Wednesday, August 08, 2012
Broadway's Two-Hit Wonder, Marvin Hamlisch, Dies; After Early Success, Struggled through Many Fruitless Collaborations
His short-lived success on Broadway as a leading composer (A Chorus Line, They're Playing Our Song) says more about the changing nature of how new musicals are assembled than about his considerable talents. No longer does Broadway host successful song writers over a lifetime, as it did when the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin reigned.
No longer, in fact, does a composer's name hold much sway over the marketplace. Can you tell me who wrote the songs for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? For The Book of Mormon?
For In the Heights? All those shows bear top-flights scores.
Marvin Hamlisch, who died this week at the age of 68, is most remembered and celebrated for arguably one of the most affecting pop songs ever written (with words by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), "The Way We Were."
So, why was he unable to produce more successful musicals? He was never able to settle down with a regular collaborator. After the man who supplied the words to his music for A Chorus Line, Ed Kleban, died (of AIDS), Hamlisch turned to Carol Bayer Sager; they not only came up with the winning songs for They're Playing Our Song, but they enjoyed a short-lived affair which, when it ended, also spelled the end to their creative partnership. From there, Hamlisch wandered from one collaborator to another. He would never again produce a Broadway hit. Which is a shame, but hardly unusual for somebody today who enjoys opening night acclaim on the Great White Way, only never to experience it again.
During the so-called "golden age" of Broadway musicals, the most prolific of all composers, Richard Rodgers, valued consistency in collaboration to such a degree, and wisely so, that he suffered untold frustration working with lyricist Larry Hart. When Hart became virtually impossible to work with, Rodgers transferred to Oscar Hammerstein II, and when Hammerstein died, Rodgers tried other collaborators, including Stephen Sondheim (Do I Hear A Waltz? -- a fine score), but with none did he achieve anything approaching success.
Here is a true end point: There is the story of Jerome Kern being introduced, at a social function, to one of the guests, who exclaimed, "Oh, you are the man who wrote 'Old Man River!'" "No," corrected Dorothy Hammerstein, wife of Oscar, "Mr. Berlin wrote [the notes] da - da - da - da ... my husband wrote 'old man river.'"