Marvin Hamlisch, renowned composer for stage and film, leaves behind countless memories, strong Florida ties

Composer Marvin Hamlisch, 68, is shown performing at Lincoln Center in New York in 2004. He was a guest conductor for the Florida Orchestra four times, the first in 1990. He died Monday in Los Angeles.

Getty Images (2004)

Composer Marvin Hamlisch, 68, is shown performing at Lincoln Center in New York in 2004. He was a guest conductor for the Florida Orchestra four times, the first in 1990. He died Monday in Los Angeles.

Times Movie Critic

Memories lighted the corners of Leonard Stone's mind Tuesday after his friend and celebrated composer Marvin Hamlisch died.

Mr. Hamlisch, 68, collapsed Monday in Los Angeles after a brief, unidentified illness. It was an abrupt ending to a musical life earning the grand slam of entertainment awards — Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Emmy — plus a Pulitzer Prize for composing the Broadway hit A Chorus Line.

Stone, retired executive director of the Florida Orchestra, believes nobody did it better, over a half-century career that was singularly sensational.

Mr. Hamlisch certifiably sold millions of records. Nobody counted the number of tears shed by former lovers to the strains of The Way We Were, or promises made while dancing to Through the Eyes of Love from Ice Castles. His music made James Bond sexier (Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me) and Woody Allen sillier (soundtracks for Bananas and Take the Money and Run).

Stone, 77, knew Mr. Hamlisch for 30 years while directing symphonies in Dallas, Calgary and eventually the Florida Orchestra, which Mr. Hamlisch guest conducted four times. While in Dallas, Stone commissioned Mr. Hamlisch to compose a rare classical work, Anatomy of Peace, that played at the United Nations.

Now retired in Colorado, Stone spoke by telephone about the man and his music.

"So many greats in the pops conducting field have passed on: (Henry) Mancini, Mitch Miller, Skitch Henderson," Stone said. "But Marvin was almost like family, and so I'm taking this far more personally than I normally would. It's the loss of a career friend."

They met in 1982 in Dallas, when Stone broke the news backstage to Mr. Hamlisch that his agent rejected a deal selling a snippet of A Chorus Line music for an advertising campaign. Mr. Hamlisch asked how much money he missed. Stone said $1 million, the composer faked a faint and a friendship was forged in laughter.

That concert was one of Mr. Hamlisch's first appearances as a guest conductor, on Stone's suggestion. Previously Mr. Hamlisch had been solely a guest performer, like his 1990 Florida Orchestra debut with Henderson waving the baton.

As a conductor, Mr. Hamlisch could have loaded the play-list with his signature compositions, a body of work defying classification. He could render a romantically optimistic song like his first radio hit, 1965's Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows, or one laden with heartbreak like his Sophie's Choice soundtrack. Reviving Scott Joplin's ragtime generations later in The Sting is still one of Hollywood's noblest musical endeavors.

As a generous musician, Mr. Hamlisch wouldn't allow himself to be the whole show.

"His programs weren't really egocentric, per se," said Florida Orchestra associate director of marketing Henry Adams. "Of course they presented his music but he always mixed in tributes to that heritage that he is an extension of . . . this wonderful, rich, American (tradition), the Tin Pan Alley-Broadway-film heritage that he grew from, in a way."

Adams first saw Mr. Hamlisch in concert while working for the Oregon Symphony. He enjoyed the hits but loved an improvised bit also familiar to Tampa Bay audiences titled Rent-a-Composer, when the crowd shouted anything and Mr. Hamlisch turned it into a song.

"He starts humming and muttering to himself, tinkling the ivories," Adams said. "All of a sudden this song would start. It's amazing to come up with a beautiful melody. But then to put all these words together in this hysterical delivery, it was just a great joy.

"He was just the consummate host. Even with 3,000 people in the hall you felt like you were at a party at his home."

Concern for others was threaded through his life, in support for causes like the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, or the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when Mr. Hamlisch — living in New York City — called Stone in Florida to check on him.

"He's wondering how I was coping," Stone said. "I said, Marvin, I should have called you to ask how you're coping. But that's the kind of considerate guy Marvin was."

Mr. Hamlisch never played the celebrity card with Stone, preferring the same West- shore district hotel on each visit to Tampa Bay: "He'd say: 'I'm fine, it's a lovely hotel room and there's a P.F. Chang's (restaurant) across the street. What more do I need?' "

On the other hand, Stone recounted a story Mr. Hamlisch often told, about visiting the Far East with his wife, Terre, to meet the Dalai Lama when they were detained by armed bandits.

"These guys are coming out of the jungle, pistoleros with the bullet belts and carrying AK-47s," Stone said. "And Marvin turns to Terre and says: 'Do you think any of these guys know I wrote A Chorus Line?' "

Stone's smile for that memory of Mr. Hamlisch could be felt through the phone line. It's how he remembers a friend, so how will the world remember Marvin Hamlisch?

"He wrote 'our songs,' " Stone said, after some contemplation. "When he would play or conduct The Way We Were, I could see scores and scores of couples in the audience, holding hands or getting closer to each other.

"He wrote music that people, couples, lovers could relate to as 'their song.' "

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

Marvin Hamlisch, renowned composer for stage and film, leaves behind countless memories, strong Florida ties 08/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 12:09pm]

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