Barry Manilow greets his fans following a show
recently in New York. It's been nearly a quarter
century since he last played on Broadway.
For a moment forget about all the “members of the tribe” who are producers, directors and actors; TV personalities and broadcasters; comics, impressionists and clowns. Even push aside all the iconic Jewish composers and musicians – from Berlin and Bernstein to Heifetz and Perlman – and focus on that tiny group of talented entertainers labeled as singer/songwriters.
Add the sub-category of pop culture to the mix and we’ve now whittled our list down to a toe-tapping group of mega-stars that would have to include Arlo Guthrie, Carly Simon, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Cass Elliot, Bette Midler, David Lee Roth, Gene Simmons, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel. That’s the short list – the very short list!
I mention all this as a long and rambling way to share a recent adventure my wife Wendy and I had in New York. We like to visit the Big Apple in the winter, when the temperature is frigid and the smell of roasting chestnuts and hot pastrami fills the air.
We stayed busy this trip eating our way through several delis, taking a special food tour of Chelsea Market and the Meat Packing District and purchasing a few babkas at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side – and, yes, food is a big part of all our trips north.
We also generally manage to make it to one or two shows on Broadway and this time around was no exception. In search of something a little different, we took a chance on the Tony-winning musical “Once”, a bittersweet story filled with boisterous production numbers and melancholy ballads. It was splendid!
Then there was Barry Manilow. He’s the entertainer that I think might be found snuggled up between Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan in the mega-star list above and, it just so happened, he’s playing Broadway once again after a 23-year absence.
Manilow is what you get if you stir together equal portions of pop music, pop culture and a little twist of yiddishkeit. He’s sold over 80 million records and in the years between 1975 and 1983, the kid from Brooklyn had two dozen top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Mandy,” “Could It Be Magic,” “Looks Like We Made It” and “I Write the Songs.”
Those are exactly the tunes – along with a dozen or so more – he offered up for me, Wendy and the 1,700 other fans packed into the St. James Theater, just around the corner from Times Square.
Given the mega-sound systems and pyrotechnics at the heart of most concerts these days, I’m pretty sure Manilow seems a bit of a snoozer these days. I’m also pretty certain that the people rocking out in the aisles, waving light sticks and screeching like they were at a Taylor Swift concert, weren’t asleep.
From the moment the lights lowered and Manilow stepped onto center stage, the St. James became a joyful, riotous celebration. For people of a certain age, the songs he sang are the songs of our lives, melodies inextricably linked to first loves and first heartbreaks.
Time, well, boogied to a stop and for a moment we were all kids again, swaying and cheering and singing along to the fading memories that filled the theater. After all, many of us once had the same disco hair and disco duds that a youngish Manilow sported on album covers that were part of the show – just one additional way to sweep away the years.
Much of the show's magic, in fact, was lingering in the past. That became clear when Manilow slowed things down a bit and offered up a few warm memories of his yiddishe grandfather, the man he credits with first recognizing his musical potential.
He used a scratchy old recording that he and his grandfather produced decades ago, along with a little video of a man and child walking together and a lot of sentimental schmaltz to euphonically blend it all together.
Then it was back to the waving and swaying; singing, dancing and cheering. It took Manilow himself to help it all make sense when he shouted out to the crowd, bathed in their loving adulation, that, gosh, “I was the Justin Bieber of the 1970s!”
I’m guessing that’s a good thing.