“What if we did ‘I Write the Songs’ in E?” Barry Manilow asked.
He was rehearsing, layered in black, in a nearly empty Lunt-Fontanne Theater in Midtown Manhattan, preparing for his fifth Broadway run since 1977, a hit-packed show called “Manilow Broadway.” The goal was to ease a transition from “Somewhere in the Night” to the Grammy-winning “Songs.” His longtime music director, Ron Walters Jr., cued the band in the new key.
“That’s not bad,” Manilow said after hearing a few bars, meaning it wasn’t great either. They tried E flat. They tried F. Manilow’s manner was unhurried, even though — and this seems like it should cause some urgency — the show was opening in two days and seven hours.
Manilow, who turned 76 this summer, walked gingerly offstage for a break, and a little later, he and the band worked on the introduction to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,” a hit for Manilow in 1982. The trumpeter Charlie Peterson began the song with a solo, but it was too demure for Manilow’s taste. He asked Peterson to try again, with more drama: “Make us look at you,” he instructed, his Brooklyn accent apparent.
Manilow is one of the last holdovers from the pre-rock era, a time when “Make us look at you” was the prime directive. He is the Prince of Pizazz, a man who works, unabashedly, in the spirit of a showbiz trouper, from his self-deprecating quips to his committed delivery of songs about adult romance. He has a Grammy, a Tony, an Emmy and an Oscar nomination. “I’m like Starbucks,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 2002. “You can’t get away from me.”
In a typical Manilow arrangement, there are dramatic notes he holds at the top of his vocal range, and at the end, an upward modulation for variety, drama and catharsis. His music, with its antiquated use of grand melodies and crescendos, has a higher schmaltz content than a good chopped liver.
From his debut album in 1973 to 1981, when he had nine Top 10 singles on the pop charts, and, more important, 12 No. 1 hits in the mellow Adult Contemporary radio format, he was always at odds with pop culture. He was not just knocked but pilloried by music critics, including those at The New York Times, who wrote him off as schlock. With his feathered hair and sparkling jumpsuits, Manilow, a few crucial years older than baby boomers, is the least-rock ’n’ roll singer to grow up in the rock era.
In retrospect, schlock was often a heteronormative code word used to dismiss gay performers as lightweight or insincere. Manilow came out in 2017 and said he’d been in a relationship with his manager, Garry Kief, since they met in 1978. (They married in 2014.) Some fans were not surprised — a photo on the cover of his 1977 album “Live” was a pretty strong hint of his sexuality — and others mocked the idea that he’d ever fooled anyone.
Years later, we’ve learned to discern great schlock from awful schlock. Manilow has recorded plenty of both: “Could It Be Magic,” “Looks Like We Made It,” “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” and “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” in the former category; “Can’t Smile Without You” and “Weekend in New England” in the latter, and “I Write the Songs” and “Mandy” in both.
“I find it really heartwarming when people don’t back away from lush melodies and positive expressions,” said the cabaret upstart Bridget Everett, a lifelong fan who performed a tribute to Manilow at 54 Below in 2012. “There’s a lot of hope in his songs. They spark a feeling that everything’s going to be all right.”
Even nonfans admit that his music has adhesive properties. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails once complained, “I had ‘Copacabana’ stuck in my head for a full year.”
The day after rehearsal, Manilow sat in the back room of Sid Gold’s Request Room, a piano karaoke bar in Chelsea, took frequent hits on a white vape pen, and explained why he was making last-minute changes to his songs: “I’m nuts,” he said simply. His voice has grown huskier, but up close, his face is as smooth as an ironed sheet.
Many current pop singers leave him baffled and in despair. “I mean, some artists these days, they just stop at the end of the song,” he said. “I’ve never done that. I like big endings.”
He explained why he was tinkering with “Memory,” which he referred to as from “the dreadful show ‘Cats.’”
“I didn’t record it the way Andrew wrote it. I gave it three key changes and built it, and changed some melody notes too. When I got to the end, it was huge.” How did Lloyd Webber feel about the liberties? “He hated it. My God, he hated it,” he said with a laugh.
Manilow was born Barry Alan Pincus, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which, in his Broadway show, he refers to as a slum. He said his mother, Edna Manilow, was 19 when he was born, and he believes she married his father, Harold Kelliher, an Irish truck driver for the Schaefer brewery, only to avoid public shame. She made Harold take his uncle’s name, the more Jewish-sounding Pincus, though he went back to Kelliher after they divorced. Barry lived with his Russian immigrant grandparents Joseph and Esther while Edna worked as a secretary.
He knew his father mostly by Edna’s nickname for him: Harold the Monster. Edna’s second husband was Willie Murphy, another Schaefer driver. At 13, Barry moved in with them to an environment that helped spark his musical awakening. Murphy had an impressive array of albums: Broadway scores, classical music, jazz titans and great arrangers. Manilow learned to play the accordion, and then a cheap spinet piano.
