Marvin Hamlisch, famous for composing "A Chorus Line," pop songs including "The Way We Were" and the theme from "The Sting," died Monday in Los Angeles after an illness. He became the Seattle Symphony's principal pops conductor in 2008.
NEW YORK — Marvin Hamlisch was blessed with perfect pitch and an infallible ear. “I heard sounds that other children didn’t hear,” he wrote in his autobiography.
He turned that skill into writing and arranging compulsively memorable songs that the world was unable to stop humming — from the mournful “The Way We Were” to the jaunty theme from “The Sting.”
Prolific and seeming without boundaries, Mr. Hamlisch, who died Monday in Los Angeles at 68 after a short illness, composed music for film heroes from James Bond to Woody Allen, for powerful singers such as Liza Minnelli and Aretha Franklin, and high-kicking dancers of the Tony-winning “A Chorus Line.” To borrow one of his song titles, nobody did it better.
Seattle knew Mr. Hamlisch as the Seattle Symphony’s principal pops conductor. In that role, which he assumed in 2008, he programmed several concerts a year, and conducted two or three.
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Symphony violinist Michael Miropolsky remembers Mr. Hamlisch as “a unique human being” who could make friends with anybody and get laughs from everybody: “He had this great gift to make anybody be happy around him.”
In concert, musicians could count on the unexpected from Mr. Hamlisch — “Different jokes, different stories, different timing for everything” — even when it was the third or fourth performance of the same program.
But the deepest impression Mr. Hamlisch made was one of character.
“He was generous,” Miropolsky said. “If you needed something, he was there.”
“He was a true musical genius, but above all that, he was a beautiful human being. I will truly miss him,” said Barbra Streisand, who first met the composer in 1963 and sang his “The Way We Were” to a Grammy win in 1974. “It was his brilliantly quick mind, his generosity and delicious sense of humor that made him a delight to be around.”
The New York-born composer wrote more than 40 film scores, including “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People,” “The Way We Were” and “Take the Money and Run.” His latest work came for Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”
Mr. Hamlisch became one of the most decorated artists in history, winning three Oscars, four Emmys, four Grammys, a Tony, a Pulitzer and three Golden Globes. The marquees of Broadway theaters in New York will be dimmed in his memory at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
He was perhaps best known for adapting composer Scott Joplin on “The Sting.” In the mid-’70s, it seemed everybody with a piano had the sheet music to “The Entertainer,” the movie’s theme song.
Mr. Hamlisch received both a Tony and the Pulitzer for “A Chorus Line” — the second longest-running American show in Broadway history — and wrote the music for “The Goodbye Girl” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”
He even reached into the pop world, writing the No. 1 R&B hit “Break It to Me Gently” with Carole Bayer Sager for Franklin. He co-wrote “One Song” sung by Tevin Campbell and produced by Quincy Jones, and “I Don’t Do Duets” sung by Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight.
His interest in music started early. At the age of 7, he entered the Juilliard School of Music, having stunned the admissions committee with his renditions of “Goodnight Irene” in any key they desired.
In his autobiography, “The Way I Was,” Mr. Hamlisch admitted that he lived in fear of not meeting his father’s expectations. “By the time Gershwin was your age, he was dead,” the Viennese-born musician would tell his son. “And he’d written a concerto. Where’s your concerto, Marvin?”
In his teens, he switched from piano recitals to songwriting. Show music held a special fascination for him. His first important job in the theater was as rehearsal pianist for the Broadway production of “Funny Girl” with Streisand in 1964.
Although he was one of the youngest students ever at Juilliard, he never studied conducting. “I remember somebody told me, ‘Earn while you learn,’ ” he told The Associated Press in 1996. He earned a bachelor’s in music from Queens College of the City University of New York.
Although known for hits such as “The Way We Were” and “Nobody Does It Better,” Mr. Hamlisch had fallow periods, including two theatrical flops in the mid-1980s: “Jean Seberg” on the London stage and “Smile,” loosely based on a 1978 movie about a small-time beauty pageant, on Broadway.
Mr. Hamlisch was principal pops conductor for symphony orchestras in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Dallas, Pasadena and San Diego, in addition to Seattle, at the time of his death.
He will be missed in his many homes, said Seattle Symphony musician Miropolsky.
“He was like a volcano of anecdotes,” he said. “Nothing was written in stone for him. He was always moving, never stagnating, even with his own music. ‘I composed this tune 30 years ago,’ he might say. ‘I think we have to do something different.’ “
“Every time he made a change,” Miropolsky added, “it made sense. It sounded fresh. He kept everybody on their toes. Every time, the two hours of the concert was like we were attending the concert — and really enjoying it.”
Mr. Hamlisch was working on a new musical, “Gotta Dance,” at the time of his death and was scheduled to write the score for a new Soderbergh film on Liberace, “Behind the Candelabra,” starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Terre, a television producer.
Seattle Times arts writer Michael Upchurch contributed to this report.