They're Playing Our Song, and Nobody Does It Better Than the Team of Hamlisch & Sager

updated 04/16/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/16/1979 01:00AM

'There was enough in their unique problem of working together to write a musical about,' says Neil Simon

Carole Bayer Sager doesn't wear punk costume rejects from The Rocky Horror Show. Marvin Hamlisch doesn't recite his neuroses into a tape recorder. So they aren't exactly the mismatched couple, composer Vernon Gersch and lyricist Sonia Walsk, in Neil Simon's new hit musical, They're Playing Our Song (with music by Hamlisch and words by Sager).

"Simon never asked me for anecdotes," laughs Hamlisch, "but the show can't help but have similarities. I used to talk to him about the problems of getting involved romantically with the person you work with professionally."

Sager saw something very familiar in the scatterbrained Walsk and meticulous Gersch, too. "At times, Simon comes so close to the truth it is prophetic. When Marvin's working on a project he's terribly orderly and obsessed. He writes with a specific goal in mind and knows exactly where all his music is. I write whenever a thought comes into my head and on anything that's available—toilet paper, matchbook covers..."

When they met in 1975, Sager was an established pop composer (A Groovy Kind of Love, Midnight Blue) and married to record producer Andrew Sager. (The Sagers later separated and were divorced last year.) "I was very nervous," Carole remembers. "I was intimidated by Marvin's success." Hamlisch had already won three Oscars and four Grammys. His friends ranged from Liza Minnelli to Jack Lemmon. In one area, however, he was still an innocent: He had never had a serious love affair.

They worked together on a record based on music he had composed for the TV series Beacon Hill. "I never thought we'd get involved," says Sager, "but I did find him exceedingly attractive." The more practical Hamlisch recalls, "The combination of good lyrics and good looks was perfect for me." The record never came off, but later they did collaborate on Nobody Does It Better, the smash theme from the film The Spy Who Loved Me. By 1977 romance had blossomed, and they began living together. "I introduced Carole to the world of Lutèce," Hamlisch sums up. Sager replies: "I opened Marvin's eyes to Carly Simon and Peter Allen."

Hamlisch, 35, was nicknamed "Fingers" as a boy in Manhattan because he practiced piano instead of playing baseball (he's a rabid Yankee fan). By the age of 7 he was attending the Juilliard School. Since 1968, when he wrote the score for Burt Lancaster's The Swimmer, his career has flourished, though as a public personality he hardly drips charisma.

Actress Lucie Arnaz, who is Sonia to comic Robert Klein's Vernon in the play, amplifies: "Out in public Marvin has this three-piece-suit, well-manicured, very organized kind of appearance. At home he loves being in sloppy clothes. He should really let people see how silly he is."

One occasion was a surprise party for Sager's 34th birthday that Hamlisch threw in March. Guests had to come dressed as little kids. "Fingers" decked himself out as Lord Fauntleroy, whipped together an evening of clowns and magicians and brought in a mocha cream cake inscribed for Carole, "They're Playing Your Song Tonight and Forever."

Marvin's affection got its severest test shortly after they started going together. He let Carole borrow his prized BMW, and she totaled it. He still laments, "Whoever gave Carole her license must have been dazzled by her eyes, not her driving ability."

As a couple, Hamlisch and Sager puzzle friends. "On the surface Marvin's not a very romantic person," says Arnaz. "It's hard for him to admit he needs somebody. But he takes very good care of Carole. She brings out his humor and a gentleness I think he didn't know he was capable of."

"Ultratraditional best describes me," says Hamlisch. "I like to feel totally responsible for Carole. Trying to keep someone happy is the hardest thing in the world." One task was guiding her through the culture shock she felt in moving from her blue-jeaned rock crowd into Marvin's upper-crusty film and theater circles. "The people were new, the pace was different," Sager remembers. "I used to feel this need to be told I'm okay. When there was no one to pat me on the back, it could get very scary." She adds: "I am very big on PDA—public displays of affection."

Sager has to do occasional consoling too. During a Devon, Pa. concert last month Frank Sinatra reportedly blasted Hamlisch as "the guy who wins all those Grammys by stealing the music of Scott Joplin." Hamlisch's bland response was, "I'm just thrilled Sinatra's singing my songs." He is, however, quick to credit Joplin for the melodies he used in The Sting and such pre-Sager lyricists as Alan and Marilyn Bergman {The Way We Were) and Ed Kleban {A Chorus Line).

Sager has learned to tolerate Marvin's penchant for ice cream cakes, traveling to London and Paris, and sitting around while there doing as little as possible. ("He was raised as the boy genius and has all the idiosyncrasies that go along with it," says Klein.)

Marvin also finds reassurance in his home workshop, which contains recording and screening equipment and his awards. Sager has a bigger, less claustrophobic private room. ("She needs more freedom than I," Hamlisch says. "All I need is a daily egg and a piano.")

When Our Song took off, Hamlisch told Sager, "You're finally going to have money for the first time in your life—and you're not getting it from the world of Meat Loaf." Though they wrote the theme song for the new film Ice Castles together, Hamlisch warns, "It doesn't make sense to be lifetime collaborators. It would be wrong if someone avoided asking one of us to work because we were too strongly associated with each other professionally." (Arnaz suggests, "Carole can deal with Marvin's success. He's afraid, I think, that he won't always be an award winner and she will be.")

Both plan to continue their separate projects. Sager, whose name appeared on the charts recently as lyricist for Dolly Parton's hit Heartbreaker, is recording a third album of her own songs. Hamlisch is looking for a film to produce.

They deny rumors that in 18 months they've separated frequently (there was only one brief cooling-off period, Sager says). She was indignant when she thought a New York columnist suggested recently that she and Andrew Sager were reconciling. Still, Arnaz speculates, "I don't know how long Marvin and Carole will be together. They seem to get some kind of joy thinking they're going to break up in an hour. Carole kids that all the things in 'her room' in Marvin's apartment are still in boxes just in case she has to send them back to L.A."

A determined Hamlisch says, "I will be a father and a husband someday, but when I do, it will all be legal." Adds Sager, "It's not the be-all of our relationship, but I do entertain thoughts of marrying Marvin. I love him. I want to believe in a happy ending."

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