In Defense of Barry Manilow

In Residence: Barry Manilow on Broadway (Joan Marcus)
His Broadway show is a delirious joy.

Barry Manilow’s Broadway residency is built around a show much like Bruce Springsteen’s: One soulful, solitary man at the piano, dressed like a plumber, explaining in the most heartfelt terms the songs he wrote, the emotional turbulence behind them, and how they reflect on his . . .

Nah. Not really. No. In Residence: Barry Manilow on Broadway (at the Lunt-Fontanne through August 17) is an epic of a man and his sequins, backed by a gigantic band, his voice amplified to levels suggesting an air raid. All of showbiz is an act, and even Springsteen confessed, in his Broadway engagement, “I made it all up.” Manilow is as loyal to his act as Springsteen is to his. If authenticity is what we crave in a stage persona, Manilow is the real thing, only he’s genuine Velveeta. Weapons-grade schmaltz. His veins flow with pure glitter.

At 76, Manilow has gone a bit stiff in the joints. His combination of creaky movement and spangled attire suggests Mr. Burns at Caesars Palace. The voice is hoarse. Nevertheless, the crowd at his show Friday night was not merely welcoming. It was not just enthusiastic. It was delirious. West 46th Street was the hottest spot north of Havana. Two middle-aged blondes in the third row couldn’t sit down during “Can’t Smile without You” (whose lyrics were presented on a screen with a bouncing smiley face for the singalong-minded). The tiny lady in front of me rocked out to “Copacabana (At the Copa)” but also to “Daybreak.” Revelry charged the air, made the evening glitter like rhinestones. I might as well admit that I drank it all in: I’ve been a Barry Manilow fan since I was nine years old, and if I was going to give him up, I would have done so a long time ago.

My musical formation was a bit backwards: In youth I craved sweet sounds for old ladies, the Carpenters and Neil Diamond very much included. It wasn’t till my late thirties that I much appreciated the Clash. I was past 50 before I ever savored the Ramones. Today I struggle to unlock the secrets of Kanye West. This is a work in progress.

But how could I ever give up Barry? His face has been tightened and troweled so many times that he seems barely able to open his mouth anymore, and he covers up with lots of reverb on the soundboard and that frightening jolt of over-amplification. But with a bit of imagination you can still pick out that mellow Seventies baritone. Listening to today’s pop radio and its ticka-ticka-ticka obsession with beats, he asks, “Where did all the melodies go?” Pause. “They’re right here tonight.” Cheers. Regardless of what package you put them in, those tunes are indeed beautiful. “Looks Like We Made It,” “Somewhere in the Night,” “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” “Weekend in New England.” Luminous. If Leonard Cohen or John Lennon had written these melodies, few would deny their brilliance. The lyrics may be banal, but at least they have done no one any harm, unlike the corrosive undergraduate mind-toxin that is Lennon’s “Imagine.” Granted, Cohen or Lennon would have ditched the swelling orchestrations and the angelic choruses that constitute those sugar-cannon endings, but Manilow’s tunes are expertly crafted in the Tin Pan Alley way.

Manilow is a curious kind of pop star: He made it to the top very late (he was 31 when he had his first hit; the Beatles broke up before any of them turned 31). He paid his dues for years writing commercial jingles and as a pianist. Then, though Arista Records founder Clive Davis positioned him as a singer-songwriter, he didn’t actually write many songs that made the whole world sing. He didn’t write his first hit, “Mandy,” and he didn’t write his last hit, “Read ’Em and Weep.” He didn’t write “Weekend in New England,” “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” “Looks Like We Made It,” “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again,” “Can’t Smile without You,” “Ships,” “The Old Songs,” “Somewhere in the Night,” “Somewhere Down the Road,” or “I Made It through the Rain,” although on the last of these he shares a writing credit because he altered the lyrics of a pre-existing song. He didn’t even write “I Write the Songs,” which was previously recorded by the Captain & Tennille and David Cassidy. This detail seems like a betrayal. Are you aghast? Yet the line isn’t “I am Barry, and I write the songs.”

Manilow grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which makes one suspect he’s due for some ironic love from the hipster brigades who drink bad beer to be funny, but the crowd with which I attended was in resolute earnest, worshiping the songs and roaring at the interludes of Catskills humor. “I love New York. I love the sights, the sounds, the smells . . . maybe not the smells.” It’s evident from the succession of lounge-singer smoking jackets that there will be no letting down of the mask, no discussion of, for instance, what it was like for Barry to live his entire career in the closet before exchanging vows in an unofficial ceremony with his partner since the Seventies, Garry Kief, in 2014. Even then, Manilow kept it quiet. Mandy had to wait till 2015 to learn why he sent her away.

Like Paul McCartney, born exactly one year (less a day) earlier, Manilow cultivates a pre–Baby Boomer notion of the consummate showman who considers it his duty not to be a drag, not to burden us with his angst or his anger. He doesn’t bang a gong about politics. He does fire streamer cannons over the audience. The shamelessness is appealing, and infectious. I thought at any moment the ladies might start hurling their underwear upon the stage. For two glorious hours, it was 1975 again, in all its spangled, cheesy glory. Don’t think Manilow doesn’t appreciate all of us mere mortals out here in the dark. Says he, “I never thought I’d become the super-megastar sex god that I am.”

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