Marvin Hamlisch Hailed as a Singular Sensation at Music-Filled NYC Funeral Service

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14 Aug 2012

What Marvin Hamlisch did for love was acknowledged and honored by family, friends, fans and presidents at his funeral Aug. 14 at Congregation Emanu-El, the Fifth Avenue synagogue where, it was pointed out during the service, George Gershwin's funeral was held 75 years ago.

President Bill Clinton was first to salute Hamlisch's large and generous heart— "a great, giving genius," he called him. "Genius is rare enough, but a good-hearted genius is rarer still. A good-hearted, humble and hilarious genius — " he paused, reflected and amended: "Humble's no good," drawing an appreciative laugh from the crowd.

"My own memories of Marvin come from the fact that he liked to say yes rather than no," said Clinton, "and I can't tell you how many times over the last two decades that he said yes to Hillary and me. . . . He always knew that his gift could empower a people and touch millions of people because of what he did, often in a small room."

Similar sentiments were sent by President Barack Obama and, as if attesting to how generous and bi-partisan he was, by Nancy Reagan. Hillary Clinton wired as well.

The Oscar-winning composer of "The Way We Were" and the Tony-winning, Pulitzer-honored composer of A Chorus Line died Aug. 6 at age 68 after a brief illness.

It was a service Hamlisch might have stage-managed from on high. Yes, it was SRO, with gobs of celebrities turned out in 50 shades of black packing the house — er, temple. There were plenty of laughs in the remembrances, and a powerful emotional finish provided by his widow, Terre Blair Hamlisch. And there was, of course, the music that Hamlisch was famous for, all gorgeously orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick.

The title song from "The Way We Were" was rendered by a choir several hundred strong and including a number of high-profile peers and name-brand performers.

The service's sole solo was A Chorus Line's "At the Ballet," beautifully sung by Idina Menzel and the choir. "Apparently, it was his most favorite song," she said.

On the way in, mourners were handed a page of Ed Kleban's lyrics to "What I Did for Love," and invited to join in singing it at the close of the service. The coffin was carried from the temple to lingering strains of that sad and soaring song.

Priscilla Lopez, the Tony-nominated Morales of A Chorus Line, who sang that song to legendary status, was in attendance, as were two of the Tony-winning performers from that show — Donna McKechnie and Kelly Bishop.

McKechnie's big number from the show, "The Music and the Mirror," was a Hamlish redo of a song called "Inside the Music," she said. "It just didn't fit in with the rest of the score. It was a little too ambitious — trying too hard, I think. But Marvin was never precious about things. He just went, 'I'll write another one,' and he did. I always sing both songs in my club act. In fact, the last time I performed with him — a few years ago at Symphony Space — we did both songs. I'd never sung with him."

Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, the original cast of Hamlisch's They're Playing Our Song, were present, along with Klein's replacement, Tony Roberts, and Kelli O'Hara, who got her first big Broadway break in Hamlisch's Sweet Smell of Success.

The recurring leitmotif of the day was that Hamlisch was just a guy who couldn't say no. John Breglio, who produced the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line, echoed that notion: "Marvin would never turn down a project. He would call me and say, 'So-and-so wants me to do a musical about such-and-such,' and I'd say, 'That's a terrible idea,' and he'd say, 'Yes, it's a terrible idea, isn't it? But I'm going to do it anyway.' This would happen over and over again. He just loved to work."

Leslie Uggams went waaay back with Hamlisch. "We grew up together," she said. "We went to elementary through high school together, so I was one of the first singers of his music — at Professional Children's School. I'm missing a schoolmate."


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