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

By Harry Haun
August 14, 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."

Hamlisch at the 2008 Theater Hall of Fame Honors
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Other mourners included Ann-Margret, Billy Stritch, Rita Gam, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Richard Osterweil, Raul Esparza, Jamie de Roy, Barbara Carroll, Bill Evans, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Frank Rich and Alex Witchel, Maria Cooper Janis, Jim Brochu, Stephanie J. Block, Bernadette Peters, Liliane Montevecchi, Tony Danza, Richard Gere, Liz Smith, Emanuel Azenberg, Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford, Joy and Regis Philbin, Fiddle Veracola and Richard Belzer.

Speakers at the funeral included Sony chief Sir Howard Stringer (who called Hamlisch "the merriest of minstrels"), and a friend of 48 years, Richard Kagan. They met as rival music counselors at camp in the Poconos, Hamlisch arriving with a banana in a brown paper bag that he had brought from NYC. "This will be easy," reasoned Kagan. Also speaking: Lily Safra, Leonard Lauder, William Mitchell and Ebs Burnough.

Hamlisch's widow, a former news anchor at Columbus' WTVN-TV, spoke last and most eloquently. She gave special shout-outs to two of his most cherished friends from widely different worlds — Liza Minnelli and former Yankee manager Joe Torre.

"Liza, he loved you so," she told the singer. "When they were young on subways on the way to auditions, he would belt out the song to Liza, 'You'll be swell/you'll be great' from Gypsy to cheer her up."

As for that other world: "His passion for music, especially for the theatre, was who he was. But he also had a mountainous love and passion for his beloved Yankees and for his dear close friend, Joe Torre. He used to have the Yankee scores whispered to him by someone strolling on stage right as he was performing. That's until he found this gizmo he bought that he could put on the conductor's stand. I thought I always sensed a bit more enthusiastic movement and rhapsody if the Yankees were winning."

There were times when he was ahead of the curve, she remembered. "As the genius process goes, sometimes he would write things that some people do not get right away, and he'd say, 'It's okay, Terre. I will be known as the people's composer because I will make music accessible to the millions.'

Mrs. Hamlisch pointed out her husband rallied to cultural causes. "His leadership, vision and contagious personality and enthusiasm for the stage transformed symphonies — symphonies that are in very difficult financial circumstances — and audiences adored him. He increased the Pasadena Symphony pre-sales 200 percent and had unprecedented sales. He saved cultural institutions, therefore continuing culture in our country. I liked the card with the Pasadena Symphony's flowers. It said, 'Marvin's genius was genuine.'"

This week the announcement was to be made that he would be the musical director of the Philadelphia Pops. "He had so many things that he was looking forward to. His friend Jay Stein said that he was the Steve Jobs of this industry. He started early and ended early, but he changed lives.

"Marvin had this quote hanging in front of his desk that he looked at every day. It's a quote from His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama. It says, 'The true meaning of life: We are visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives. If you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.' You did that, honey. You were so much greater than you ever thought. How fortunate we all are in our time that you came our way.

"How incredibly lucky and grateful and honored and humbled I was to share 26 years with you. Thank you from the depths of my heart. I love you, Marvin, and I always will. Just like it said on our wedding napkins: 'Forever — and after that.' Thank you. Thank you for all of us."

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Hamlisch in rehearsal for Smile with Anne Bobby, Tia Riebling, Nikki Rene, Donna Marie Elio, Veanne Cox, Lauren Goler, Cheryl-Ann Rossi, Julie Tussey, Cindy Oakes and Jodi Benson, Sept. 1986