Barry Manilow on Broadway: ‘Who Could Ask for More?’ A Sea of Happy Screams and Glow Sticks
The Daily Beast
August 1, 2019
Barry Manilow’s Broadway show is a feast of classic hits like “Mandy” and “Copacabana,” with the 76-year-old showman singing, groin-thrusting, and delighting his devoted fans.
The screaming was abrupt and sounded painful—was it a fight or disturbance? My eyes flicked left. No, it was just the latest outburst of elation at a Broadway concert that was more fervent church service. Believers only welcome.
Obviously, Barry Manilow’s Broadway residency (to Aug. 17) is for fans; more than that, it is for the devoted. Along with the Playbills for the show come a pair of 3-D glasses and a glow stick. On a recent evening, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was quickly transformed into an undulating sea of the small green rods.
Regina Spektor had been here in June, delighting a similarly loyal fan base. Hers and Manilow’s shows do not emulate, or even approach, the narrative mastery of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway residency, but they both show that Broadway is an attractive destination for musicians who can fill theaters for contained time periods between plays and musicals, a seductive commercial win-win for both artist and venue.
The Manilow faithful—women of advancing ages, some with very big hair, and nattily dressed gay men—were ecstatic before their hero even appeared as the titles of his most famous songs flashed on a screen on the stage, peppered with memory-sparking chord and lyric flashes.
Then Manilow himself materialized in jacket with glittering appliqué, hair jetted and tufty, and the audience’s roar felt like it would launch the Lunt-Fontanne into orbit. There was no warning about not using smartphones, so people filmed and photographed Manilow as he sang and strutted, gingerly, this way and that.
The lady in front of me—accompanied by a male partner who sat stoically upright and unmoving, as if at a court-martial—contorted herself, getting into the perfect position to snap Manilow, bopping to songs, and sitting forward intently as if Manilow was addressing just her. In front of her, a woman cheered songs and words with her arms upraised.
Across the aisle, two women swayed in blissed-out synchronicity to every single song. Behind me, a man murmured to himself and his partner, “Oh, Barry,” “Yes, Barry, yesssss,” “Wow, Barry!” and “He’s so good.”
For his part, Manilow very skillfully trod a tightrope of being genuinely appreciative of this “family” who had come to see him, and knowing his other image of purveyor of supreme musical cheese.
He seemed at home and comfortable in all guises. He knew who was here for him, and he was there for them too. He owned the stage as only a consummate performer can, while also being in on the joke of being Barry Manilow, “76 and still a mega-star and sex god,” he said, laughing to himself.
If this was meant to be self-deprecating, or to knowingly ward off criticism of that cheesiness, it was lost on his fans and absolutely unnecessary. There was nothing ironic in their attendance and worship. This is a preacher who knows his congregation, and a congregation utterly, unshakably, in thrall to their preacher.
Perhaps, like Donald Trump, Manilow too could get away with shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue, at least if he followed it with a rendition of “Mandy.”
The Lunt-Fontanne audience yowled and whooped when he did a set of groin thrusts. When, during “Weekend in New England,” Manilow sang the “When can I touch you?” line in his series of agonized questions—“When will our eyes meet? / When can I touch you? / When will this strong yearning end? / And when will I hold you again?”—the outbreak of screaming was at Beatles/David Cassidy-level intensity.
If any of those women know that Manilow is gay (he came out in People in 2017), and married to Garry C. Kief (his manager, who is listed as a producer in the program), they have either conveniently forgotten the information, or know it and don’t give a damn.
The couple married in 2014, before Manilow came out. “I thought I would be disappointing them [the fans] if they knew I was gay. So I never did anything,” Manilow told People. “When they found out that Garry and I were together, they were so happy. The reaction was so beautiful—strangers commenting, ‘Great for you!’ I’m just so grateful for it.”
You sense that Manilow, his music, and that promised, longed-for touch that makes fans scream, is part of an unquestioned and unbreakable bond. His voice is still strong, he can still dance with a shuffling charm. Like he said to us, not bad for 76. Some may laugh at his songs, but as his Broadway show went on, one marveled at his voice and stage presence.
Almost every song at the concert built to a moment where Manilow thrust his hands out to the audience, like a javelin throw releasing glitter dust. The songs—many about coming through something, surviving something, triumphing, making it no matter what—reside in the best extremes of diva tradition.
The show began oddly shakily, with Manilow’s voice not able to rise over his orchestra. His voice was more mumble. And then, suddenly, it was not. Manilow was on point, funny and charming—both downplaying his stardom and making clear he was the star, just like his compadre Barbra Streisand. Manilow knows his image, and knows the contemporary culture of mockery enough to play with it without denigrating himself.
The 3-D glasses were to be put on when Manilow sang “This Is My Town,” from his 2017 album of the same name dedicated to New York, and suddenly, via the screen behind him, we were on a harum-scarum cartoon journey through and over New York City, which included the Statue of Liberty winking at him. “Mandy” began on the screen behind also, with a tape of Manilow playing it in 1975, before the Manilow of now took over from him to thunderous cheers.
“Could It be Magic” began as he wrote it—as a piano-based romantic ballad, before Manilow stood up from his piano stool, noting that Donna Summer made it into a disco hit (Take That went unmentioned), which he then promptly, and wonderfully, aped with flashing lights. We were all on our feet and in the aisles.
For “Can’t Smile Without You,” the lyrics were put up on the screen to sing along with, Manilow saying how much he enjoyed the transformation of concert into mass karaoke.
What did we learn of him? Nothing that fans didn’t already know, and nothing far out of the Wikipedia zone: He told us of growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (long before it was “fancy-schmancy”). He had a lovely childhood, he said, and was particularly close to his grandfather, who took him as a little boy to record his voice for the first time at a place in Times Square.
Manilow spoke a little of the early years, his first recordings and success. He noted of his first album cover that he looked like “Taylor Swift on a bad hair day.” There had been some wild times, he said. That was it. No talk of personal demons, hard times, his first marriage to Susan Deixler, sexuality, coming out, and his marriage to Kief.
A medley of hits followed until he sent us out into the night with—what else?—the glorious “Copacabana” (which he also performed at Michael Kors’ New York Fashion Week show in February). Again, there was no option but to stand and sing along to the melodramatic travails of Lola, Tony, and Rico. Who could ask for more?, indeed.
To rapturous applause, Manilow bowed, waved bashfully, bowed again, and waved bashfully again. As the curtain came down, the glow sticks swayed on.