“We’ve gotta see Manilow on Broadway,” said Tessa.
I smirked, giving my friend an eye roll.
“C’mon, it’ll be the ultimate Girls Night Out,” she continued.
My response was lukewarm at best, as I doubted his current musical prowess. I hadn’t heard about 70s icon, Barry Manilow, in decades. Regardless, I shelled out twice the cost of a typical ticket and went out of curiosity. Not convinced I’d recognize his repertoire, I consulted my sister, Joyce, a singer by nature. She broke into a string of Barry’s chart toppers, assuring me the night wouldn’t be for naught.
En route to the theater, we encountered a wet wintery mix and appropriately belted out a dramatic “I Made it Through the Rain,” only to be joined, midsong, by other concert goers. Our harmonies weren’t half bad, but I wondered about Barry’s.
Manilow graced the stage in a bedazzled, black tux. He stood svelte, front and center, backed by a full band and duet of dancers. The opening number was an upbeat medley, the Latin beat-laden, “Copacabana,” its lynchpin. Fortysomethings on up packed The St. James Theater — everyone, thrilled to be there, as Barry had been ill of late.
Barry’s last night on The Great White Way didn’t mirror his first. He’d landed in The Big Apple, performed a few shows, then caught the flu and battled bronchitis. Avid Manilow enthusiasts or “Fanilows,” as they preferred to be called, anxiously awaited his recovery. That evening, ticket holders to cancelled shows were in the house, rooting for their hero and his comeback, especially since the media had predicted otherwise.
“I see him every year,” confessed the overzealous women to my left.
There was an intimate feel to the night, like being in your uncle’s living room while he sang show tunes. The theater was lit with glow sticks audience members snapped to life and waved in lieu of lighters. I sang, karaoke-style, into mine. A communal spirit of Kumbaya proportions wafted as a peaceful swaying took hold. There was a unspoken bond — you knew what happened at The Saint James, stayed at The Saint James.
Nostalgia abounded as people relished the lyrics to every song. I time warped to seventh grade when I painstakingly chose Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” over Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” to accompany my balance beam routine. In my tie dyed leotard, I steadily walked the beam as Barry’s words, “stopped me from shaking.” His song exuded inspiration; it buoyed me.
Others, too, were awash in private memories, connected to the peppy, “It’s a Miracle,” the tear-jerking, “Even Now,” or the irresistible sing-a-long, “Can’t Smile Without You.” The perennial crowd-pleaser, “I Write the Songs,” garnered a standing ovation, and rightly so.
But that night, it was more than the music that impressed me; I applauded Barry’s journey. Between pop hits and ballads, he shared tales from his past; how he hailed from the pre-hipster Williamsburg Brooklyn neighborhood, when his high school was deemed the most dangerous in America. And how one orchestra class changed his life. For the young Manilow, it was music or the streets. He even joked, “Could you see me in a gang?”
But most poignant, was when Barry sang with a video version of himself on American Bandstand in the peak of his heartthrob days. The clip showed him clad in a sequined sweater — blue, akin to his wide set eyes — perched at the piano, wailing “Looks Like We Made It.”
It was refreshing to see a longtime idol intact; one who hadn’t lost their voice, or their way. One who hadn’t forgotten words to the very songs that shot them to stardom. For Barry, this rang true. He was slim and energetic, with paced moves and patter. He sang the songs the way you remembered them, without new dance club arrangements. He sang the hits from our youth; Barry delivered. With vivid costumes and his still suave voice, Manilow made the audience swoon and beg for more. He sashayed left to right, with Vegas-worthy gesturing. It was vintage Barry and he owned it. I would even argue Barry Manilow invented this type of swagger — a stage presence embodied by only the best of performers.
A once reluctant Fanilow, I came away with newfound respect. With a career spanning fifty years, Mr. Manilow commanded that. A New Yorker with humble beginnings, Barry was given a heartfelt homecoming featuring a caricature at famed pre-theater restaurant, Sardi’s. During his visit, 44th Street was even named “Barry Manilow Way.” For a brief time, Barry and Broadway shared a mutual romance.
I was most struck near the concert’s close when Barry momentarily stopped singing, letting the crowd complete the chorus to “Ready to Take a Chance Again.” He was visibly moved, close to tears. The boy from Brooklyn turned songwriter extraordinaire had earned his stripes. The were no childhood bullies to dodge, only a bevy of admirers, paying tribute to his life’s work in sweet unison; Barry had wowed the masses. He’d not only come through for his ardent Fanilows, but won me over in the process. In his seventies, Mr. Manilow got much deserved validation. He was the Barry Manilow I cherished in middle school, and that night, I embraced his genius.
Aline Weiller’s essays have appeared in Better After 50, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamalode, Role/Reboot, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Skirt, Grown and Flown, Scary Mommy and Your Teen, among others. She’s the Founder/CEO of the public relations firm, Wordsmith, LLC in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two sons.