Marvin Hamlisch: The Clear-Eyed Craftsman Behind “A Chorus Line”

Marvin Hamlisch: The Clear-Eyed Craftsman Behind “A Chorus Line”
Marvin Hamlisch and his wife Terre Blair-Hamlisch
(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As the tributes poured in for Marvin Hamlisch, the acclaimed pop composer who died on August 6, it soon became evident that his legacy would be highlighted by one work: “A Chorus Line.” Practically every headline acknowledged his contribution to this 1975 landmark musical and rightly so. Second only to Michael Bennett, who conceived, directed, and co-choreographed the show, Hamlisch was most responsible for its stunning success.  Winning nine Tony Awards, the musical re-invigorated Broadway, then at a nadir, and forever shadowed Hamlisch’s subsequent attempts for the stage. 

“Marvin’s music was emotionally stirring, he had the audience in the palm of his hand night after night,” says Robert LuPone, who was a member of the original cast of “A Chorus Line.”  During the creative process, while putting the musical together, Hamlisch could be ruthless about his own material, according to LuPone. “He was very clear-eyed, sensitive, intelligent, and objective.  If something he wrote didn’t work, or if Michael didn’t like it, he threw it out. He had tremendous confidence. It was the discipline of craft rather than ego which drove him.”  

In an interview for “Free For All,” an oral history of the Public Theater, which developed “A Chorus Line,” Hamlisch told writer Kenneth Turan that his agent was practically apoplectic when the composer decided to move back to New York.  He recalled, “I had just won three Academy Awards in one night for 'The Way We Were' and 'The Sting,' and all of a sudden I was leaving Hollywood to come back to New York to get paid nothing, to give a year or two years of my life to a project based solely on the fact that Michael Bennett was doing it.”

It was a homecoming of sorts for the then 30-year-old. He had begun his Broadway career as a rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl,” starring Barbra Streisand, with whom he would later collaborate on numerous projects. After the success of “A Chorus Line,” Hamlisch would go on to write other musicals — “Smile,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Goodbye Girl”— but he would only score one other hit: “They’re Playing Our Song,”  the 1979 semi-autobiographical musical, which explored his stormy romance with songwriter Carole Bayer Sager. Despite the flops, he remained adventurous, if not eclectic, in his choice of subject matter. He penned the musical, “Jean Seberg,” based on the life of the tragic American film actress who was defamed, and possibly driven to suicide, by the FBI for her radical politics.  The show, which debuted at the National Theatre of Great Britain, never made it to the United States.  

At the time of his death, Hamlisch was working on two musicals, “Gotta Dance,” and a musical version of the classic film comedy, “The Nutty Professor.” The latter, directed and co-written by Jerry Lewis, recently received solid notices for its world premiere production at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville.  The composer no doubt was pleased at the reception.  Even though he is only one of two people to be the recipient of the Oscar, the Grammy, the Tony, the Emmy and the Pulitzer — the other is, fittingly enough, the Broadway composer, Richard Rodgers — Hamlisch always took critics to heart. 

“I’m not one of those people who says, ‘I never read reviews,’” he told the New York Times.  “These songs are my babies. And I always say, it’s like having a baby in a hospital, taking a Polaroid, and going up to someone and saying, ‘What do you think?’ And he goes,  ‘I give you a 3.’ That’s what criticism is like. You’ve worked on this thing forever — ‘I give you a 3.’ And it’s part of you. That’s the bargain you’ve made.”