More with Manilow

For my full interview with Barry Manilow see below or click here.

In our conversation, he talked about being a guest coach on “American Idol”: “Most young people sing to their eyelids,” he said. “The yclose their eyes and show their voice off. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve always needed a theatrical situation in my imagination. I think that’s what the audience is getting. They know something is happening onstage. They don’t know what or why they’re being sucked in when I sing “Somewhere Down the Road” or “When October Goes.” They know I’m not singing to my eyelids, that’s for sure. If more pop singers approached their music and performance like that, they might have a longer career.

His 2001 concept album “Here at the Mayflower” was all about a New York apartment building and its various inhabitants. Some have suggested the album might make a good stage musical. Manilow’s response: “I’d be the first person to say, `Sure, go do it.’ But I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t write it for the stage. When you write a stage musical, that’s not the way you do it. Musicals have a separate batch of rules from albums. But if someone was interested, I’d say do it.”

After he “drops these one-nighters,” as he puts it, which means finishing the series of concerts he’s donig around the country (like the one Feb. 15 in San Jose), Manilow will finish recording his “Greatest Songs of the ’80s” album with producer Clive Davis, and he’ll head back to the Las Vegas Hilton, where his Music and Passion show is a big hit. He says the show will be re-vamped after the summer. “Vegas has been thrilling,” he said. “It’s been a big learning experience. After the fans stopped coming after the first six months, they were just people. Some of them didnt’ know what the heck they were doing there. I really love it. You have to really work. If you get a standing ovation there, they really mean it. When we re-vamp the show, it will be more hit oriented. We wound up promoting the `Decades’ albums, and the audiences loved it, but it got in the way of my own music. It’ll be more hits in the fall.”

On that upcoming ’80s album: “We’ve started putting some songs down. And you know, I think I’m OK with them. I thought my style of music, my voice, would have ended in the ’70s. I think I can do these songs.”

Barry Manilow: He came and he gave without taking

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.”

Broadway baby

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.”

Scared again

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:

Boitano & Manilow on ice

San Francisco’s AT&T Park has seen its share of Barrys: Bonds, Zito and now…Manilow.

Yes, Barry Manilow was on hand Wednesday night for what has to be a Bay Area first: an ice “spectacular” in a ball park. The event’s official (and cumbersome) title was Aflac Presents Brian Boitano Skating Spectacular Starring Barry Manilow, but, in truth, the event was all about the taping of a TV special.

Granted, audience members paid between $55 and $152.25 to watch professional skaters — many of them former Olympians — speed around the ice while Manilow sang songs from the ’70s, all while a fleet of cameras captured the action for a Dec. 22 broadcast on NBC and Dec. 23 on the Style network.

Though entertaining, this ice show was definitely tailored to the cameras and not to the live spectators. Except for the select few who were sitting in rink-side seats, the bulk of the crowd was in the stands, far away from the skaters.

Images were broadcast on the stadium’s giant screen, but the screen was so wide it cut off skaters’ heads.

From what could be seen on screen, this show, with its flashy lights and slick, gliding camera moves, is going to look a lot better on TV than it did at the park.

Still, ice skating, even for all the theatrics, is an athletic event, and watching it live can be thrilling. Boitano, 44, is an exciting skater, and his solos — one to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and another, a tribute to his father, while Manilow sang “I Write the Songs” — were dynamic and razor sharp.

Boitano’s co-star for the evening, Dorothy Hamill is still gorgeous at 51, and skates like a dream. Graceful, poised and totally in control, Hamill stole the show with powerful her Act 1 closer set to Manilow singing “Weekend in New England.”

A younger, more athletic skater, 34-year-old Yuka Sato, impressed with her jumps and twirls (accompanied by Manilow’s “My Eyes Adored You”), but she has nowhere near Hamill’s elegance.

Pairs skaters Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko performed two routines: one involving bags of money and a bizarre Italian pop song, and another, a real dazzler, to Manilow performing “Even Now.” Both routines, oddly, ended with Khvalko, holding Leonova by the ankles, spinning around and bobbing his partner up and down so it looked like she might bash her head against the ice.

The actual head-bashing slapstick skating was provided by Vladamir Besedin and Oleksiy Polischuk (above), two strongman acrobats who happen to perform their act while on skates. Their first bit was a spoof of Mozart that ended with both men in muscle shirts bouncing each other around to “Rock Me Amadeus.” The second was a randy spoof of Swan Lake that will definitely baffle Middle America.

Viktor Petrenko strutted his cowboy stuff in Act 1 and then unleashed his Olympic champion in Act 2, with Manilow singing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” And Steven Cousins tried hard to impress during Manilow’s “It Never Rains in California” and then with Tom Jones’ “Thunderball,” but he’s no Boitano or Petrenko.

Poor David Pelletier and Jason Dungjen didn’t have much to do except during the cheesy salute to the Giants.

Kristi Yamaguchi dropped by to say nice things about Boitano, and after the show was over, nearly all the skaters — Boitano and Hamill included — did re-takes to smooth out some jumps and landings. Manilow even resurfaced to lip synch one of the songs he had performed live earlier. It just goes to show you should never believe anything you see on TV.