It's a miracle. But it looks like he made it — back to health.
On Tuesday, Barry Manilow officially opened his greatest-hits concert with hardly a cough or sniffle or any sign of the flu that forced him to cancel five performances. The Brooklyn-raised Grammy winner was ready with eight boxes of tissues around the stage of the St. James Theatre. It’s home to the warm and winning “Manilow On Broadway” through March 2.
The Kleenex makes me laugh, but handy “just in case,” Manilow said, adding that “Jewish guilt” over missing shows was worse than the fever. Well-wishers, he said, got him “through a terrible week.”
It’s been nearly 25 years since his last Broadway show.
A Manilow concert is like dining at Medieval Times: You know you’re going to wind up with a greasy face.
Yes, there will be cheese.
Case in point: The sing-along version of “Can’t Smile Without You,” which came with a projection of a sunny, yellow ’70s-style smiley face.
But there was also lots of heart, hit songs and a heady blast of nostalgia that was surprisingly moving.
If you lived through the ’70s and ’80s, you lived the Barry Manilow catalogue. The show began with “Could It Be Magic,” then moved in rapid succession across familiar tunes — from “Looks Like We Made It” to “Weekend in New England” to “Even Now.”
At 69, Manilow still gives it his all, shaking and baking as much as he could muster. Yes, his moves and his patter are a little canned. But despite being sick for a week, he was in good voice.
Recollections of his Williamsburg childhood and of his grandfather, who recognized his musical gift at an early age, were funny and sweet.
Fanilows, out in force and carrying signs declaring “We love you Barry” ate it up with a spoon. They cheered each number and waved gleaming green glow sticks handed out with Playbills. And some danced, including “Real Housewife” LuAnn de Lesseps and anchorwoman Rosanna Scotto, who rocked her disco moves in the aisle during “Copacabana (At the Copa).”
The show, which included nine musicians and two vocalists, ran a little shy of two hours. After a few costume changes — from black to pink to white jacket — and a couple dozen tunes ended, aptly, with “I Write the Songs.”
The professional photographer shooting the curtain call next to me had tears in his eyes. He couldn’t help it. He wasn’t alone.
Was there a rave at the St. James Theatre? Between the loud, thumping opening and the revved-up audience shaking glow sticks, you’d think the venue had booked a Swedish House Mafia gig by mistake.
But no, this was opening night of “Manilow on Broadway,” and the joint was jumping last night. At least for the first five minutes. Then everybody settled into a mellow groove and recuperated for 85 minutes, before going wild again during “Copacabana.”
You’ve got to hand it to Barry Manilow: The man’s 69 and unlike the vast majority of his peers, he still sells lots of records and can fall back on Vegas residencies — he really doesn’t have to be out peddling his wares on a cold winter evening. Yet there he was, in his first Broadway run in 24 years.
And if there were any doubts left about Manilow being a pro, let’s just say that he sounded good enough on opening night, after a bout of bronchitis forced him to cancel several shows last week.
A bigger problem is that his face is frozen in eternal middle age, and he appeared to sing through clenched jaws. Between that and the terrible, echoey sound, it was hard to get any sense of emotion, real or fake.
But then the performance itself was beside the point, as the crowd knew the set list by heart. “All I got is a whole bunch of hit songs,” the star announced genially, “and I’m going to do them.”
“It’s a Miracle”: check. “Could It Be Magic”: check. “Mandy”: check. And so on up to Lola, who “was a showgirl with yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there.”
Unlike many similar vintage acts, Manilow went easy on the multimedia thingamajigs, with mostly basic projections like a smiley face during “Can’t Smile Without You.”
We did get the mandatory stroll down memory lane — he grew up in Williamsburg — but it didn’t overstay its welcome. That bit also provided the setting for one of the evening’s highlights: a driving version of 1987’s “Brooklyn Blues,” a fascinating hybrid of Billy Joel and Steely Dan.
A couple of other numbers were winning in different ways, making you wish Manilow threw more back catalogue nuggets our way, and less of the schmaltzy stuff.
One highlight was 1984’s “When October Goes,” in which Manilow set words by Johnny Mercer (“Moon River”) to a lovely melody reminiscent of Michel Legrand at his swooniest.
Another was “Every Single Day,” a stirring ballad from “Harmony,” a musical Manilow co-wrote with lyricist Bruce Sussman in ’97.
Ironically, the song made its Broadway debut before the rest of the show, which has only been done out of town. Dare we ask for more?
“I was the Justin Bieber of the ’70s. Really. Just ask your mother,” Barry Manilow boasted from the stage of the St. James Theater early in Tuesday’s opening-night show of his return to Broadway for the first time in decades.
Mr. Manilow was still recovering from the flu, which had caused him to cancel several preview performances, and the front of the stage was lined with boxes of tissue in case he needed them. (He didn’t.) In the past few days, he said, he had coughed up enough phlegm “to float Fire Island.”
It is worth noting that unlike Mr. Bieber, Mr. Manilow was no teenager when he hit it big. Puppylike he may have seemed, but he was already in his 30s. And whether Mr. Bieber can sustain the kind of stardom Mr. Manilow still enjoys remains to be seen. Like him or not, after nearly four decades in the limelight, Mr. Manilow, now 69, has crossed the invisible line from durable pop entertainer to pop institution occupying a platinum pantheon alongside the likes of Rod Stewart, Elton John and Neil Diamond.
As it has with his fellow legends, time has inevitably diminished Mr. Manilow’s singing. High notes have disappeared, a certain unsteadiness has crept into his delivery, and his belting is no longer robust. While singing “Weekend in New England,” one of the most vocally challenging of his biggest hits, Mr. Manilow congratulated himself on landing safely after negotiating a wide interval. The fans who sang along with his hits didn’t seem to notice. What mattered was that he was present and doing what he has always done and simply being himself.
Ultimately the 1-hour-50-minute concert, performed without an intermission, revealed Mr. Manilow’s brand to be intact. That brand might be described as musical chicken soup for the soul. One crucial ingredient, of course, is the voice, a medium-light baritone that conveys an innate homeyness, familiarity and a likable mixture of pride and self-deprecation. To his fans he is someone as vulnerable as they are: a spiritual BFF.
The typical emotional life cycle of a Manilow hit is a journey from yearning to fulfillment followed by heartbreak, recovery and finally regret, all expressed with greeting-card directness. Unlike the songs of his rock contemporaries Mr. Manilow’s never expresses even a hint of violence or revenge. Playfulness? Yes: in songs like “New York City Rhythm” and “Copacabana.” Back in the day his refusal or inability to express rage or raw aggression elicited savage bullying from the critical wolf pack resentful of the female adoration he commanded.
For the essential Manilow persona is a lonely dreamer who only wants to be loved. “Mandy,” his first hit, established his emotional priorities, of which safety was at top of the list: “Oh Mandy,/Well, you kissed me and stopped me from shaking,/And I need you today.”
Another later hit that received one of the biggest responses, “I Made It Through the Rain,” expresses the same longing for a safe harbor: “I made it through the rain/I kept my world protected.”
The brand’s final major ingredient is Mr. Manilow’s musical song sense. Most of his biggest hits have the sound and structure of elongated jingles that modulate up the scale as the lyrics aspire to a higher, more ineffable realm of feeling.
The show was structured as a personal musical biography in which Mr. Manilow’s grandfather loomed large, as did the importance of his high-school orchestra. He recalled that in his first Manhattan apartment, a studio, he slept for years in a pullout bed under the grand piano that took up most of the space.
Near the end of the concert the excitement built as Mr. Manilow played and sang duets with his younger self on television. At last came the triumphal “I Write the Songs,” with which the audience sang along waving green light sticks. That Bruce Johnston ballad, with its grandiose announcement, “I am music, and I write the songs,” is one of my pet peeves. How dare anyone claim, “I am music.” And what does it mean, anyway?
As the theater erupted with joy, I gritted my teeth.
Barry Manilow, after canceling a week of performances including his opening night due to illness, finally launched his first Broadway show since 1989 Tuesday night.
“What a week!” Manilow said of his bout with bronchitis and the flu, after “Give My Regards to Broadway.” “I have hacked up enough phlegm to float Fire Island.”
