Marvin Hamlisch’s funeral service this morning. I didn’t think I could write anything about this. But now I feel like I just have to. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. At 7:30AM, I was walking through Central Park, wearing all black, nervous and sad. Walking into Temple Emanu-El on 66th Street, within minutes, I was part of a 600-person choir rehearsal, all singing “What I Did For Love”. Hundreds of people. Some of our greatest composers and lyricists were there, amongst the chorus, honoring Marvin, including Sheldon Harnick, David Shire, Andrew Lippa, Maury Yeston, and Craig Carnelia and David Zippel, two of his great collaborators. I stood next to Anita Gillette, in front of a row of A Chorus Line alums, and behind Jonathan Tunick. And it was the most unbelievable thing.
I don’t sing in public. I am adamantly not a performer. I was actually pretty terrified to sing as part of this, even in a giant choir, as ridiculous as that sounds. I wanted to do it so much, and I was glad I got to be part of it, but just hearing the words “Soprano II vocal line” made me SO nervous! And then, when everyone started singing, and I was with the lovely Ashley Harrell, and my dear wonderful musical theatre godfather Larry Hochman was at the piano in the front of the room, and it was a song I’ve loved and sang since I was 5-years-old, I couldn’t have been more overjoyed to be there singing in that room. I was the opposite of terrified. Every note of that music was in me. That’s what Marvin did. He made music that made people happy. He made music that made people feel part of something. He made music that people felt deeply. And then suddenly, Idina Menzel was saying “Baruch Atah Adonai” into the mic to do a sound check, and I felt very Jewish and very musical and very much like I was in the exact right place. When the service started, the music being played on the organ was “I Cannot Hear The City” from Sweet Smell of Success. I couldn’t believe that. When Ashley and I saw a bunch of security guards at the entrance a couple feet away from us, we looked up- and President Bill Clinton walked in. The rabbi who came out and opened the service said, “I met Marvin when he was 15 years old, at this temple. His mother introduced him, and said, “My son is going to be the most famous composer in Hollywood!” At the time, I thought it was hubris, but it turned out—- she underestimated him.” The entire audience laughed. President Clinton was the first speaker. He was the first of so many people to say that “Marvin always said yes”. He said that it was so rare to meet a real Genius, and that to meet a Genius with a huge heart was even rarer- and that’s what Marvin was. One of Marvin’s best friends remembered “the giant Christmas parties they’d throw together, where half the guests were Jewish, and Marvin made up new verses to the ‘12 Days of Christmas’ with each party guest’s name in a verse, and he made Nora Ephron sing the original intro lyrics to White Christmas”. Every speaker shared these incredible memories, of Marvin playing the piano at summer camp, of Marvin getting the Yankees scores from a stagehand right before he went on stage to conduct, of Marvin at Julliard at age 7, of Marvin ordering every dessert on the menu so that nobody at the table would miss out on anything, of Marvin always answering his phone himself, always calling everyone back, always excited to be working on something new. Everyone said he’d be happy to know he had a full house today. There was a memory of how at opening night of the A Chorus Line revival, before anyone could compliment him, Marvin kept exclaiming how glad he was that Ed Kleban’s lyrics were being heard again. One remarkable young man delivered a message from Nancy Reagan, saying she’d never forget how hard Marvin fought for the arts, or how he wrote a song for Ronald Reagan’s surprise birthday party one year. Michelle and Barack Obama sent a message, and what I remember is their remark that “Marvin’s music changed the landscape of our imaginations.” The speaker said that Marvin was always mentoring young writers. For free. And that every time one of them became famous- and some did- he would treat them as an honored colleague- never as competition in any way. Every time I looked down the row, there was Liza Minnelli. There was Tony Danza. There was Richard Gere. But it wasn’t just an “Oh my god, that person is famous” kind of feeling. It was… Marvin touched millions of people. People who have made huge marks in show business, and also students, writers and actors of all levels, heads of state, religious figures, sports managers, people who just loved music. The rabbi said that one time, he and Marvin were at a museum and two older Southern ladies whispered to the rabbi, “When you’re alone, please tell Marvin Hamlisch how much we love his music!” and the rabbi said “Do you want to meet him?” and Marvin was thrilled to meet them, and signed their museum programs and spoke to them for awhile. A speaker (and I wish I could remember all of their names) said, “Marvin knew that it didn’t matter where you were from, or what you did—- it was music that we all shared.” For the entire service, my musical theatre godmother and mentor Mana Allen was on my mind. Mana was in Smile, and loved Marvin, and couldn’t be there today. But she was, somehow. Mana always tells me that one of the most magical parts of musical theatre is that it really is passed down person to person, and generation to generation. We get these stories, first-hand, about actual history, from people who were in shows, from people who created things that we loved growing up. And more than stories, we get to really know people who were THERE, and we carry them with us. I will carry so much of what Marvin created, and who he was, with me. He LOVED what he did. He LOVED people. He LOVED being part of this community. Like hundreds- probably thousands- of other people, whose lives he touched, he said “Yes”, to me, at a time when I was completely new. I was a random girl, calling him up, talking about NYU and “What I Did For Love”, and he really cared. He came and spoke to us. As soon as the funeral ended, I called my dad and talked to him about it, and he sang some of “At The Ballet” to me on the phone, and I laughed, and sang back, “Daddy, I would love to…” Marvin’s music changed everybody. It brought people together - it still does. It always will. It did on the phone with my dad. It did in a chorus of 600 strangers and friends and famous people and not-famous people and Christians and Jews and 80-year-olds and 20-year-olds in a temple today in the middle of Manhattan. Marvin’s wife Terre shared how when Marvin and Liza Minnelli were teenagers, they would ride the subway to auditions together, and Liza would be nervous and Marvin would leap up and sing to her, “You’ll be swell! You’ll be great!” from Gypsy, and people would stare at them. He understood that music could change people for the better. He spent his whole life doing that. Marvin had a quote from the Dalai Lama on his desk that he’d look at every day. It said, “We are visitors on this planet for 90 or 100 years at most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find that goal. This is the true meaning of life.” Thank you, Marvin Hamlisch. Thank you from all of us and thank you forever.