Composer Marvin Hamlisch had winning reputation! INTERVIEW

Today’s Guest: Marvin Hamlisch, film composer, The Way We Were, The Sting, Bananas, Take the Money and Run, Ice Castles

Marvin Hamlisch, film composer, Mr. Media Interviews
Marvin Hamlisch, film composer

By Bob Andelman
July 18, 1986

Can you name a movie or play for which Marvin Hamlisch composed the music – that flopped?

It’s difficult because there is no answer.

The closest contender was a film, “Ice Castles,” which starred Robby Benson. It didn’t make a fortune, but it did OK. For Broadway, the 42year-old, bespectacled pianist wrote the music to “A Chorus Line” and Neil Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.”

For the movies, he has worked on everything from two Robert Redford films – “The Way We Were” and “The Sting” – to two Woody Allen films – “Bananas” and “Take the Money and Run.”

Hamlisch has a remarkable, if calculated, history of signing on with winners.

“I’m looking to make sure that I’m going to be involved with a hit, something that I think is going to be a commercial success,” Hamlisch says by phone from New York City.

“You work just as hard on a movie that millions of people are going to see as you work in a movie that comes and goes in a day,” he continues.

To a degree, Hamlisch says, he chooses his projects based on instinct. It’s also a matter of what interests him.

MARVIN HAMLISCH podcast excerpt: “I loved that film. It was easy for me to write because I was writing for Barbra Streisand, who has an amazing voice. And I love to do romantic things. The fact that she’s Jewish and he’s Catholic was wonderful, right down my alley..”

“I’m not interested in another hi-fi, sci-fi movie,” he says. “That doesn’t mean those things can’t be good. In fact, most of them are. It’s just that I don’t want to do them.”

Hamlisch says he always reads scripts to come to his decisions. If he gives a producer the nod of approval, the film is made and edited before the composer has any further contact with it.

“After they make the movie, I start doing the music,” he explains. “The first decision is where music will be, and that’s a decision made between me and the producers and the director. But after that, it’s in my lap. I decide what instruments” will be played.

A musical sound track or theme song is written precisely to match the scene it is meant to enhance.

“What usually happens is that the plot and the whole feeling of something a mood starts to occur,” describes Hamlisch.

“When I start writing, I usually have the film in front of me; I’m watching the film. That starts to be its own impetus. That starts to create its own thing. {It) becomes hard to explain, but it starts to work on me pretty good.

‘“Out of that,” he continues, “I start to write. Out of that I can decide what it is that I can add to the film that’s not there. I don’t want to color white on white.”

As an example, Hamlisch says if I people are racing on screen, he won’t necessarily play fast music ‘“because you’ve got speed up there already. I might add an underlying tension to it. I like to add another color that I think would be nice to add to a scene.”

Comedy, he observes, needs a lot I pf rhythmic activity in its music to measure between set-ups and punch lines.

“Comedy has a lot to do with timing. I did a couple of Woody Allen films, and those things tend to need some upness to them, you know what I mean? You’re working much ignore with a rhythm. Drama, you’re working much more melodically, particularly (in) a love story.”

Hamlisch has a preference for love stories such as “The Way We Were,” for which he won two Oscars.

“I loved that film,” he says. “It was easy for me to write because I was writing for Barbra Streisand, who has an amazing voice. And I love to do romantic things. The fact that she’s Jewish and he’s Catholic was wonderful, right down my alley.”

In “The Sting,” Hamlisch composed a piano score that moviegoers hummed for months and for which he picked up another Oscar.

“George Roy Hill (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) is a brilliant director; he understands music” according to Hamlisch. “He actually edited his film ready for music. ‘The Sting’ was great.”

Working on “Ordinary People” – although another hit – was not as much fun.

“I had a hard time with that film because I could not relate at all,” he says. “I’m from a very good family life, and I was watching a picture about people having difficulty just communicating.”

Another Hamlisch project was the theme song for a James Bond film, “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Both the theme and sound track were nominated for Oscars.

“I sat down with Carole (Bayer) Sager one day dind said, ‘Let’s write a typical type of Bond film score, so we wrote more of a love song to him. I loved her title, ‘Nobody Does It Better.’

Despite his frequent good fortune in the cinema, Hamlisch hadn’t accepted a new assignment there in years until two weeks ago when he agreed to write the sound track of “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.” Based on the book by Dominick Dunne and planned as a four-hour TV movie, the cast is headed by Ann-Margret and Claudette Colbert.

“I consider myself much more a Broadway writer than a film writer,” he says. “In fact I have no films on the horizon and don’t think that I’ll be doing too many (more) in my career. It’s not something that I stop the presses to do, yet I would stop everything to do another show. That’s really my first love.”

For the better part of the last four years, Hamlisch has submerged himself in what may seem an unlikely adaptation. He and lyricist Howard Ashman have been making over “Smile,” an old Michael Ritchie film about a beauty pageant into a Broadway musical.

The production is scheduled to open for tryout in Baltimore before hitting the Big Apple on Nov. 16.

In addition to altering “Smile” from a drama into a musical, Hamlisch and Ashman have had to work on its attitude.

“It was very cynical before,” he says. “We’ve done much more about what a real beauty pageant is like. We’ve done a lot of interviewing people and a lot of studying about it.”

If Hamlisch has been finicky about choosing his film projects, he has been cautious to a fault when it comes to plays.

“It’s not a question of being involved with flops,” he says, “it’s just a question of, I haven’t been involved with that many. This is my third Broadway show. It’s been a long wait in between.”

Composing the score for “Smile” , took a few months, but even with Hamlisch’s track record, it took more than four years to get the musical into production.

“It was a constant struggle,” he says.

Should “Smile” equal half the financial success the composer enjoyed from “A Chorus Line” and “They’re Playing Our Song,” it should be worth the effort and time.

“They’re playing Our Song” was Neil Simon’s first musical. It was, naturally, a hit. The original casting was risky yet inspired: Lucie Arnaz and comedian Robert Klein.

“I liked that show a lot,” Hamlisch recalls. “I thought it was interesting to just have two members of the cast up there. I liked working for a Broadway score it was a little in the innovative side. It had a little more feeling of today’s music, so I liked that.”

Hamlisch has less to say about “A Chorus Line,” the long-running smash about creating a musical, probably because he already has answered every possible question about it – twice.

“We sat down and did exactly what we said were going to do something innovative and unique. And we did it,” he says.

As for last year’s film treatment: “I try not to think of it. I did not like the movie.”

To balance the often solitary, indoors work of composing, Hamlisch takes his show on the road several weekends each year.

“It’s kind of my extracurricular activity,” he says. The show is “a lot of fun,” according to the composer.

Incorporated into the performance will be a preview of music from “Smile,” as well as music from “A Chorus Line,” “The Way We Were,” “The Sting” and other Hamlisch hits.

Hamlisch will bring two female singers with him and be joined by a local orchestra.

For laughs, he has a segment of the concert called “Rent-a-Composer.” For the price of admission, patrons can suggest themes around which Hamlisch will compose a tune on the spot.

“I’ve always kidded around and I’ve always been able to make up a song instantly,” he explains. “I just decided to put it into the act. I open it up to the audience. I say that a lot of people have ideas for songs. Someone comes up with a title and I start writing it.”

But don’t look for the “Rent-a-Composer” songs to become movie or Broadway themes, however, no matter how good.

“I just forget them instantly,” Hamlisch admits.

(Marvin Hamlisch died August 6, 2012.)

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