Barry Manilow on Early Career: 'I Made a Fool of Myself Trying to Copy' Bette Midler (Q&A)

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The pop singer talked with THR about working with Bette Midler and Clive Davis before finding his voice, and his new musical "Harmony" running March 12 through April 13 at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre.

Ever since he was a teenager, silver-throated seventies pop singer Barry Manilow wanted to write for Broadway. He got close with The Drunkard, a musical composed when he was only 19 that ran off-Broadway at the West 13th Street Theatre for eight years. He hoped to move the show uptown but a funny thing happened on the way to Broadway, a career as a pop singer with gold and platinum albums, two Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy. 

Forty years later Manilow’s almost come full circle with a new musical Harmony running March 12 through April 13 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre. Co-written with long-time collaborator Bruce Sussman, the new musical tells the story of the real-life Comedian Harmonists, a musical comedy group that was persecuted in Nazi Germany for mixing Jewish and gentile performers. Harmony had an initial run at La Jolla Playhouse back in 1997, and another false start in 2004 before hitting the boards in its present form at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre last fall.

Here, Manilow talks to THR about his early career, working with Bette Midler and Clive Davis before finding his voice as an entertainer.

So you had always meant to write for Broadway but then this pesky pop career got in the way.

This pop career miraculously took off and took me into a world that I never even imagined. If I hadn’t had Clive Davis guiding me along I really don’t know what kind of pop career I would have had. I had to learn on the job about writing for pop records and performing on a stage. Little by little I figured it out. It was kind of fun and thrilling and I got good at it. But Broadway took a back seat to this explosion. That’s why Harmony is so important to us.

"Copacabana" is more of a Broadway song than a pop song, really.

Every time Bruce and I would try to write something more interesting than, “I love you and I miss you,” Clive would say, “No, that belongs on the Broadway stage, it belongs on a TV special or something.” As you can tell "Copacabana" is not really a pop song. We kind of snuck it out in the middle of "Can’t Smile Without You."

And the fans loved it.

Even though I was a pop artist, I took my love of Broadway storytelling and my love of cabaret into my pop world. These audiences that were coming to see a pop artist were surprised when I did that kind of thing and I think they were surprised in a good way.

You must have learned a lot working with Bette Midler when it came to putting on a show.

I never had eyes to be a performer. And when I got the opportunity to stand up on the stage, the only thing I knew was what Bette did. I made a fool of myself trying to copy her and it was all wrong until I figured out my personality on the stage and then it settled in. I learned form Bette how to perform, how to do a show. I had no idea. I never even paid attention to performance.

You were focusing on composition?

I was trying to be an arranger. My hero at the time was Nelson Riddle, John Costa. Even the Beatles, as brilliant as they were as songwriters, as brilliant as they were as performers, I was listening to George Martin behind the Beatles. What the heck was he doing behind "Eleanor Rigby"? That’s where I was at.

Does the music in Harmony reflect your pop career in anyway?

If you didn’t know that Barry Manilow did the score, I don’t know if after the show you would think that this is a Barry Manilow score. It’s pretty far away from the kind of music I’m known for. There are no backbeats. There are no drum loops. There are no big endings and what I love to do on records. This is a Broadway musical and it’s true to the story and the style of their work.