Scott Joplin was a footnote in American musical history before Marvin Hamlisch got ahold of his ragtime music from the 1890s and early 20th century. Hamlisch arranged Joplin piano rags for “The Sting” to create a song-based score that connected with American audiences in a way instrumental music rarely does. His take on “The Entertainer,” which hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in 1974, was ubiquitous on radio in its day, much like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” or OutKast’s “Hey Ya.”
It was 72-year-old song and everyone could hum Hamlisch’s version.
That was the magic of Hamlisch, whose talents came into public view in 1973 with the films “The Sting” and “The Way We Were.” His nerdy appearance suggested professor or critic, his writing spoke to a love of classic melodies that fell easy on the ears. As evidenced by versions of “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand (No. 1 in 1973 for three weeks) and Gladys Knight, he provided great singers with a tune to sink their teeth into.
Hamlisch died Monday at the age of 68. He was one of fewer than a dozen people how have won an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony; only Hamlisch and Richard Rodgers have that quartet of awards plus a Pulitzer.
Hamlisch’s wins, though, were for landmark works that penetrated the American consciousness. His Tony and Pulitzer were for “A Chorus Line,” the 1975 Broadway show that rewrote the rules for American musicals. His Emmys were for Streisand’s HBO concert in 1994 – a taping of a show that Time magazine named “The Music Event of the Century” – and “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies.”
One of his Grammys was for best new artist; his three Oscar wins were all for his 1973 work on “The Sting” and “The Way We Were.”
Viewing Hamlisch through an awards lens suggest a Zeitgeist moment where the American mainstream was in a state of unprecedented disruption. The Vietnam War’s conclusion, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, New York City’s financial crisis, the energy crisis and the dawning of disco.
Hamlisch offered a musical respite, a retreat to the familiar — nostalgia without specific, if you will, memories. Examinations of romantic relationships seemed to be his forte – “They’re Playing Our Song,” written with Carole Bayer Sager, is one of the theater’s great two-hander musicals; his scores for “Ordinary People,” known for its use of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and “Sophie’s Choice” display his finesse with the darker side of reality. Not surprisingly, Hamlisch’s music could be frequently heard in the plays and films of Neil Simon, the theater’s comedic genius of the ’70s and ’80s.
Hamlisch’s career stretched from the mid-1960s when a song he co-wrote for Lesley Gore, “California Nights,” made it into an episode of the TV show “Batman” and to the score of HBO’s upcoming Liberace biopic with Matt Damon, “Behind the Candelabra.” He was working on a new musical “Gotta Dance” and had planned to fly to Nashville this week to see “The Nutty Professor,” his musical written with Rupert Holmes, in its pre-Broadway run.
For all of his success as a composer, Hamlisch relied on another talent as a performer – conducting. Principal pops conductor for symphony orchestras in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Dallas, Pasadena, Seattle and San Diego, he would soon have a similar position with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Those roles were perfect for Hamlisch, an amiable presence at the podium that thrilled audiences without pandering to the musicians. Baton in hand, Hamlisch seemed to take into consideration the people he was facing and those behind him, tackling the American songbook and his own work with serious intent and consistently pleasing audience by bringing out the joy written in the classics.