New PBS film shows why musical giant Hamlisch was marvelous
Pittsburgh music lovers had the privilege of getting to know Marvin Hamlisch at concerts over the last 20 years of his life, including 17 as principal conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, a post he held until his death Aug. 6, 2012.
People had known his music for a long time. He was 29 in 1973 when he won three Academy Awards on the same night, two for “The Way We Were” and one for “The Sting.” Two years later, he wrote the breakthrough Broadway show “A Chorus Line.”
Yet, encountering Hamlisch as an entertainer on stage was a different experience from enjoying his music because we got to know him. We learned about his life through an endless supply of great stories about celebrities he'd worked with, always told with mildly self-deprecating wit. We saw his boundless enthusiasm for people and the music he loved. And, we saw his sense of humor was genuinely spontaneous, not pre-written jokes.
Many tributes have been offered to Hamlisch since his death yet a new television documentary called “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love” reaches another level in evoking the person we enjoyed so much. The 90-minute show will be telecast Dec. 27 nationally on PBS and locally on WQED.
Producer, director and writer Dori Berinstein spent more than a year creating the show, drawing on family home movies and a vast amount of film and television material. She interviewed more than two dozen people, from his widow Terre Blair Hamlisch, to Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Steve Soderbergh, Melissa Manchester and many more. Berinstein knew Hamlisch from being the producer of the last two shows he worked on.
Berinstein's wisest choice may have been to let Hamlisch tell as much of the story as possible. We hear from him how he got into the Juilliard School when he was 6 and why seeing “Hello Dolly” on Broadway showed the superiority for him of theater over film. He explains why “The Way We Were” theme had to come back at the end of the film just as Streisand brushes back Robert Redford's blond hair, and what inspired a “whoosh” in the “Ice Castles” theme.
While there is footage from Heinz Hall, it doesn't include the spontaneous wit that made his concerts so remarkable. Nor is there anything about his work with Groucho Marx. Berinstein said in an interview omitting Groucho was a big regret but that there wasn't enough documentary material on the subject.
Much of the opening of “What He Did for Love” depends on home films and scrapbooks kept by Hamlisch's mother, sister and cousins. Terre Hamlisch says her husband kept a lock box in which she found a letter from his father after he won the three Academy Awards, the questionnaire she gave him before their first date and a few other items.
“He was not one to live in the past,” she says. “I think people would have been very surprised to know a lot of the awards he won were in a drawer behind him. That was then. This was now. He just wasn't concerned with accolades. He was very concerned with the present.”
Near the end of the show we hear one of his final songs, “While I Still Have the Time,” written for the show “The Nutty Professor,” which is unfinished. It is poignant now in a way similar to George Gershwin's last song, “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.