It’s a miracle that even now, Barry Manilow is writing the songs that make, if not the whole world, at least a fair portion of it sing. Could it be magic?
Magic had nothing to do with it. Try hard work, dogged persistence and thousands of “Fanilows’ who can’t smile without him.
Yes, Barry Manilow is still going strong, more than 30 years since his first hit, “Mandy,” unveiled the Manilow musical formula: big, heart-on-the-sleeve ballads sung with utmost sincerity and some good, old-fashioned show-biz brio.
Just when you think the time has finally come for Manilow to fade into pop history, he shows up with a surprise hit album, an appearance on “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars” or a long-running hit show in Vegas.
The man never rests. He’s 61 and riding yet another crest of popularity from his three “Greatest Songs of…” albums that have him warbling tunes from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. His show at the Las Vegas Hilton, Music and Passion, has just been extended for another year. He has two DVD sets out — a concert promoting the ’70s album (seen last month on PBS) and a box set of his ’70s and ’80s TV specials.
Though his concert tours have been curtailed by the Vegas show, Manilow is doing a few one-night stops around the country, and he’ll make a rare Bay Area performance Feb. 15 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.
On the road, shuttling from one gig to another, Manilow checks in by phone and says that although his last Bay Area appearance was nearly 10 years ago (also in San Jose), he loves the area.
“I remember playing there in 1973,” he says. “It was a small nightclub. Bette (Midler) had just been there…the Boarding House. It was sort of a hippie nightclub. I got my first taste of the Bay Area audience there, and these people are smart. They don’t suffer fools gladly. I’ve gotten away with a lot of being cute and telling cornball jokes. Can’t do that up there. They want real music, and I have the real music. I didn’t need to do anything but be truthful and make music I believed in.”
Manilow has been the butt of many a joke. When you’re as popular as he is — last year he was honored for career album sales of more than 75 million copies worldwide — you’re going to peeve the purists.
Still, Manilow has been able to keep his sense of humor and his perspective. He has done his own thing and made forays into jazz (“2 a.m. Paradise Cafe”), show tunes (“Show Stoppers”) and standards (“Manilow Sings Sinatra”). He’s even written two musicals. More on that in a minute.
Whatever music he’s working on — and this is likely a key to his success — Manilow communicates emotion clearly and cleanly. He’s a born musical storyteller.
“I try to sing as if I’m continuing talking,” he says. “I try to make the audience not know the difference between when I finish talking and when I begin to sing. Then, what I do, in my lyrics when I perform, I break down every lyric as if I were breaking down a scene in a play. I create the situation for myself in my imagination. I create a partner who I’m singing to. I know whether I’m in an apartment with my father or grandfather or out in a field with friends. It’s rare anyone cares to do that in pop music.”
Manilow’s technique is much more common in theater, which is something he fully realizes, having been a musical theater fan since his childhood days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“My first records were cast albums starting with Guys and Dolls, to Finian’s Rainbow to Gypsy and all the great shows,” he recalls. “I fell in love with songs that told stories and songs that had great situations in them and great melodies. Then I found myself onstage singing pop songs, and I was not interested in just standing there and singing. The only way to go, to keep myself sane, was to find situations I could find myself truthful in, even though they were relatively simple lyrics in a pop song. `I Can’t Smile Without You’ or `I Write the Songs’ or any of the songs I’ve had hits with, they are not Sondheim lyrics, but I treat them as if they are.”
Raised on show tunes, Manilow, not surprisingly, has tried his hand at writing a musical. His first effort was an offshoot of his hit song “Copacabana (At the Copa),” which ran in London and toured the U.S. (with a stop in San Jose).
With Bruce Sussman, Manilow also wrote Harmony, an original musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group popular in the 1920s and ’30s during the rise of the Nazi regime.
The show had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, and plans for Broadway were off, then on, then off again. It was a bruising experience for Manilow.
“One of my goals before I croak is to see Harmony produced properly,” Manilow says. “I’m not involved in producing it anymore — that killed me last time — but there are two respected producers who are interested in doing the show. Who knows? In the next year, you might see `Harmony’ in a full-page ad somewhere. As of now, I had to step back and put my defenses up again. It hurt too bad.”
But Manilow has not soured on the idea of creating a musical. The fun, he says, is in the creation and in putting all the elements together.
“Then it turns to money,” he adds, “and the whole thing falls apart. But the creative part is so addictive, so thrilling and so satisfying. After you get past the insanity, everyone goes back. I have loads of composer-writer friends all over Broadway with the same scars I’ve got, and they always go back.”
One of the hardest working men in show business, Manilow claims that the best vacation for him is in front of his keyboard writing songs.
“I try my best,” he says. “I chain myself to a chaise lounge, grease myself up like a tuna fish, sit there and try to read a book. But I can’t do it. I’m much happier in front of my keyboard.”
Manilow is back in talks with Clive Davis, his longtime producer, about a fourth “decade” CD: the ’80s. And he’s writing another concept album similar to 2001’s “Here at the Mayflower,” but with more of a rock bent.
“Right now, believe it or not, I’m studying pop-rock bands like Nickelback and The Fray,” Manilow says. “There’s a bunch of talented young people in that world. This new album has some edge to it, and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on out there, and what’s going on is very exciting. I need to scare myself again. This rock ‘n’ roll world is scaring me. I don’t know whether I can do it.”
Here’s Manilow singing his “Weekend in New England” with a pre-Oscar Jennifer Hudson: