by Rachel Shukert, Tablet, August 10, 2012
But the title song elevates The Way We Were. The piece, with its demure opening chime soon taken over by Barbra at her soaring best, gives a period-specific and often melodramatic story a kind of nobility, a epic sense of timelessness. Hamlisch’s music and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics allude to heartbreak and loss but are neither defeated by nor wholly triumphant over them. It’s not a question so much of banishing one’s demons as accepting them for having made you what you are; a wistful, bittersweet ambivalence that is no less powerful for being inconclusive; the kind of decision that, to borrow a line from Sondheim (who at 82, is still going strong, God help the person who has to peel me off the floor when he kicks it, they’re going to need a big, waterproof spatula) “is not to decide.” It’s precisely this kind of complexity that makes a Katie girl a Katie girl. Is it schmaltzy too? Sure. But so is love.
Of course, there’s also a larger, less romantic context in which to look at this, which is that in “The Way We Were,” Hamlisch, the son of Viennese refugees from Hitler, wrote the ultimate survivor’s song. Rare among the genre, it never trivializes the pain of the past. Instead, it gently, even lovingly, suggests that the pain is never really what’s important. It’s not about the broken heart; it’s about that single beautiful afternoon outside the Plaza Hotel when we pushed Robert Redford’s hair out of his beautiful face. It’s not about the blacklist; it’s about the belief that the world can be a better place. It’s not about the Holocaust, it’s about the fact that we were here at all.