By Pat Launer
He wrote the songs – for America and for “Harmony.” (Actually, he didn’t write “I Write the Songs,” but more on that later.)
Barry Manilow has sold 80 million albums worldwide. He’s had 35 consecutive Top 40 hits, and five albums on the charts at the same time (a record rivaled only by Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis). His “Fanilows,” as his devoted followers are called, have included Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and more recently, LeBron James (the NBA superstar and pop culture trendsetter admitted to having “Mandy” and “Copacabana” on his iPod). During his five-decade career, Manilow earned only one Grammy Award, for “Copacabana (at the Copa),” with lyrics by Bruce Sussman.
Manilow and Sussman have been writing partners for 42 years. Together, they’ve written nearly 200 songs; partly because they come from the same place – Manilow was born in Brooklyn; Sussman in Queens.
They speak the same language. (“The way Bruce writes is the way I speak,” says Manilow.) And on a transatlantic conference call, they complement each other perfectly. Sussman is more voluble but he never dominates. On any given topic, they always seem to be on the same page (“Barry and I just click,” says Sussman). They both retain the New York accent and energy. And for the past two decades, while working on other projects, they’ve kept coming back to one that’s near and dear to their hearts: a musical called “Harmony,” which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997.
Now, in a much-revised version, it’s running at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, a co-production with the Alliance Theatre of Atlanta, where the show opened to positive reviews last fall. But how did they get here from the mean streets of New York?
The Early Years
Manilow was born Barry Alan Pincus. His mother’s family was Jewish; his father had a Jewish father and Irish-American mother. Barry adopted his mother’s maiden name, Manilow, at the time of his bar mitzvah.
He grew up in the then tough neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and graduated from Eastern District High School in 1961. That year, he enrolled in the Juilliard School, while simultaneously writing songs, composing a musical (“The Drunkard,” which ran for eight years Off Broadway) and coming up with catchy commercial jingles, which he produced and often sang. His most famous were for McDonald’s (“You deserve a break today”) and State Farm (“Like a good neighbor…”). His years as a jingle-writer still pop up in his innumerable concerts, in his “V.S.M.,” or Very Strange Medley.
Among his other early projects was conducting and arranging for Ed Sullivan’s production company, and arranging a new theme for “The Late Show.” In 1971, he began his famous four-year association with Bette Midler, first accompanying her at the Continental Baths in New York, then arranging, conducting and/or producing her albums and tours. He would go on to produce and/or arrange albums for Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson.
In 1974, he recorded his breakout hit, “Mandy.” Surprisingly, that wasn’t one of the songs he wrote. Penned by Scott English and Richard Kerr, it was originally titled “Brandy,” but there was already a song by that name. Other megahits (that he didn’t write) include “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again,” “Weekend in New England,” “Looks Like We Made It,” and “Ready to take a Chance Again.” And also, his number one hit, “I Write the Songs,” composed by Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys. But he did write “Can’t Smile Without You,” “Even Now,” “It’s a Miracle” and “This One’s for You,” among scads of others.
His hordes of diehard devotees, 37 million strong, rallied in 1977 to watch “The Barry Manilow Special,” which he starred in and executive produced. It was nominated for four Emmys, as was “The Second Barry Manilow Special” in 1978 (with Ray Charles as a guest). In 1984, his 10-night run at Radio City Music Hall set a box office sales record of nearly $2 million, making him the top draw in the then 52-year history of the venue. His numerous albums have ranged from his well-known pop and adult contemporary style to a jazz/blues collection of original barroom tunes, to techno jazz, country and international music (he has performed songs in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.
In 1985, Manilow played his only lead acting role, in a CBS film based on “Copacabana.” He composed all the songs, with most of the lyrics written by Bruce Sussman.
Manilow published his autobiography, “Sweet Life: Adventures on the way to Paradise,” in 1986. But not much of his personal life is public record (“I’m a private man,” he said. “And a gentleman”).
For seven years, starting in 2004, he had ongoing engagements in Las Vegas, first at the Las Vegas Hilton and then at the Paris Hotel and Casino.
In 2006, he released “The Greatest Songs of the Fifties,” which went platinum and sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. The next year, he released the similarly well-received “The Greatest Songs of the Sixties.” In 2010, “The Greatest Love Songs of all Time” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Album. The next year, his new album, “15 Minutes,” hit the U.S. Billboard Hot Singles Chart, becoming his 47th Top 40 hit. He continued to record his concerts for TV broadcast and DVD release, and to perform benefit concerts for many charities and causes, as well as honoring young up-and-coming composers. In 2013, he appeared on the west lawn of the U.S. capitol for “A Capitol Fourth,” and returned to the Great White Way with his concert series “Manilow on Broadway,” the same kind of show that won him a Special Tony Award in 1977. As recently as 2007, he was still able to pack ‘em in at Madison Square Garden.
Manilow has never slowed down. Now 70, he’s still doing concerts, producing albums and performing on TV specials. During his third appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2004, the host announced that Manilow was one of the most-requested guests of all time on her show. Rolling Stone called him “the greatest showman of our generation.”
Young Bruce and Barry confront the Holocaust
Sussman was born and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. But then, his family joined the “great Jewish migration” to Long Island, N.Y. Later, he attended Franklin & Marshall College. Both he and Manilow, whose ancestors came from Russia, report that in their childhood homes, the Holocaust was never discussed.
