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The Way We Were: Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand

By Randal C. Hill

Marvin Hamlisch, who was responsible for writing the music to Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” used to utter an unusual prayer. Starting in 1964, when he was 20 years of age, he would privately plead, “Please, God, let Barbra Streisand sing one of my songs.”

A piano-playing prodigy from age five, Hamlisch graduated from New York’s Queens College in 1967. The first job he landed soon afterward was as a rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl,” with—of all people—Barbra Streisand.

One day years later, Marvin got a phone call from a friend about possibly writing a song for a film that would star Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. Thrilled by the possibility of his prayer actually paying off, Hamlisch resolved to capture the movie script in a single song. “I wanted to reflect all of the sorrow and despondency and pain of their relationship, the star-crossed nature of it,” he explained later.

But knowing that his tune would be custom-created for Streisand gave Marvin pause. “No matter what I was doing, I could hear Barbra’s voice in my head and recall how wonderful she sounds when she holds certain notes. I wanted to let her soar. I was determined not to write something drippingly sentimental.”

Hamlisch eventually came up with what was, to him, a perfect composition: “I’d been trying minor key melodies but thought they might have told you too much in advance that Streisand and Redford were never going to get together. So, I wrote a major key melody that was sad but also had a great deal of hope in it.”

Enter the lyric-writing couple Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who a few years earlier had garnered an Academy Award for penning the words to “The Windmills of Your Mind” from the film “The Thomas Crown Affair.” As a fitting complement to Marvin’s work, the duo created poignant word images that succinctly captured the essence of the Redford-Streisand tale:

Memories light the corners of my mind

Misty watercolor memories of the way we were

Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind

Smiles we gave to one another for the way we were

Hamlisch and the Bergmans performed the song for Barbra at her home. Although she was reluctant at first—she initially proclaimed it too sentimental—Streisand finally agreed to record what would become the Academy Award-winning classic for Columbia Records.

But all of Marvin’s hard work almost didn’t matter, as Streisand’s song was omitted from the original film version of “The Way We Were.” The determined Hamlisch, however, convinced Columbia’s studio moguls to hold two test screenings.

The first audience sat unmoved by the final scene (with no song), where Streisand and Redford realize they have no future together. The next screening included Barbra’s tune. Hamlisch recalled, “I heard a woman start to cry. And then another. And within minutes, there wasn’t a dry eye left. I knew I was right.”

One assumes that Marvin Hamlisch probably soon became a proponent for prayer. ISI

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