Performing was the part of music that least interested him. When Edna took him to a Broadway musical, he stared at the orchestra, not the actors. When he heard the Beatles, he listened for what the producer George Martin was doing. He idolized not stars, but arrangers, like George Gershwin and Nelson Riddle.
For three years, in his 20s, he wrote commercial jingles, which was great training: If you can pack a hook into a 30-second ad, imagine what you can do with a three-minute song. To please his mother, who had a history of alcohol problems, he overcame his reluctance and began to perform. He became Bette Midler’s pianist, music director and producer, and began singing his own songs in her show, not because he liked what he called the “pear-shaped tones” in his singing, but so the songs would be heard.
And then, disaster struck: Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, offered him a contract. “I wasn’t really excited about it,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t want to be a singer. I was on my way to becoming Nelson Riddle. I signed and said, well, it’ll never work.”
For his second Arista album, Davis brought him “Brandy,” a minor British hit that Manilow first hated (“I fought Clive constantly because I didn’t want to do outside material”), then transformed into “Mandy,” a career-launching hit. He and Davis reached a bankable compromise: Each album, Davis could bring in two songs he wanted Manilow to record. “And those two songs were the hits,” the singer says with a rueful chuckle. “Clive pushed my career into Top 40 radio, and everything went haywire.”
Though he’d never paid attention to pop music, he was suddenly its human incarnation. “When I found myself on the radio next to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie,’ I was humiliated. Believe it or not, I was hoping it would stop,” he said.
Did you ever think about walking away from it?
Would you have been happier playing piano in a jazz group?
Happier? I like the house and the Range Rover. I love the way I live.
You did network TV specials, and that made you an even bigger star. Why do that?
They offered it to me! Did I enjoy performing on them? No. It’s my least favorite thing to do.
Is there a younger singer who performs in the same style you do, who’s an heir to your music?
I can’t find them. [Michael] Bublé is close. But there’s no witty lyrics anymore, or moving lyrics. There’s a lot of anger and a lot of great rhythm, and I like that. But no melody or lyrics anymore.
The history of the last 100 years of music is the transition from melody to rhythm, isn’t it?
That’s it. That’s what I’m fighting all the time. So I went back to my Gerry Mulligan records.
Do you ever think about retirement?
Listen, I’m as old as the [expletive] hills, but I can still hit an F natural. I think I’ll be able to keep going. But how long can this last, for God’s sake?
Audiences in your shows are always giddy. When you perform, are you also having a good time?
I never have a good time. I’m working. I kind of bleed up there, night after night, because in order to do these songs, I’ve got to find it in my stomach. Will I be having a good time like they are? No.
It’s a mistake to think of Manilow, who left New York for California in 1978 and now lives on a 64-acre estate in Palm Springs, as anything but a New Yorker — specifically, a Brooklyn kid who grew up poor. “Don’t pick a fight with me. I learned from the best — my mother,” he said, adding, “I’m pretty hard, and the older I get, the harder I get. I’m kind of cynical, and there’s more anger in me than I ever knew.”
Before he met Kief, he said, he “never even thought about whether I was gay.” In his early twenties he was married, for a little over a year, to his high school girlfriend, Susan Deixler. “As you get older, I met people and started to see people, and liked it,” he said vaguely. “That was that.”
In a 1990 Rolling Stone profile, Manilow declared that he was living with Linda Allen, a Hollywood set designer, about whom he wrote “A Linda Song.” Whether Allen was a sham relationship for PR purposes or he dated her while also being with Kief, he won’t say.
“Don’t go too far into this,” he warned. “This is too personal for me.”
When he came out, it put him back into a public spotlight he’d evaded for decades. In the 1980s, Top 40 radio became more modern, and Manilow stopped striving for hits. For many years, he’s recorded themed albums that look back to previous eras or bygone styles, including a “duets” album with 11 singers, all of them now dead. His 2017 album “This Is My Town: Songs of New York” included six new songs he wrote or co-wrote, but many fans would like a new album with nothing but new songs.
“I’m in the middle of recording one,” he said. “Just give me a minute.”
Other fans want the comfort of his old songs. Manilow’s distinguishing talent as a singer arises from a quality more often ascribed to actors: commitment. He doesn’t sing with irony or emotional distance. He wants pop songs to feel like arias, grand and overstated.
“‘Mandy’ was a good vocal because it was so honest and vulnerable,” he said. “I’m dead serious about the songs. I mean it. Onstage, I’m always making up my imaginary partners.” In order to be committed to his songs live, he has to re-experience the emotions in real time. “I surprise myself with the stories I make up in my head while I’m singing,” he said.
When “Manilow Broadway” opened in late July (it closes Aug. 17), he no longer moved gingerly — he even threw in a few hip thrusts for comic effect. His two-hour performance included a few dance steps and some snappy one-liners, mostly about himself. He has made himself a one-man TV variety show.
Manilow sang more than 30 songs, some in a medley, because if he sang all his hits at full length, the show would end at four in the morning. In a grand showbiz tradition, he did a boffo job of seeming to enjoy himself. And he played “I Write the Songs” in its original key: F major.