Brought together by The Juilliard School (where Hamlisch attended as a child prodigy at the ripe age of seven), the audience at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on West 65th Street was dotted with celebrities from all walks of life: Mike Nichols; former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Regis Philbin; Susan Lucci; Sarah Jessica Parker; Alan Cumming; Sheldon Harnick; Mary Rodgers; Paul Shaffer and Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, who came on behalf of the President and the First Lady.
First to address the audience was Terre Blair. "First of all, tonight happened because of a phone call I received right after Marvin died from his close and dear friend Barbra Streisand," she explained. "Out of her love for Marvin, she said, 'I want to sing for Marvin. I want to send Marvin off in a very big way.'" And a very big way it was.
Blair signed off with a phrase that set the tone for the rest of the evening: "He truly believed that music was an international language that could transform us…. Tonight is about Marvin's melodies, and Marvin lives in them."
She blew a single kiss to the large black and white photo of Hamlisch at his piano and left the stage.
Liza Minnelli was up first. She started with a story about how she and Hamlisch met "when I was 16 and he was 15-and-three-quarters. And the moment we laid eyes on each other we became fast and dear friends. The stories I could tell you, but I won't, because they make me too sad…some other time, when it doesn't hurt so much." And then, with Michael Feinstein at the piano, she sang "If He Really Knew Me" from They're Playing Our Song, changing the lyrics to fit the occasion: "He really knew me/ Oh my Marvin, truly knew me/ Somehow he could see the other side of me."
Following Minnelli came trumpeter Chris Botti playing "What I Did for Love," from a A Chorus Line; cellist Carter Brey with the theme from "Sophie's Choice"; Brian d'Arcy James with "At the Fountain" from the musical Sweet Smell of Success; on violin, Itzhak Perlman played "I Cannot Hear the City" from Sweet Smell, and pianist Lang Lang playing Schumann's "Dedication," a piece Blair said Hamlisch performed as "a young student at Julliard…[and it] influenced him greatly."
A particularly touching moment came when Dena DiGiacinto, Emily Fletcher and Hollie Howard (who played Bebe, Sheila and Maggie, respectively, in the recent touring company of A Chorus Line) sang what has been described as Hamlisch's favorite song, "At the Ballet." At the end, the three fell into their Chorus Line poses, turned around to Hamlisch's picture and bowed, no doubt paying the respects of the countless number of gypsies who ever dreamed of being the "One."
Company members from The Nutty Professor, Hamlisch's Broadway-aimed final musical, which was produced in a tryout this summer, sang "While I Still Have the Time," announced by pianist Kevin Cole as "one of the last songs Marvin Hamlisch ever wrote." The lyrics, by Rupert Holmes, were especially apt: "While I still have the time/I'll stop and savor each drop of time."
Aretha Franklin, looking lovely in a stark white suit, appeared next, singing "Nobody Does It Better," a song Hamlisch wrote in 1977 with Carole Bayer Sager for the James Bond flick "The Spy Who Loved Me." She closed with the spiritual hymn "Deep River."
The final spot of the evening was left to Streisand. "Marvin…Marvin…" she said in her unmistakable Brooklyn accent. "The name itself makes me smile." She recounted the time she first met Hamlisch in 1963 when he was the rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl. He also, as Streisand remembered, "got coffee for people, as well as playing the piano. And because I didn't drink coffee, he was assigned to get me a chocolate donut. But instead of just one, he always brought me two…and so our love affair began." Then the unmistakable melody from "The Way We Were" started to play on the piano, Streisand did her famous hum from the opening and a pin drop could be heard throughout the very crowded house.
And then she launched into a solemn version of "Through the Eyes of Love" from "Ice Castles," changing the lyrics to: "You will always be my friend, the memories never end/You were always there for me/ Anything I needed, I could count on you/ A friend so true/Looking through the eyes of love."
She ended the evening with this simple thought: "If you believe in the spirit living on, and I hope you do, then maybe Marvin is here." (Blake Ross is editor of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillBlake.)
Playbill.com looks back at Hamlisch's stage work: