Marvin Hamlisch is back -- but is he here to stay?

Veteran is this year's THR-Billboard Maestro Award honoree

Marvin Hamlisch is telling a joke.

He is at a reception in Ghent, Belgium, following a rousing appearance at the World Soundtrack Awards, where he has just been presented with a lifetime achievement award. After a night that included taking the Brussels Philharmonic through a medley of his best-known work -- and garnering two extended standing ovations in the process -- Hamlisch is in a very good mood. "Don't mention anything about that thing that happened in Mississippi!" he says with mock concern to a journalist. "How was I to know they were twins?"

It's a typically deadpan Hamlisch moment, and one that hits its mark: Those within earshot laugh out loud, and Hamlisch smiles, clearly pleased.

Spend even a short amount of time with the man and you'll learn that Hamlisch appears to be the complete antithesis of the classic image of the brooding, solitary composer. His sense of humor is always on display and is frequently a variation on the same theme: The joke is usually on him, and often a parody of his clean-cut, buttoned-down, decidedly non-Hollywood image. It is a persona that hasn't changed in three decades, and the self-deprecating humor is his way of saying "I get it."

Almost always dressed in a jacket and tie -- he is the only one at the afterparty wearing a tuxedo -- with the same hair style and glasses he's sported since becoming a household name in the early 1970s, Hamlisch is unapologetically of the old school. He prefers New York over Hollywood, has worked with everyone from Sinatra to Streisand and has been happily married to the same woman for 21 years.

But appearances can be deceiving. Probe a little deeper and a different Marvin Hamlisch emerges, one whose affable, impeccably tailored exterior conceals a restless soul with a focused, highly disciplined approach to music and life that few could match. He is, by his own admission, obsessed with work, with a need to stay busy that seems at odds with his easygoing persona. This is, after all, the youngest person ever to be accepted into Juilliard (at the age of 6, and if you mistakenly say 7, he'll gently correct you), who picked up three Oscars in one night at the tender age of 24 (two for "The Way We Were" and one for "The Sting") and is one of only two people in the world to win an Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe, Emmy, Tony and Pulitzer. (Richard Rodgers is the other.) Accomplishments like these don't happen by accident.

Indeed, Marvin Hamlisch may play the clown, but rest assured -- he's nobody's fool.

Now, after a 12-year self-imposed exile from film music, Hamlisch is back, and his jazzy, versatile score for Steven Soderbergh's oddball comedy "The Informant!" is reminding everyone that he is one of the few true masters of film composition. It is for this achievement and this stellar comeback that The Hollywood Reporter is honoring him with this year's Maestro Award.

So what lured him back to the mixing table? It all started with a score Hamlisch wrote for Woody Allen 28 years ago.

"Steven Soderbergh was watching Woody's 'Bananas' and he knew he had this movie 'The Informant!' coming up," Hamlisch recalls over tea in a hotel bar. "He said to someone, 'I really like this score -- who can we get to do something like this'? They said, 'Why don't you get Marvin Hamlisch?' "

After a successful meeting with Soderbergh, Hamlisch read the script and, he admits, felt a little perplexed. "It didn't read as funny as you'd imagine a comedy would read," he says. "But it was a very daring kind of way of making a comedy. So I agreed to do it."

Why would a composer of Hamlisch's stature and reputation choose to make his return with such a low-key, quirky project?

"When I started doing films, I worked with some very good directors, very strong directors -- Sydney Pollack, George Roy Hill, Alan Pakula," he says. "Working with those guys was like a gift. But then my life started to branch out into Broadway and other musicsl areas, including the first Barbara Streisand tour. So when Soderbergh called, there you have the quintessential director whose work I truly admire. I prefer when a director is really firm."

In Soderbergh he found exactly what he was looking for -- a strong, focused director with a work ethic to match his own and a buck-stops-here approach to decision making.

The result is a score that can stand with Hamlisch's best, without being an obvious nod to the composer's glory days. His versatility is on full display -- this is not the big, lush film music of "The Way We Were" or "Sophie's Choice," nor is it the kind of breezy romantic comedy score that Hamlisch essentially defined in the '70s and '80s. It is nimble, modern film music that skillfully navigates some very difficult terrain.

"He has a total command of his craft," says Marilyn Bergman, who, along with her husband Alan, teamed with Hamlisch for the 11th time to write "Trust Me," an original song featured in the film. "He can take a picture like 'The Informant!' that needs a very particular kind of dramatist's skill and take exactly what Steven Soderbergh told him and create what I think is one of the most interesting scores he's ever written."

Soderbergh, who attended all the recording sessions, says it was a revelation to watch Hamlisch at work.

"He can hear everything simultaneously, so to watch him stop something in the 24th bar and make a comment to one specific instrument out of 25, about a single chord and a single string playing within that chord, was crazy. That's the equivalent of people who see things in great detail and I just loved watching it. And he's so fast -- that's another thing we shared, everything was just, 'Let's go, let's go.' "

Hamlisch agrees that working at Soderbergh's pace agreed with him, adding that he has his own unique reasons for keeping busy.

"Ask me if I want to go to Hawaii for four weeks and I'd say, 'Make it 10 days,' " he says. "There comes a point where I have to work. And here is the reason: If you're told at the age of 5 or 6 that you have a God-given talent -- which I had -- then it behooves you to use it. If you spend too much time not using it, you're really looking into the face of God and saying, 'Thanks a lot, but I don't really have to use this.' As my mother used to say, 'You'll have plenty of time to rest when you're dead.' "

So does this mean Hamlisch is ready to dive back into the murky waters of Hollywood? Yes and no.

"I hope so," he says. "A lot depends on whether someone asks you. I can dive from now to doomsday, but someone's gotta ask you to dive. I want to work with good directors."

In other words, at this point in his career, Hamlisch isn't returning to Hollywood hat-in-hand looking for a job. He has nothing to prove and he knows it.

"The extraordinary part is that I've worked with everyone you can work with -- Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Streisand -- I've met them all. So in one respect I'm very pleased," he says.

He adds that it's not just about being offered a film. "It's about me being offered the right film. Because, without naming names, there are a lot of films out there I'm glad I wasn't offered."

And therein lies a glimpse of one of Hamlisch's less obvious characteristics: Despite the seemingly angst-free demeanor (one of his biggest hits is, after all, "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows"), Hamlisch has something of the rebellious outsider in him -- albeit a very well-dressed one. Much like Allen, the die-hard New Yorker in him is reluctant to play by Hollywood's rules.

Asked, for instance, to comment on the current state of film music, he does not mince words.

"A lot of music these days, truthfully, is a lot of noise," he says. "It really is. Some of it is fabulous noise, but it's still noise."

And while he admits to still liking the film business, he understands that today's Hollywood isn't looking for the same kind of film music it once did.

"My feeling is that it seems on the one hand film can do anything now," he observes. "You could take a shot of a person's bicuspid from Pluto and it's brilliant. The problem is that there aren't too many films that you really think about as 'films' because most of them are for the kids, most are for the summer, and then there's just a few for the adults that give you a feeling that a film is supposed to give you. I think, to a degree, one of the problems is that we've gotten very sophisticated in the equipment and much less so when it comes to 'what's the story about?' "

"Lets face it," he adds, "I'm not going to do 'Transformers 14.' "

Adds Soderbergh: "People are asking music to do something different now than they were when Marvin was at his peak -- it's not used in the same way. It's probably used in sheer mass more than ever, but they're not asking it to do the things that Marvin excels at, which is to come up with a score that is thematic and constructed and designed to really wind itself like a ribbon around the movie. That's not really what people ask for now. They just say 'Well, I want this to be a little more exciting.' "

It's a reality that Hamlisch is aware of, but he's tried to live the Hollywood life before, and sees no reason to try again.

"When I was living in Hollywood I always had to go back to New York for a while," he says. "It's not quite my thing, Hollywood. I have nothing against it -- I love it, it's beautiful. But I don't play tennis. I don't do the things you're supposed to do on Saturday and Sunday to get a job. I don't drink, I don't smoke. I don't go to the bars. I don't want to go up to someone and say, 'Let me tell you about 'The Informant!' and let me tell you why it's really great.' It's not my favorite thing and yet it's a very important part of Hollywood. That's just the way it is. I do think that my New York pedigree works against me."

That said, as he sips tea and nibbles on crackers, he doesn't appear to be losing sleep over it. He is, after all, still the principal pops conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C., as well as orchestras in Pittsburgh, Colorado, Milwaukee, Seattle and San Diego.

It's what he calls his "B plan." It's something his mother instilled in him at a very young age.

"She said to me, 'Marvin, I have all the confidence in the world that you're going to succeed. But, if you don't, you need a B plan,' " he says, smiling at the memory. "With my orchestra shows, I'm booked until 2011. That's my B plan now."

Asked if conducting is as rewarding as composing, he shrugs and admits that the applause is great for the ego.

Marvin Hamlisch has an ego? Downing the last of his tea, he can't resist one more joke.

"The 'ham' in Hamlisch says it all."