Marvin Hamlisch’s Longtime Friend Pens Musical Tribute for Yom Kippur (Exclusive)
For 48 years, Richard Kagan was the famed composer's best friend and at times his producer. Now he has put music to a traditional prayer to honor Hamlisch on the most holy day of the Jewish year.
Composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch passed away in August, but his musical spirit will live on at the Beverly Hills Temple For The Arts this Yom Kippur (Sept. 26) thanks to his lifelong best friend, Richard Kagan.
At the request of Rabbi David Baron, Kagan has written original music to turn a traditional High Holy Day liturgical prayer into a song called My Soul Is Yours, in honor of the beloved composer (who was not a member of the congregation but was a prominent Jewish community philanthropist).
“I wrote a melody I thought was solemn and that Marvin would approve,” says Kagan, who had been friends with Hamlisch for 48 years and was with him when he died at age 68. “It has a nice melody and for that prayer, I thought it was a good match.”
Kagan feels that his friend was channeling through him as he wrote. “He’s looking down on high; he put those notes down for me,” says Kagan. “This music, in my mind, came from him.”
According to Rabbi Baron, the text of the song translates from Hebrew to English as: “The soul is yours oh Lord. The body is your creation. Have mercy on your work.”
Kagan, who lives in L.A., was at his home in Maine in August when he got a call from Hamlisch, who said he had not been feeling well, and wondered if Kagan was available to travel with him. Hamlisch was traveling from his home in upstate New York to Los Angeles to conduct a score for the upcoming HBO movie on Liberace, Behind The Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Then Hamlisch was to fly to Nashville where his score for The Nutty Professor was being staged in an out of town tryout before going to Broadway. Kagan met him at the airport in New York at JFK and they flew together. They went directly to a hotel in Burbank, arriving about 8 p.m. and ordered dinner from room service. When Kagan heard a crashing sound he rushed into the bathroom and found Hamlisch on the floor. He called an ambulance and rushed him to nearby St. Joseph’s hospital.
The doctors there could not revive Hamlisch but he still had a heart beat so he was taken by ambulance to UCLA Medical Center, which had more sophisticated facilities.
Hamlisch was pronounced dead at about 12:30 a.m. The causes listed on the death certificate are respiratory arrest, anoxic brain encephalopathy and hypertension.
“It was amazingly difficult,” says Kagan. “This was shocking and my life is so profoundly changed. This is somebody I would talk to almost every day. He was my best friend in the world, so it’s really very hard.”
Kagan eulogized Hamlisch Aug. 14 at a memorial service at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, where many family members and the famous spoke and attended, including former President Bill Clinton and Sony chairman Howard Stringer.
Kagan was back in Maine with his wife, actress Julie Hagerty, not long after when he got a call from Rabbi Baron asking if he would write a melody for a prayer in his friend’s honor.
When Kagan agreed the Rabbi sent him the words. “It was very short and in Hebrew,” recalled Kagan.
He soon sent his musical score back to the Rabbi, who turned it over to his musical director, Sharon Farber, who did the orchestration and will perform the music. “They told me they wanted to use it on Yom Kippur and were very excited about it,” says Kagan. “It’s Marvin’s touch that made it possible.”
"Remembering Marvin Hamlisch with the performance of this new piece of music written is his honor is very appropriate for us, “ says Rabbi Baron, “since the mission of the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts is to promote religion through music, drama, arts and dance.”
Kagan and his wife will be in attendance when the music is played and the lyrics are sung. “I have a huge void in my heart and all of a sudden now I have a little bit of it filled,” says Kagan, “knowing something he’s related to, because in my mind this came from him, will be played. He would be thrilled.”
Kagan first met Hamlisch in 1964 at age 18 when both were counselors at Camp Geneva in Lake Como, Pennsylvania, which is part of the Pocono Mountains. His job, first alone, and the following year with Hamlisch, was to write songs and adapt music so the campers could put on a musical play a week.
Kagan had harbored thoughts of becoming a composer but after he heard Hamlisch play, he recalls, “it changed my life. I was overwhelmed by his talent. I knew for me it was time to go into the insurance business.”
For the next four decades, Kagan ran a successful life insurance business in L.A. but remained close with Hamlisch, who respected his thoughts on the music. Hamlisch would play every score he wrote for Kagan and often invite him to sit in on recording sessions. “I was there with Jack Lemmon when they did Kotch. Jack Lemmon was sitting on a stool and Marvin was conducting and Marvin’s father was sitting behind him sketching a cartoon of this picture.”
Kagan was with him at the Academy Awards in 1974 when Hamlisch won three Oscars in one night for The Way We Were, with his frequent collaborator Barbra Streisand. He was the one who drove him to the airport the next morning so Hamlisch could appear on the Mike Douglas talk show.
The one time Kagan was excluded from a recording session had been for The Way We Were. “It was a closed set,” recalls Kagan, “so (Hamlisch) took the phone off the hook and I heard Ms. Streisand sing it when they were recording.”
Kagan wasn’t just a passive listener. Hamlisch wanted someone he could trust on the business side when he got involved with some of the musicals he wrote, so Kagan served as producer on The Goodbye Girl (earning a Tony nomination), Smile and Jean Seberg.
In 1989, Kagan retired from producing shows when he became a member of the board of the Center Theatre Group in L.A., which oversees the Ahmanson, The Taper and the Kirk Douglas theaters. He served as president and chairman over nine years.
During the last couple of years, Kagan had returned to writing music with a lot of encouragement from Hamlisch. At his friend’s suggestion, Kagan contacted Hal David, who wrote lyrics for a couple of his songs (which are now being considered by Josh Groban). David passed away Sept. 1.
In New York on Tuesday night, Streisand performed along with Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli, and Michael Feinstein, cast members from A Chorus Line and others in a tribute to Hamlisch. The invitation only event at the Peter Sharp theater is a benefit for The Julliard School, which was to announce scholarships in his name during the evening.