Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nobody's too big to fail

But 26 years ago, I thought Marvin Hamlisch was.

He'd already had a Broadway hit with "They're Playing Our Song," shared a Pulitzer Prize and won a Tony for the groundbreaking "A Chorus Line" and collected three Oscars in one night for "The Sting" and "The Way We Were." (He had also written "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" for Leslie Gore -- briefly, when I was 10, my favorite song.)

Now he was composing a new musical with Howard Ashman, the witty lyricist from "Little Shop of Horrors." (Ashman's great Disney collaborations with Alan Menken were ahead of him.) They'd chosen to adapt "Smile," a satire of the beauty-pageant world that had gotten strong reviews as a movie in 1975. Future "Little Mermaid" star Jodi Benson had the leading role, and Rock Hill's own William Ivey Long (who had recently won the first of many Tonys for "Nine") did the glittering costumes.

I bought an orchestra seat weeks in advance for the second day of the Broadway run, before reviews were posted, and enjoyed the show. The songs, I thought, were especially strong. But the critics were brutal. Despite its strong advance sale, "Smile" closed six weeks later.

Hamlisch went on to win his "EGOT," as people call the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony cycle. (He's one of only 11 people to do that competitively. Only two have also won a Pulitzer: Hamlisch and composer Richard Rodgers.)

But his career was never the same. Between "Smile" and his death this week, he never again wrote a musical that could run for six months. He never again wrote or adapted a score for a hit movie. He ended up as a musical director for tours by Barbra Streisand and Linda Ronstadt and conducted pops concerts for symphony orchestras.

His death reminded me once more how fickle show business can be. One of the hottest musical figures of the 1970s hit a couple of rough patches in the 1980s, and boom! He was old news. Maybe his confidence failed. Maybe his talent had reached its limits anyhow. Either way, he was all but gone. So I'll say R.I.P. here to a man forgotten before his time.


Anonymous said...

He was anything but forgotten, and why you would write such a depressing story about him is beyond me. Is this the best you can do? This story sucks.

King Ward said...

I wish I could fail like he did.

Anonymous said...

Lawrence, why so bitter and nasty? Did he diss you somewhere along the way? I suspect there's more to your bile than you're telling us.

Most working musicians would love to have had the career of Marvin Hamlisch.

"Maybe his talent had reached his limit anyhow"?

Your not-a-eulogy is bewildering and tacky.

Mark Caplan said...

I think I once saw one of Marvin Hamlisch's personal ads: "Hates to SMILE."

Did I really see Marvin Hamlisch's and Richard Rodger's names in the same sentence?

Anonymous said...

I dunno, Mark.

"A Chorus Line" pretty much eclipsed the run of any Rodgers & Hammerstein show.

Except for "Oklahoma!" and "The Sound of Music" (immortalized in film, not by its Broadway run) the other R&H efforts are starting to fade from the collective memory.

Of course, YMMV. :)