When Marvin Hamlisch auditioned for the Juilliard School of Music, he played not Chopin or Mozart but the American folk standard "Goodnight, Irene," a choice that could have had lamentable results for any other prospective student.
But Hamlisch quickly established there was little about his talent that was ordinary: He could perform the song in any key the admissions committee requested — and he was but 6 years old.
By the time he was 30, the former prodigy — the youngest student the prestigious New York school had ever admitted — was a wunderkind composer for Broadway and Hollywood, whose contribution to American popular music would bring comparisons to Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin.
Hamlisch — winner of three Academy Awards for 1973's "The Way We Were" and"The Sting," a Tony and a Pulitzer for the 1975 Broadway sensation"A Chorus Line," and four Emmys — collapsed and died Monday in Los Angeles at 68 after a brief illness, his publicist Ken Sunshine said. No other details were given.
A showman as well as a versatile composer, Hamlisch conquered an early fear of performing to become a draw on the nightclub circuit and later was principal pops conductor for several major symphonies, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony and San Diego Symphony.
Last month he conducted the Pasadena Symphony and Pops, which named him its principal pops conductor in 2011, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was set to announce his appointment to its pops podium next week.
Like Rodgers — the only other American composer to rival Hamlisch in the number of top awards — and Gershwin, Hamlisch "left a very specific … original mark on American music and added to the great American songbook with works he himself composed," said Paul Jan Zdunek, chief executive of the Pasadena Symphony Assn.
Hamlisch, who would sometimes remark that his last name began with "ham" for a reason, charmed audiences with his ad-libs and improvisational agility. He routinely included in his concerts a short segment he called "Rent-a-Composer," in which he composed and performed songs based on the audience's usually outlandish suggestions.
"The world will remember Marvin for his brilliant musical accomplishments, from 'A Chorus Line' to 'The Way We Were,' and so many others, but when I think of him now, it was his brilliantly quick mind, his generosity, and delicious sense of humor that made him a delight to be around," Barbra Streisand, who recorded her first million-selling single with "The Way We Were," said in a statement Tuesday. "He was a true musical genius."
Although he could easily have rested on his laurels, Hamlisch continued to write for movies, most recently for Steven Soderbergh's quirky 2009 comedy "The Informant!"
He was working on another Soderbergh project — a film about Liberace, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon — and was planning to travel to Nashville this week to see "The Nutty Professor," a stage musical he scored for director Jerry Lewis, who wrote and starred in the 1963 sci-fi comedy that inspired the current show. Hamlisch, who lived in New York, also had Broadway hopes for another musical he was working on called "Gotta Dance."
"He didn't want to waste a moment," said Michael Feinstein, the pianist-singer who is known for his devotion to the American songbook and who was slated to perform with Hamlisch and the New York Philharmonic onNew Year's Eve. "He had a passion for living, and he loved what he did.... His intelligence and sensitivity gave him the tools to musicalize life experiences in a very authentic way."
Marvin Frederick Hamlisch was born in New York City on June 2, 1944. His Austrian Jewish father, Max, was an accordionist with his own band. He once described his mother, Lily Schacter, as "a real Jewish, terrific mother." He had an older sister, Terry.
By age 5 he could play songs on the piano by ear after hearing them on the radio. He was a mischievous student in elementary school until a piano was wheeled into his classroom and he became the accompanist for school plays.
Hamlisch began giving public recitals in his teens but vomited violently before performances and finally gave up when "it became obvious it was going to kill me," he told Newsday in 1974. Enamored of show tunes, he focused his energies on composing and first heard his music performed before an audience when he was the music counselor at a girls' camp at Lake Geneva, N.Y.
One of his camp songs, "Travelin' Man," was recorded by Liza Minnelli on her first album, "Liza, Liza," released in 1964. That year he got his first taste of Broadway as an assistant to vocal arranger Buster Davis in "Funny Girl," starring Streisand as showgirl Fanny Brice.
A few years later Hamlisch was asked to play the piano at a party for Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel. The party changed his life. Three days after the event, he surprised the producer with a complete score for a dramatic movie Spiegel was planning to make called "The Swimmer," based on a John Cheever story. Spiegel hired him on the spot. Hamlisch submitted the score to his teacher at Queens College, who accepted it in lieu of the string quartet Hamlisch was supposed to write for a class assignment. He graduated from Queens in 1967 with a degree in music.
His work for Spiegel on the 1968 movie jump-started a prolific career composing for films. He produced music for more than 30 movies, including director Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run" (1969) and "Bananas" (1971), "Kotch" (1971), "Fat City" (1972), "Save the Tiger" (1973) and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1974).
At the same time he was writing for Broadway and penned the music for "Minnie's Boys," a musical inspired by the Marx Brothers' career. Though the play was a flop, he toured with Groucho Marx for three years as pianist and straight man.