For almost half a century, the composer Marvin Hamlisch made his way into our heads with ballad after show-stopping ballad: "What I Did for Love" from A Chorus Line, "Through the Eyes of Love" from Ice Castles, and the title song from The Way We Were, to name just a few. Hamlisch died this week at age 68.
In 2009, Hamlisch came by the studio to talk about his score for the Steven Soderberg movie The Informant! (Soderbergh was inspired by Hamlisch's score for Woody Allen's Bananas.) To come up with the movie's signature riff, he had to get inside the mind of the main character, a corporate whistleblower (played by Matt Damon) with bipolar disorder. Hamlisch realized he had to approach the score "the way the main character would be thinking," he explained to Kurt Andersen. "And if you take it from his point of view, it turns out that he is just having the best time of his life, and the FBI are nuts." Once you take on that point of view, the jaunty melody "just comes to you."
"If you think of music as a language," he hold Kurt, "all I'm doing is taking my thoughts in English and translating what I'm feeling about a scene into music."
At age seven, Hamlisch was the youngest person admitted to Juilliard, a child prodigy. He came of age in the 1960s, but admits he always felt "out of it," from an earlier generation: "in the 4th grade picture, I'm the only one wearing a tie." He appreciated the Beatles, but he was a child of Rodgers and Hammerstein. "My goal in life," he says, "was to write a Broadway show by the time I was 30 years old"; he was 29 when he got the call from director Michael Bennett that led to A Chorus Line. "All the people who worked on it, besides Michael, we were all novices," he remembers, "and we were all dying to do something great." A Chorus Line ran on Broadway for nearly 15 years, and won Hamlisch both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize.
Hamlisch scored more than 40 films, including the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me and Sophie's Choice. His score for The Sting, for which he won an Oscar, revived ragtime music, long forgotten by mainstream America. That score came easily to Hamlisch. He assembled the sheet music for Scott Joplin's entire ouvre, pulled together phrases and themes, and orchestrated over the piano line. "I'm not kidding when I'm telling you that the actual doing of this film maybe took me six days. Everything fit!"
(Originally aired: October 2, 2009)
Bonus Track: Marvin Hamlisch performs "Trust Me," the closing theme from The Informant!, in Studio 360