PBS Documentary "What He Did for Love" Celebrates Award-Winning Composer Marvin Hamlisch

By Steven Suskin
25 Dec 2013

Terre Blair Hamlisch and Dori Berinstein
Photo by Heidi Gutman

While the fame was to continue, further success was to be elusive. His next musical, the 1978 They're Playing Our Song — written with his then-girlfriend, lyricist Carole Bayer Sager — was a hit. A year earlier, they wrote "Nobody Does It Better" for the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me." Carly Simon, who sang the song, mentions that when she met Hamlisch she thought he looked like a tax accountant.

But the rest of Hamlisch's musicals were quick failures. Film work continued, but he was no longer creating an artistic stir. After the twin 1983 failures of the musicals Smile and Jean Seberg, he was in freefall, wondering — he said — "Did I have any more to give?" (At this point in the documentary, Berenstein inserts a clip of Mama Hamlisch. Talk-show host: Who's your favorite composer? Mama: The truth? Gershwin.)

Hamlisch never again found success on Broadway, despite the intriguing-but-flawed Sweet Smell of Success. Another musical, the Jerry Lewis-helmed Nutty Professor, played a tryout in Nashville in 2012 — opening a week before the composer's death — but has yet to reach New York. He did create a niche of his own as a wildly popular conductor on the symphonic pops circuit. The documentary also tells how he finally found true and enduring love in 1989, when he met and married Terre Blair (who appears to be a perfect steward of the composer's work).

A long list of coworkers and colleagues are present in the film, with warm reminiscences and what seems like a genuine appreciation for their talented and funny friend. These include Donna McKechnie, Baayork Lee, Bob Avian, Robert Klein, Lucie Arnaz, Tim Rice, Melissa Manchester, Rupert Holmes, Steven Soderbergh, Maury Yeston, Nicholas Hytner, John Lithgow, Brian d'Arcy James, Raúl Esparza, Peter Filichia, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

"What He Did for Love" ends with a clip from a memorial concert of Klea Blackhurst singing "While I Still Have the Time," from The Nutty Professor. The song does, indeed, sound like another good Hamlisch showtune yet to come our way.

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Quincy Jones
Photo by Heidi Gutman