He hasn't fully recovered from the strain – as well as the “Jewish guilt” Manilow said came with forcing so many of his fans to reschedule their plans last week. His voice was rough around the edges and, occasionally, too weak to hit some notes at the upper end of his register. But that hardly mattered.
“Manilow on Broadway” is a fast-paced retrospective of the Brooklyn native's life and career, built on his warmth and charm as a storyteller as much as the songs that make the whole world sing. “We don't have any phantoms, any lions or any Spider-men,” Manilow said of his show, which runs through March 2. “All we have is hit songs.”
That is more than enough. Manilow showed how expansive his catalog is – from Broadway musicals to salsa, from “Brooklyn Blues” to the disco-era anthems of “Copacabana” and “Could It Be Magic.” And, of course, the '70s piano ballads, from “Mandy” to “Weekend in New England” that made him a star. “I was the Justin Bieber of the '70s,” Manilow said. “Ask your mothers.”
Even as he struggled, Manilow's show was good Tuesday night and it's only going to get better as his health returns. There were points early on when Manilow hesitated slightly before he launched into some big notes, like an ice skater about to attempt a difficult jump.
As his voice warmed up, those worries fell away and he was able to tell a lovely story about how his grandfather recognized young Barry's musical ability paired with a touching performance of “This One's for You.” He showed how sturdy “I Made It Through the Rain” is by dedicating it to those hurt by superstorm Sandy, while still delivering it as a forerunner to all the recent “It Gets Better”-styled songs from Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.
“I feel you willing me through this,” Manilow told the audience, after his voice faltered slightly. They did. Looks like he made it.
It has never been hard to make fun of Barry Manilow. Certainly, it wasn't last week, when the veteran singer/songwriter issued a miniseries of cheeky but vaguely whiny press releases canceling two previews and then postponing the opening of his new concert event, Manilow on Broadway, citing doctor's orders. One had the Brooklyn native perched on the bridge connecting that bureau to Manhattan, "getting ready to jump," while another declared, "It turns out the only thing worse than hell or high water is bronchitis."
Manilow actually blamed the flu when he finally made it to the stage of the St. James Theatre on Tuesday night. It hadn't been easy, he assured the crowd: "I've hacked up enough phlegm to float Long Island." Ba-dum-bump.
His 69-year-old voice was clearly still recovering; hoarse even in speech, it seemed at times to float in back of the mix, then to rush forward on a wave of reverb. But vocal prowess was never Manilow's selling point anyway. His chief asset as a performer has always been a certain endearing neediness — not the smarmy solicitation of a lounge lizard, but a sense that he genuinely feeds off his fans' affection and feels compelled to return it.
"We've been friends for a long time, haven't we?" he rhetorically asked Tuesday's crowd, whom ushers had supplied with green glow sticks to shake like maracas during the upbeat numbers and wave theatrically through the ballads. He promised to play all the hits, noting, "I'll bet you're going to know every song," and asking — with more wonder than arrogance — how many other artists could make such a claim.
Indeed, Manilow's string of smash singles from the '70s were as seared into our collective consciousness as the jingles he penned or sang earlier, for brands from Band-Aid to McDonald's. At their best — the plaintive Weekend in New England, the pining Could It Be Magic — his tunes relay an almost childlike wonder and longing that mitigate their sentimentality.
The high points of Manilow on Broadway generally found him seated at the piano or a smaller keyboard across the stage. I Made It Through the Rain was dedicated to survivors of Hurricane Sandy, building from an a cappella intro to a sweeping finish that brought audience members to their feet — though some, particularly in the front, stood through much of the evening, cheering and holding up smartphones that weren't confiscated.
If other attendees were more interested in the kitsch value of the proceedings, their host surely didn't mind. While irony is one of the last qualities you'd associate with Manilow, he's clearly more comfortable with self-deprecating humor than many more venerated troubadours. His stiff dance moves — imagine your klutzy uncle, not after a few drinks but before he'd had enough to loosen up — were tossed off with the same good-natured enthusiasm as his jokes, which ranged from Borscht Belt-zippy to just silly, as when he called himself the Justin Bieber of the '70s.
It's tough to envision a horde of Bieber's fans brandishing glow sticks and singing along with him, word for word, 40 years from now — something to bear in mind before you have a chuckle at Manilow's expense.