Michel Legrand
Illustration of Michel Legrand
Illustration of Michel Legrand by Joey Stocks for The Dramatist

How do you keep the music playing? Just listen to the legacy of musical brilliance that Michel Legrand left us. Music of every genre: Classical. Jazz. Ballet. Theatrical. Blues. Cinematic. Big band. Opera. Popular. Chamber. Happy. Sad. Romantic.

He was a one-man Cirque du Soleil. He tumbled, he juggled, he defied musical gravity. And, like the best of them, he worked without a net.

Michel Legrand was more than a musical genius. He was music personified. As a composer, he wrote all the time. His fingers were always moving—on a tabletop, on the arm of a chair, on a piano if it was handy, fingering the music that was always on his mind…for the sheer joy of it.

He was a consummate pianist. He could execute his wildest musical ideas instantly. He was an explorer. Always looking for new musical worlds to conquer. An adventurer—never wanting to repeat anything he’d done before or go anyplace he’d been before.

During his prolific musical life he scored over 200 motion pictures and films for television. Released over 360 albums. Conducted countless live concerts worldwide and won three Oscars, five Grammys, a Golden Globe and a Bafta along with many other honors.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was perhaps Michel’s most famous work. An innovative film musical in which all the dialogue is sung. Other scores that deserve honorable mention are The Young Girls of Rochefort, The Go-Between, Brian’s SongLola, Ice Station Zebra, Le MansLady Sings the Blues, The Three Musketeers, Atlantic CityCastle Keep, Wuthering Heights, Never Say Never Again, and Dingo. Summer of ’42, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Yentl won Michel his three Academy Awards. Just reading this list of titles reflects Michel’s diversity in musical style: romance, intrigue, blues, jazz, drama, contemporary, period. He did it all.

He loved melody. He wrote with abandon. All the time. Nobody had to pay him. He just wrote. The Legrand reservoir was always full. His most recorded and recognizable songs include “I Will Wait For You,” “Watch What Happens,” “Once Upon A Summertime,” “The Windmills of your Mind,” “The Summer Knows,” “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?” “You Must Believe In Spring,” “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?”

Our collaboration with Michel was like a marriage. We were introduced by Gene Kelly on a tennis court in 1967, and for over 50 years, we worked together, played together, lived together. As in any good marriage, we had respect, trust, admiration and love for this extraordinary composer, conductor, pianist, orchestrator, dramatist, director, pilot, tennis player, and high-wire artist. And, as in any good marriage, the feelings were reciprocal. The product of that marriage was over 80 songs written together.

In our collaborative process, Michel would write the music first—more than 90% of the time. In only two cases did we give him the first line: ‘What are you doing the rest of your life?’ and ‘How do you keep the music playing?’

A story: We gave Michel one of those first lines. One line. He thought a moment. Probably translated it into French and back into English in that moment. He placed his hands on the keys and from beginning to end played the melody that begins with that first line: “What are you doing the rest of your life.” ‘Do you mean something like that?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ we said. ‘Exactly like that’. We sent him to a double feature—that was in 1968 when there were still double features—and then we went to work. Not a note was changed.

As a dramatist, Michel also had a sixth sense. When we were writing songs for Yentl, we would write in prose what was needed to be said and then Michel would go and write a melody (or eight) for us. In the case of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” we never used that phrase until we heard the melody.

Writing to Michel’s music was always an adventure, a challenge and a joy. He never wrote what you would expect. It was always a surprise. He wrote ‘traps’ into his music. Ask any singer who has attempted to sing “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (There are two phrases that have the same musical pattern, but the notes are different. Singers often skip the first pattern and sing the last pattern twice. Michel didn’t do things twice!)

Michel hated to see anything end, so his melodies have a tendency to begin again under the last note, like mirrors reflecting infinity. He also hated to make lead sheets, because it meant finally committing a piece of music to paper, nailing it down, saying it’s finished, out of your hands. He hated that. Don’t we all?

And so, it is with great sadness that we put these words to paper, ending this marriage. We will miss him deeply, but our love for Michel and his music will never end.

Michel Legrand (1932-2019) was a Tony award-nominated Broadway composer for his musical Amour. He received five Grammy awards—for “Images,” “Brian’s Song,” “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?” and the “Theme from Summer of ’42,” as well as three Academy Awards throughout his lengthy music career. Legrand joined the Dramatists Guild in 1966.

Alan and Marilyn Bergman
Alan and Marilyn Bergman

have been contributing to the Great American Songbook for more than five decades. During their distinguished career, their songs have been nominated for sixteen Academy Awards, for which they have won three: “The Windmills of Your Mind” in 1968, “The Way We Were” in 1973, and the score for Yentl in 1984. “Windmills” and “The Way We Were” also earned Golden Globe Awards, and “The Way We Were” earned two Grammys. They joined the Guild in 1969.