, almost all featuring the endearingly goofy writer telling stories and jokes and improvising songs on the spot behind his piano.
Among those sharing their remembrances are high school classmates Christopher Walken and Leslie Uggams, collaborators Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Quincy Jones, and many of those who sang his songs, including Carly Simon, Idina Menzel, and Barbra Streisand — who met Hamlisch when he was 19 and she 21, when he was the rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl.” Streisand recalls that just hearing his name made her smile.
Among the many stories told about his passion for his work, is one in which Hamlisch spent his own money — $15,000 of it — to tweak a musical cue in “The Way We Were.” As noted by director Soderbergh (with whom Hamlisch worked on “The Informant!” and the HBO Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra”), it was “unthinkable” to Hamlisch to give up on creative perfection over something as insignificant as money.
Broadway fans should find the passage on the creation of “A Chorus Line” and its stunning reception of particular interest.
To paraphrase his first hit song, however, Hamlisch’s life was not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Having ascended to such dizzying heights before he was 35 made it harder for Hamlisch when some of his later work wasn’t as well-received. “He could go very dark,” says collaborator and former girlfriend Carole Bayer Sager.
But like many great musicals, Hamlisch found redemption in love. And the Yankees, whose former manager Joe Torre, became a close friend. (Torre is a musicals fan and even croons a bit in the film.)
During the last few years of his life, Hamlisch was on a crusade to make sure the great American composers of Broadway and popular song were properly remembered for future generations. Hopefully, someone watching “What He Did for Love” will continue that mission and add Hamlisch’s name to the list.