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Barry Manilow on songwriting, fame, and his new Broadway musical, “Harmony”

If you were around during the 1970s and ’80s, you can probably sing along with many of Barry Manilow’s fifty Top 40 hits, like “Could It Be Magic,” “Mandy,” “Looks Like We Made It,” and of course, “Copacabana.” He’s sold 85 million records. He’s won a Tony, a Grammy, and two Emmys. And he’s now performed more times in Las Vegas than Elvis Presley.

All of this came as a huge surprise to … Barry Manilow. “I didn’t understand why anybody would like what I was doing on that stage,” he said.

His theory as to why? “I’ve never figured it out!” he laughed.

Barry Manilow performs “Can’t Smile Without You” on the BBC in 1978: 

Barry Manilow – Can’t Smile Without You (Live from The First BBC Special, 1978) by
Barry Manilow on

But maybe we should start at the beginning, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in the fourth-floor walkup where he came of age.

Was he poor? “Oh, yeah. I had nothing,” he laughed. “Poor, beyond poor. These are not good memories. I want you to know.”

But then his stepfather, Willy, entered the picture: “He brought a stack of albums that may as well have been a stack of gold, because I’d never heard music like that, from Broadway musicals to classical music, great jazz and pop singers. Then Willy got me a little spinet piano. And everything changed. As soon as I hit the keys, I knew that this was gonna be it for me.”

Singer-songwriter Barry Manilow, who is now the composer of a Broadway musical, “Harmony.” 

CBS News

Manilow got a job at – of all places – CBS. But at night, he pursued his real passion: musical theater. “I’d never met people like that,” he said. “Theater people, they were smart and funny and witty and hip. I just loved being with them.” 

In 1971, young Manilow was already making his mark, first as musical director for a young Bette Midler; then, as a composer of commercial jingles. (“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!” “I am stuck on Band-Aids brand, ’cause Band-Aids stuck on me!”) He said, “I learned more doing these commercials than I learned anywhere, because pop music is all about 15- and 30- second hooks. Those two years were my college.”

In 1973, a producer heard his voice on a demo tape, and offered him a recording contract. “I was the piano player! I was the arranger! I was getting the record deal as a singer-songwriter?!” he laughed. “It was just ridiculous.”

But his audiences disagreed. Suddenly, Barry Manilow was a superstar. “Most people pray for success like that. I did not,” he said. “It was big, and it was very confusing to me.”

Especially because the fans and critics seemed so far apart. “It was the most hateful reviews,” Manilow said. “You would think that I had hurt their family. It just kept getting worse and worse and worse, for a good ten to 15 years.”

Manilow didn’t write all of his own hits; some came from other songwriters pushed on him by the record companies. One of the songs he didn’t write? “I Write the Songs.” He confessed, “It took me a while to make friends with that song. It felt clumsy. But when I realized it was an anthem to the spirit of music, oh, I can arrange an anthem!”

“And you did arrange the hell out of it,” said Pogue.” “I mean, you changed key three times?”

“Yeah. But that’s what you would do with an anthem.”

Over the decades, Manilow endured financial close calls, a couple of health scares, and the public revelation of his relationship with his manager, Garry Kief, whom he married in 2014. They’ve been together for 45 years.

“What’s the secret?” asked Pogue.

“The secret to 45 years is separate bathrooms,” Manilow replied. 

But pop music was never where his heart was. “It just didn’t challenge me enough,” he said.

And maybe that’s why, at age 80, Barry Manilow is about to unveil his first Broadway musical. Note that it is not “Barry Manilow: The Life Story.” Manilow’s longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman said, “We were having dinner, and a woman came by and said, ‘Excuse me for interrupting. But I’m so excited to see the show tonight. And I hope you sing “I Write the Songs,” ’cause it’s my favorite song!'”

Sussman is the author and lyricist of the show, called “Harmony,” which opens in two weeks. It tells the true story of a German vocal sextet group – three Jews, three Gentiles – who became world-famous just before World War II. “In their day, they were The Beatles,” said Sussman. “They sold millions of records. They made 13 movies. And then in 1933, Hitler comes to power. It became illegal to sell their records, or play them. They were the poster children for what Germany could have been – harmony in the broadest sense of the word, that Jews and Gentiles could work together and create something so beautiful. That was not part of the Third Reich’s agenda. So, they were just wiped out.” 

The cast of “Harmony,” the true story of a pre-World War II singing group in Germany whose fame was obliterated by the Nazis.

CBS News

Manilow and Sussman have been tinkering with this show for 30 years. And the “Fanilows” may be surprised to hear the breadth of music that Manilow can write when he’s not confined by pop-song conventions. But he did sneak at least one pop melody into the show, called “Every Single Day.”

Every single day
We’ll remember what we do today
Words we didn’t say
We’ll remember every single day

Then years go by
To wonder why and wonder what we learned
Was that the bridge we should’ve crossed?
The one we burned

Barry Manilow may always think of himself as the guy behind the piano. But he’s not complaining about the pop career that took him by surprise. “This is an insane career that’s happened to me,” he said. “It’s just an unbelievable beautiful experience for this skinny guy from Brooklyn to have this kind of life!”

To watch the cast of “Harmony” perform “Stars in the Night,” click on the video player below: 

“Stars In The Night” Performed By The Cast Of Harmony A New Musical by
Harmony A New Musical on

For more info: 

Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/barry-manilow-on-songwriting-fame-and-his-new-broadway-musical-harmony/ Barry Manilow on songwriting, fame, and his new Broadway musical, “Harmony”

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