“Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love,” is documentary filmmaker Dori Berinstein’s love letter to the beloved composer. It will air on PBS at 9pm ET on Fri., Dec. 27, 2013 as part of the American Masters series. (Check your local listings to confirm time.)
The late composer wrote such iconic works as “The Way We Were,” “Nobody Does It Better,” and the score for “A Chorus Line.” While he had not exactly been well, he was still working, and his death was sudden on August 6, 2012 at the age of 68.
Hamlisch and composer Richard Rodgers are the only two people in history to have won at least one Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize. Hamlisch also won two Golden Globe awards during his career. What many people don’t know about him is that he was a prodigy. He was accepted into Juilliard at six years old. (That isn’t a typo!)
I watched a screener of the documentary and chatted on the phone with Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill (daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) about Hamlisch, whom she worked with off and on for many years, starting with her Broadway debut in his musical, “They’re Playing Our Song,” in 1979.
She appears in the documentary, along with many others who knew Hamlisch, including Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Liza Minnelli, Idina Menzel, Christopher Walken, Raul Esparza, and his wife, Terre Blair Hamlisch. I highly recommend the film, so set your DVR now.
Below are some of the highlights of my fun conversation with Lucie.
I watched the PBS special, and my only complaint is that it wasn’t long enough.
That’s exactly what I said to Dori. “You got me so involved in this that I didn’t want it to end.” I wanted him to just keep on talking and people to keep on showing me things about him….
She’s a really amazing filmmaker – she really is. I’ve watched several of the documentaries that Dori has done, and they’re always thorough and very heartfelt – very deeply, deeply felt. She gets passionate about her subjects. It wasn’t a job. She loved Marvin.
But it’s hard. I made a documentary, and I did it on my parents. And you love somebody, but you still want to tell the whole story. You still want to be objective as much as possible – objective and loving. It’s not a trash piece about what went wrong, and it’s not a tribute piece that’s boring. She really knows how to walk that fine line.
I know every musical goes through a development process, and I saw where you talked about some of the songs that got thrown out when you did “They’re Playing Our Song.” I’m just wondering how much you witnessed that, and were there songs that you heard that you were sad you wouldn’t get to sing?
Well, no, not necessarily. I wasn’t sad that I didn’t get to sing them because I so incredibly trusted the team there. It was my first Broadway musical. I wouldn’t dare to presume that I knew more than they did at the time. It’s a wonderful process, like you say. They wrote some good stuff. It just wasn’t exactly what should be said right then. And that’s kind of what happens with great tunes….
There was a very cute song that I used to sing just at the very end of Act 1 before she makes the decision to go away with Vernon for the weekend. It ended up being a song called “Just For Tonight,” which is a lovely, lovely song and a lot more thoughtful as far as making a decision, “Am I going to do this?” sort of going against her better judgment. And it was a deeper way of doing that.
The words were sort of the same in both songs. They were both kind of on the same level, but Marvin’s music changed for “Just For Tonight.” It was a much deeper, introspective “I’m not going to think what anybody else is saying, I’m not going to think about how it can go badly, it’s just tonight, how bad could it be?”
The song before was called “I Got This Feeling,” and it was peppier. [Singing] Happy doodle, nothing’s wrong, everything’s groovy, we’re riding on a bike through the desert. “Just For Tonight” was just a different vibe, and that one made the end of the act better. So, “I Got This Feeling” went bye-bye. And I still love that song.
On the other hand, he was trying to replace, “I Still Believe in Love.” For some strange reason, he and Carole [Bayer Sager] never thought that was going to be the penultimate 11:00 number. So, they kept fooling around with it and writing all this other stuff….
I would just shut up and go up there at midnight after the show and learn it, commit it to memory. He’d pay all this money to re-copy the thing. In those days, you didn’t just push a button on your computer. It was like 20 people came in and started writing. And the new song would go in the next night or the night after that. And he’d hear it and say, “Oh, it’s terrible. Let’s not do that.” And I was glad because it wasn’t nearly as good as what he ended up with. But that’s part of the process.
