Tom Strini
Marvin Hamlisch

The Last Author of the Great American Songbook

Marvin Hamlisch, the MSO's principal Pops conductor, died in Los Angeles Monday.

By - Aug 7th, 2012 11:04 am

Marvin Hamlisch. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Early in 2010, just after a Japanese auto company recalled millions of cars with possible safety defects, Marvin Hamlisch sat down at the Milwaukee Symphony’s grand piano at a Pops concert in Uihlein Hall.

He raised his hands to play, and the house grew silent in anticipation. Then he dropped his hands, furrowed his brow, and said: “What is this, a Yamaha? I hope the brakes work on this thing.”

That was Marvin Hamlisch — part Irving Berlin, part Leonard Bernstein, part Henny Youngman. Hamlisch died Monday, Aug. 6, in Los Angeles, at age 68. No cause of death has been announced. At the time of his death, Hamlisch was at work on a musical comedy based on The Nutty Professor, a 1963 film comedy that starred Jerry Lewis.

Hamlisch — who won every award Broadway and Hollywood have to offer a composer/songwriter — succeeded Doc Severinsen as the Milwaukee Symphony‘s principal pops conductor in 2008-09 and had one year remaining in his contract. The MSO’s Pops brochure for the coming season features Hamlisch, who proved to be a very good draw in Milwaukee. Hamlisch did not merely show up and conduct at MSO Pops concerts. Hamlisch, composer of A Chorus Line and countless movie scores and songs, planned many of them and found guest talent, too.

“Marvin was very well connected on Broadway,” said Susan Loris, the orchestra’s vice-president of marketing and communications. “Our current plan is to keep his programs for next season and modify as needed.”

Loris said that Hamlisch’s death came as a surprise. It will reverberate through the entire Pops nervous system, as Hamlisch also led Pops programming at the Pasadena, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Dallas and San Diego orchestras.

Hamlisch, a Juilliard grad, was an extraordinary musician and a clever tunesmith. He presided over many excellent concerts with the MSO. He could be a good conductor when he wanted to be, but sometimes was sloppy and distracted. On some occasions, his piano playing was so eccentric in its lurching tempos that the orchestra could hardly stay with him. As charming, generous and funny as he was with audiences and with young area musicians, he could be crotchety with MSO musicians and MSO staff. He had a famously short fuse and exploded more than once.

But on balance, Hamlisch was a great asset for the MSO. The orchestra will miss him, and I will miss him too.

I interviewed him a couple of times, and his passion for American music always impressed me. Hamlisch had surprising range as a composer — check out his score for The Swimmer, for example.  But many of his songs sound as if they could have been written for Broadway circa 1927. Hamlisch was less than six years older than I, but he seemed two generations older. He skipped over rock ‘n’ roll in his musical kinship, which lay with pre-war Tin Pan Alley. He cherished the Golden Age of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin and the rest. He feared that their tradition would be lost and worked tirelessly to pass that tradition on to young people.

Marvin Hamlisch thought of himself as the last great Tin Pan Alley songwriter. I believe he was, and that’s how I’ll remember him.

0 thoughts on “Marvin Hamlisch: The Last Author of the Great American Songbook”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good article Tom and so true….we had the privilege of
    conversing with him on several occasions and always got the feeling he was distracted and one step ahead in his planning, part of the genius I guess. We were lucky to have him for the few years he was here. It added much to the POP presentations.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Kate, thanks for commenting. — Strini

  3. Anonymous says:

    I only heard him “live” once…I wish it could have been more. A great musician….and hilarious besides. I still remember one line he came out with that almost put me under I laughed so hard. I would quote it….but it wouldn’t work in this context. You would have had to have been there. RIP.

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