“It was a shonda” (shame). You just didn’t talk about it,” Manilow says.
Sussman had his first introduction to the Holocaust at age 11, during the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.
“I was fascinated by it,” Sussman recalls, “and asked my parents lots of questions. I only got very short answers. But I’d hear them talking about it.” An upstairs neighbor, who was a survivor, became one of his sources when he started working on “Harmony.”
“Our lead character,” says Sussman, “struggles with whether or not to tell his story.”
The narrator of the musical is one of the Comedian Harmonists, the one called “Rabbi” (he was actually a cantor), who was still alive, at age 98, when the show premiered in San Diego in 1997.
Manilow and Sussman struggled with that question as well. They consulted Maria Rosenbloom, a Holocaust scholar, to ask if they had the right to tell this story. And, Sussman reports, “she said: ‘It’s been 50 years. The only moral imperative is to tell the story. Now we can begin to accept the enormity of it. The individual stories must be told.’”
They agonized over this creation, by far the most Jewish project either of them has undertaken. As Manilow puts it, “you don’t want to trivialize the big story by telling a small story.”
“Our story is about the approaching storm,” says Sussman. “The narration ends in 1936, two years before Kristallnacht.” But, says Manilow, “There’s an Epilogue, unprecedented in a musical, about what happened to each of them after the Nazis disbanded the group and destroyed all their work.”
Still, Manilow is quick to add, “This is not a Holocaust musical.” And as touching and tragic as this true story is, he’s right. The Harmonists were funny and lively, and many of their problems were interpersonal – and self-inflicted.
“What was easy for them was the musical harmony,” says Manilow. “The hard part was harmonizing in life. One Gentile member of the group was in love with a Jew. One Jewish member fell in love with a Gentile. Their world turned black very fast.”
The Long Road to “Harmony”
It all began with a German documentary.
“I saw this four-hour movie and went immediately to a pay phone and called Barry,” Sussman recalls. “And Barry said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, but go get it.’ I flew to Berlin a couple of months later.”
Manilow and Sussman spent six years trying to retrieve the music, research the background and tell the story of The Comedian Harmonists.
They were multi-talented: singers, dancers, comics, vaudevillians, a German tight-harmony male sextet whose rise to international fame (in albums, concerts and movie appearances) was cut short by the Nazis, because half their members were Jewish. They rose from starving street musicians to global entertainers, singing with Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker, meeting Albert Einstein and making a smashing U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall.
In eight meteoric years (1928-1936), they appeared in a dozen movies and sold millions of records, with their eclectic repertoire of songs in multiple languages and styles. They have been described as “a cross between the Marx Brothers and Manhattan Transfer.” All they wanted to do was make beautiful music and make people laugh. But the Third Reich had other plans for them.
“I love my story about meeting ‘Rabbi’,” (real name: Josef Roman Cykowski), says Manilow. “I’ve lived in Palm Springs for 18 years. We thought that, when the Comedian Harmonists split up, they would all flee. ‘Rabbi’ wound up moving to Palm Springs! I was walking my dogs past his house every day! He lived four blocks away from where I was writing songs for his character to sing.
“When I finally met him, the door opened, his wife Mary [also a character in the musical] was standing next to him.” He chokes up. “I could just cry thinking about it. He was in a wheelchair. He was old and weak, but still funny and bright. He said, ‘If they didn’t stop us, we would’ve been bigger than the Beatles!’
“He had been the lead cantor at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs for 20 years, the oldest active cantor in the United States. I had no idea.”
He also had no idea how much attention their musical would attract in La Jolla.
“We thought we were far away from New York,” says Manilow. “So we’d just put everything out there and then edit it down later. We never dreamed the L.A. Times and Variety would show up.”
At one point, Manilow and Sussman actually lost control of their project. A 2003 pre-Broadway production in Philadelphia was cancelled during rehearsals when the lead producer confessed to being millions of dollars short in capitalization. After a lengthy court battle, the creators finally regained the rights in 2005.
The new version is leaner and tighter, two hours instead of the original three.
“It tells the story very economically,” Manilow asserts. “What’s left is the best of ‘Harmony.’ We had 19 songs before; we had to drown some of our ‘babies.’ Four or five were cut, three were replaced.
“It was a great cast. They all became friends of ours. The six of them still get together every year and have dinner. It was a deep experience for everyone. Now we have a new cast, crew, designers and director. And the same thing is happening. This will change their lives forever.”
“Thrillingly produced and performed!” crowed one reviewer after the September opening in Atlanta. “Striking and compelling,” said another. “Ambitious and epic, a paean to the real-life Harmonists,” wrote another critic.
“It taps into us and our histories and our lives on so many levels,” says Sussman.
“In creating the songs for ‘Harmony,’” Manilow adds, “we had to go to the deepest part of our souls.”
“It’s so us,” Sussman agrees. “So what we are. It’s a mitzvah.”
“Harmony,” the new Barry Manilow/Bruce Sussman musical, plays at the Ahmanson Theatre, 601 W Temple St., Los Angeles, March 4-April 13. Tickets are $40-105. Info is at (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org.