Broadway interview

Barry Manilow Rips Anti-LGBTQ Republican Politicians and Their Bills: ‘Shame on You!’

The Daily Beast

March 12, 2022

Barry Manilow tells us how he stands with trans kids, their families, and LGBTQ communities under attack, as well as dishing on his new musical and his Broadway dreams.

Barry Manilow is not known for his vocal LGBTQ activism, but as the multi-million-selling pop star and this reporter were speaking on Friday afternoon a Texas court was hearing evidence about the governor and state attorney general believing gender-affirming care for trans teenagers to be “child abuse,” and worthy of official investigation of their parents. (A judge later issued a temporary statewide injunction preventing such investigations going forward.)

This week also saw the passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, affecting what can and can’t be said and taught in the state’s classrooms. These are just the highest-profile of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills presently in Republican-run state legislatures, including Alabama.

What would Manilow, who came out as gay in 2017, say to all the Republican legislators trying to push this panoply of anti-LGBTQ, anti-trans bills, I asked.

“Shame on you!” Manilow shouted down the phone.

Would he want Texas to cease its actions towards trans kids and their families, and for the general tide of anti-LGBTQ legislation-making to end? “Yes,” Manilow said, just as firmly.

Manilow came out publicly having married his longtime manager and partner Garry Kief two years previously.

Had coming out in People magazine five years ago been liberating or self-affirming after so many years in the closet—for fear, as Manilow has said, of disappointing his female fans? “No. It was a non-event, nothing, for me,” Manilow insists today. “It was no big deal. Nothing changed, nothing will change, and nothing has changed.”

Did Manilow wish he’d come out sooner? “No, NO,” the second one said louder than the first. “It was whatever it was.”

It would be 13 minutes with Manilow, I’d been told—and this would be timed with military precision. Alongside him was his friend and longtime writing partner Bruce Sussman, who collaborated with Manilow on “Mandy,” a song whose success and consequences Manilow told me diverted him from his real dream of “writing the great Broadway musical.”

That dream may be a bit closer with the imminent New York debut of his and Sussman’s show, Harmony: A New Musical, about The Comedian Harmonists, one of the most successful musical performance groups in Europe in the years leading up to World War II. Half the group was Jewish, half Gentile, and they are so little-known because their work was almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis. Manilow and Sussman spoke from where the musical will be performed, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, in New York City, with previews beginning March 23.

Sussman had seen a German-language-with-subtitles documentary about the group, struck by the six members in white tie and tails, hair Brilliantined. “I came out gobsmacked. They were the Marx Brothers meets Manhattan Transfer. I couldn’t believe the story I was hearing and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know it. So, I called Barry from a payphone and said, ‘I think I’ve found it.’ We’d been looking for a musical for years. We’d been offered several that we turned down, but on this one Barry took a collaborative leap. He told me, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, but go get it.’ The story knocked me out. I started doing research—Barry calls it ‘circling the airport’—deciding what part of the story we wanted to tell and how.”

Manilow added, “Theirs is a really incredible story, and it’s amazing nobody remembers them. They invented a style of music and comedy we take for granted now, but they were hugely successful, the Backstreet Boys of their day. They did movies, they sold millions of records.”

Sussman said he thinks his and Manilow’s Jewishness informed their response to the material, and, “as time has gone on and the headlines gotten worse, as Jews I feel more of an obligation to tell the story than I ever did before. I wish I didn’t have to say that, but here I am sitting at the gorgeous Museum of Jewish Heritage, ‘A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.’ Every stone in this building is here to encourage remembering. We know we have the right place for the New York debut of this show, and it’s almost unfortunate to say that we probably have the right time to tell this story as well. It’s more relevant than ever.”

Manilow insisted “the composer part of him was in the story writing the songs in the scenes we were working on. I was more involved in telling this story musically than anything else.”

The unfolding horrors perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine had given the musical and its setting under the gathering storm of Nazism more piquancy, the men agreed.

“Again, I am not happy to say it, but it does,” said Sussman. “It’s resonating more than ever, almost to the point that I had concerns over things I had written five, six, seven years ago. They seem stolen from the headlines. I asked Barry and the director, ‘Do I have to change that line? It sounds like I wrote it yesterday because I read something in the newspaper.’”

Manilow said he thinks current events have given the show a deeper resonance, but he was more focused on writing “a proper song at a proper moment. My Jewishness had nothing to do with it for me. I was trying to write a love song for the girl, and I was trying to write an amusing song for the guys. That was my job.”

For both men, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company, presently revived on Broadway starring Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk, had been absolutely formative. (Sussman just saw and loved the revival, Manilow is planning to.)

Company changed all our lives,” Manilow told me. “Young people who had any idea about going into Broadway, when we all heard Company, everyone went ‘OK, is this where it’s going? I want to be there.’ Everyone ran back to get into the Broadway world because of it. I remember I saw the musical on its last preview before opening night. Can you imagine? I’ve never seen a more excited crowd in my life. By the time it got to ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ they were ripping the walls down.”

“It also had something to do with Barry and I working together,” Sussman said. “After we met, the first time I went to his tiny little apartment on 27th Street, he had thumb-tacked onto the back of his piano his favorite record albums, and one of them was the cast recording of Company. And I said, ‘OK. This guy.’”

Manilow roared with laughter.

Long before his career went supersonic, Manilow was an off-Broadway accompanist. Is Broadway in his bones?

“That’s what I wanted to be,” Manilow said. “I wanted to be a Broadway composer. I never really thought about performing or singing when I started off. I was everybody’s piano player, everybody’s arranger, and I was a songwriter. I never even thought about having the career I have had. Ever! When Bruce and I met we were going to write the Broadway musical. That stupid ‘Mandy’ just stopped everything.”

Both men laugh over the mention of Manilow’s breakthrough hit.

“That pop career where he sold 100 million records. How dare he!” cackled Sussman.

I told Manilow that Duckie, the much-loved London queer club, played “Copacabana” to the delirious delight of regulars.

“Oh wow, great,” he responded. “And that was a big surprise too, how radio picked it up and made it a pop song. Little by little it kept climbing up the charts.”

Sussman laughed. “That song is a great example of how bad a pop writer I was. I had no idea how to write a pop song, and that is the strangest pop song I ever wrote, which reminds me about why it was so successful. There was nothing like it on the air.”

I asked Manilow what was left for him to do.

“That’s a big question,” he mused. “I have done everything I have ever dreamed of doing. I’ve made every style of album I’ve ever dreamed of making, and now this show [Harmony]. I would love to do another one of these. We’ve loved writing this, but we can’t write another one until we’re done with this one.”

Sussman recalled a story about Oscar Hammerstein, who he said, the night Oklahoma! opened, went for a walk with his wife in their garden. “Hammerstein said to her, ‘I really hope they like it, because this is what I like and if they like it I get to write another one.’ And that’s how Barry and I feel about Harmony.”

Manilow said he will most likely return to Broadway to perform a third concert, after the success of the previous two. But Harmony may also provide a template for a new stage-centered future. “We hope this is a success—not only because we’ve been working on it so long and like it so much,” Manilow said. “If the audience buys this we maybe have another one or two of these we’d like to write.”