Marvin Hamlisch sets Metro on "Fire:" The (mostly) forgotten story

Marvin Hamlisch, one of the most famous and decorated film and theater composers of the 1970s and beyond, died this week at age 68. But when he passed, few remembered his connection to Metropolitan State University of Denver, for which he wrote the now-anachronistic school song, "The Fire of M.S.C." -- and that includes many of the folks at Metro State. What's the story?

During his career, Hamlisch won three Oscars (two for The Way We Were, one for The Sting), plus a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for the Broadway smash A Chorus Line and multiple Grammys, including recognition as the best new artist of 1974. But had we not received a tip from a Westword reader, we'd never have known that Hamlisch composed the school song for what was then known as Metropolitan State College, and performed it an April 1987 benefit concert with the Denver Symphony Orchestra.

After contacting Metro for details, I got the sense this information wasn't exactly common knowledge there, either. One person with whom I spoke kept pronouncing the composer's name is "Hamish," while another spelled his name "Mamlisch."

The song predates Metro spokeswoman Cathy Lucas, too; she's only been working with the school for about ten years. But while no one at Metro was able to track down an actual recording of the tune for us to share, she recalls actually hearing it performed at an event or two over the course of the past decade. And after some digging, she managed to unearth a treasure trove of historical info, including the sheet music to the song, which is among the goodies on view below. She also discovered details about how Hamlisch and Metro got together.

"He was asked by the faculty member in charge of commencement," Lucas reveals. "She had a connection with him, and asked him to come out and write a college song" -- something Metro, which was 22 years old in 1987, was lacking.

Apparently, Hamlisch didn't toil for weeks or months getting every detail of the ditty right. "Rumor has it that he wrote 'The Fire of M.S.C.' on the plane on the way here," Lucas notes.

Indeed, the lyrics to the song aren't among Hamlisch's most complex. They read:

There's a fire deep inside you That fire is simply called a dream You feel the dream The flame is burning You are warmed and surrounded by its glow

We all know that we are dreamers Dreaming of a future bright So feel the fire and keep it burning Let it shine morning, noon and night

MSC can light the fire Can make you ready for dreams to come True MSC -- can make it happen Let it happen to you

Feel the heat Feel the heat Feel the heat Feel the heat Ah----

Let the fire burn forever And let the dreamer always be All hand in hand we stand We are the fire of MSC

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Page down to learn more about how Marvin Hamlisch set Metro on "Fire." Deathless poetry or not, Hamlisch's work got great reviews from the people who counted. "The faculty really liked it," Lucas says, "and it was performed at the commencement in 1987." Hamlisch was also given an honorary degree at the ceremony.

An April 1987 article from the Lakeland Ledger newspaper tells a version of the tale considerably different from the one Lucas shares. The piece claims that when Metro officials announced Hamlisch would write a song for the school, he didn't know anything about it, but decided to do so anyhow because if then Denver Nuggets owner Sidney Schlenker "told officials they would have a fight song from Hamlisch, he would write one."

Whatever the case, Lucas stresses that Hamlisch's finished tune is most assuredly not a fight song. "It's formal -- the kind of thing that you would play at formal gatherings," she says, adding that members of the university pep band composed an actual fight song a couple of years ago.

Now, of course, actually highlighting Hamlisch's composition is even more awkward, since, after a long, deliberative process, Metro officially rebranded itself as Metropolitan State University of Denver earlier this year. The new moniker makes the "M.S.C." reference in the song's title and lyrics a throwback to an earlier time, rather than something apt to be used in the future.

Even so, Lucas says Hamlisch's contribution "is part of our legacy. We've had our fortieth anniversary now, and our forty-fifth -- and we've got our fiftieth coming up. And Marvin is really important in the fabric of our history. He gave the college a song and helped us reach the next level."

Page down to see part of the April 1987 commencement program, featuring a Hamlisch portrait, plus the original sheet music for "The Fire of M.S.C."

More from our Education archive: "Metro State name change official after six years, thousands of surveys, $95,000."

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