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, Hamlisch, who died at 68 after a short illness, composed music for film heroes from James Bond and 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.
“I’m shocked by the loss of a great colleague, as is everyone in the theater and film business and every corner of the arts where song and score matter to people,” said Alan Menken, the Academy- and Tony Award-winning composer. “The fraternity of songwriters has lost a great friend.”
Hamlisch collapsed and died Monday in Los Angeles after a brief illness, his publicist Ken Sunshine said, citing the family. Other details were not released.
The New York-born Hamlisch composed 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!”
He became one of the most decorated artists in history, winning three Oscars, four Emmys, four Grammys, a Tony, a Pulitzer and three Golden Globes.
“There is some kind of gorgeous music in the heavens tonight,” said Emmy-winning singer and actress Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball who performed with Hamlisch for years.
Hamlisch was principal pops conductor for symphony orchestras in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Dallas, Pasadena and San Diego. He was to be announced to the same position with the Philadelphia Orchestra and also was due to lead the New York Philharmonic during its upcoming New Year’s Eve concert.
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. To this day, it’s blasted by ice cream trucks.
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 was scheduled to fly to Nashville, Tenn., this week to see a new musical production of his musical “The Nutty Professor,” directed by Jerry Lewis.
Hamlisch 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.
“He was classic and one of a kind,” Franklin said Tuesday after learning of his death, calling him one of the “all-time great” arrangers and producers. “Who will ever forget ‘The Way We Were’?”
He won the 1974 Grammys for best new artist and song of the year, “The Way We Were,” performed by Barbra Streisand. He kept writing, from the title song for the TV series “Brooklyn Bridge” to the stunning score of the movie “The Swimmer” to the symphonic suite “Anatomy of Peace.” He also wrote the original theme song for ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Hamlisch’s 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,” 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. Hamlisch’s first important job in the theater was as rehearsal pianist for the Broadway production of “Funny Girl” with Streisand in 1964. He graduated to other shows like “Fade Out-Fade In,” “Golden Rainbow” and “Henry, Sweet Henry,” and other jobs like arranging dance and vocal music.
“Maybe I’m old-fashioned,” he told The Associated Press in a 1986 interview. “But I remember the beauty and thrill of being moved by Broadway musicals — particularly the endings of shows. The end of ‘West Side Story,’ where audiences cried their eyes out. The last few chords of ‘My Fair Lady.’ Just great.”
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 said in 1996. He earned a bachelor’s in music from Queens College of the City University of New York.
“The Way We Were” — a big, sentimental movie ballad that became hugely successful in the rock era — exemplified Hamlisch’s old-fashioned appeal. He was extremely versatile, creating musical themes for the Woody Allen comedy “Bananas” and the somber family drama “Ordinary People.” His music electrified 007 in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” especially the torch song “Nobody Does It Better,” performed by Carly Simon.
Although known for his hits, 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.
“Normally I can balance two or three things,” he said in 1991. “The problem is when you’re out of work and don’t have anything to balance. I think people assume you’re always busy. You go through dry spells.”
Hamlisch’s place in popular culture reached beyond his music. His nerdy, thick-eyeglasses look was celebrated in the 1970s on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” when Gilda Radner’s Lisa Loopner swooned over Hamlisch tunes.
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.