When you worked with him, was he generally fun-loving, was he a task-master, or was he a little bit of both?
Well, I think all good musicians are a little bit of both. In some respects, they’re not wasting time. They’re not letting other people step all over them and decide what needs to be done. He did his job and did it well and made sure it got done.
When he conducts a symphony, he’s hysterically funny, but he’s a real task-master. I mean, he hears every note. He has 60, 70 pieces in front of him. And I’m listening to this incredible music that just sounds like pure heaven to me, and he’ll go, “Okay, bassoon, bar 32, second note – was that a B-flat? That’s supposed to be a B-flat; did you hit a B-flat? Don’t do that, man! You did that twice.” Wow! Whoa!
He’s not going to go, “I think there was a wrong note somewhere. Could it have been you? I’m just asking.” He’s this great guy with a great sense of humor. He loves everybody and treats everybody great. That’s the way to be…. But is he fun to be around? Constantly fun! Oh my God, there’s nobody more fun than working with Marvin. Everything’s a joy….
He was a Pops conductor … and he would come out and just talk to the audience like they were in his living room in the Bronx and talk to children in the first rows about music in a way that only your friend would. Just a wonderful teacher, a wonderful host to the music of the world that he would introduce to people….
I can’t put him in the past tense yet.
One of the things that floored me was learning how prolific he was. It seems like writer’s block wasn’t a part of his vocabulary. I loved the story about his wife finding a cake of soap in the bathroom that he had scratched notes upon.
[Laughter] I don’t remember that. It must have been added after the cut that I saw….
I asked him to give me a special arrangement of “I Still Believe in Love” about 13 years after I was in the show. I had my own club act by then, and was running around the country. But I wanted to sing the song. But every time I tried to sing it, the only music I had to work from was the arrangement from the show itself. It had a certain cadence, and it had to keep going at a certain pace because it was supposed to be a demo [in the story of the musical].
As I sang it as an older person – not a 28-year-old, unmarried, not a mother – I told Marvin, “Every time I sing it now, I don’t feel connected to it in the same way I should be, knowing what I know now. It’s still a great song, but something’s missing.” I thought he was going to tell me how to sing it better, but he said, “Oh, you just need a mature arrangement of this song.” And I thought, “What is that? A ‘mature’ arrangement, like yours was the baby version?”
So, he said, “Listen, let’s talk about your feelings.” So, he talked to me like a psychologist for an hour and a half about being married, what a 13-year relationship is like. At that point, he had never had that. And being a mother and what that’s like, and how is it different from what you thought it was going to be like. He said, “Tell me everything, and I’m just going to absorb it. And then, you go away, and I’ll come up with something.”
We did that, and I went away for a week or so. I came back, and he had put together this amazing medley of a song that he’d completely created out of his own head which were lyrics and music that were completely original. And it was all based on notes he had taken from what I had said. But it segued into Irving Berlin’s “Always,” and then, it segued into “I Still Believe In Love.” It was just the most amazing thing. I still do it in my show…. Just a brilliant idea, and so generous of him, too, because he’s using one of the greatest songwriters ever before his own song….
He [also] wrote a children’s book [called Marvin Makes Music]. It’s so charming, and it’s his story of being a young kid, getting into Juilliard…. He said that when he was a kid, everything he heard – a plane that’s flying low, potatoes as they fry, the rain that hits the cement, lemonade being stirred – it all sounded like music to him. And he would automatically figure out how to translate that into some sort of music. What would be playing that, and how would I orchestrate that?
Wow. His brain was just a lot different from mine!
Geniuses. They think differently….
It makes me believe in reincarnation.
Yeah, I think somebody is being reincarnated right now with Marvin because he wasn’t done yet. It’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to find another body because I’ve got music in me that was not composed yet.”
He must have! I mean, all those soaps that were not scratched upon!
That’s right. There are cakes and cakes of soap left!