Barry Manilow’s Jewish musical closes on Broadway

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Barry Manilow’s Jewish musical closes on Broadway

Now 80 the singer will be at The Palladium in May, but October 7 has changed the fate of his show about a 1930's German Jewish ensemble

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Octogenarian Barry Manilow is coming to the Palladium in May
Octogenarian Barry Manilow is coming to the Palladium in May

“I’ve been alive forever, and I wrote the very first song,” sang Barry Manilow in 1973, so ‘it could be magic’ that he only turned 80 last June. Manilow fans, aka the Fanilows, are not the only ones who know every word of his songs as he has sold 85 million records and he is so much more than just a guilty pleasure. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane even did a Manilow episode (pictured below) with Quagmire and the Quahog clan singing: “I’m ready to take a chance again.”

Upon Manilow becoming an octogenarian, Bette Midler (pictured right with him) tweeted: “Happy birthday to my old friend @barrymanilow and thanks for the memories! Did we laugh or what?”

Barry and Jewish husband Garry Kief

Their history harks back to when Barry was her pianist at the Gay Continental Baths in New York in 1971.The only question when he finally came out in 2017 was why he had waited so long, as he was already married to his manager Garry Kief, whom he met in 1978.

Barry and Bette Midler

“I thought I would be disappointing fans if they knew I was gay,” said Barry at the time, but the fans were thrilled for him and the Jewish ones kvelled as their hero had married one of the tribe.

The devoted Fanilows were out in force signing cards for Barry on his birthday outside the Westgate Las Vegas Resort, where he has had a residency for 14 years. Outperforming Elvis in the fruit machine city, he may be considered by every girl called Mandy the bane of their existence, but Manilow, born Barry Alan Pincus, has no plans to quit.

Quite the reverse, in fact, as he is increasing his workload and arrives in the UK in May for a two-week run at the Palladium (with an extra show in Manchester) after four shows at Radio City in New York.

A month ago Manilow was in the Big Apple, which was the reason a large group of Jewish baby boomers were milling about on the corner of East 65th and Fifth Avenue. With seating for 2,500, Temple Emanu-El, the flagship of the US Reform movement, has the Streiker Cultural Centre, where a Shabbat might be spent with actor Liev Schreiber or a casual Tuesday with Gloria Steinem. That’s how the A-list roster rolls at this illustrious synagogue, but to have Manilow as a guest? This was a serious shkoyach.

“You know Barry and I have been working together for 61 years and we’ve never been to shul together,” laughed his long-time collaborator Bruce Sussman, with whom he wrote Copacabana, other hits and the musical Harmony, which had opened in November at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

The Comedian Harmonists who inspired the show Harmony

“I always thought I’d write Broadway musicals and go from one to the next,” said Manilow. “Then Mandy hit and that’s really what happened.” But Harmony was different. A labour of love and determination spanning a quarter of a century, the musical meant so much to Manilow and Bruce because it was a Jewish story. Bruce initiated it after seeing a documentary about the Comedian Harmonists, a German ensemble in the 1920s, who took the world by storm with their harmonies, stage antics and films.

Selling as many records as the yet-to be Beatles, with invites to meet Albert Einstein in America, the ensemble included three Jewish members. Then the Nazis came to power. Other than Fiddler, a more Jewish musical would be hard to find and, after years of performing it out of town, bringing Harmony to Broadway felt like a victory. But the show opened in the shadow of the Israel-Hamas war and antisemitism was and remains in full flow.

Barry with Harmon cast and (left) longtime writer partner Bruce Sussman

The tension at Temple Emanu-El was palpable for the concerned audience and expressed by a Jewish member of the cast who said: “October 7 and the rise of antisemitism in America and around the world has shaken the company to the core. But we feel a responsibility as Jews to tell this story.”

Bruce stressed that the writing of the score – of which Manilow is so proud – is an act of bearing witness. “It’s about a quest for harmony in the most discordant chapter in human history,” he adds. “But it’s not a Holocaust musical,” says Manilow.

Barry with Quagmire in Family Guy’s Manilow episode

By the time they were ready for questions from the audience, everyone wanted to tell Manilow how much they loved him, how he had inspired them to learn piano, sing or marry, and one man wanted to thank him specifically for writing Copacabana. “It’s the only song my 97-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s still sings and it makes my day,” which made everyone smile in a way they can’t without Manilow.

Barry Manilow in his Copacabana heyday

“Has anyone got an actual question?” interjected the rabbi, which led to Manilow talking about his meeting with Roman Cycowski, the last surviving member of the Comedy Harmonists. “I had no idea he had worked as a cantor in Palm Springs, just a few blocks from where I live. We are telling his story and that’s why this musical is so important.”

But it was not important enough to keep Harmony on Broadway for, at the start of this month, its closure was announced – a mighty blow for Manilow and Bruce. It had opened to mixed reviews at a time when Broadway attendance is down, but the bitter truth is that a musical about Jews is a hard sell in a time of hate and fear. Even for Manilow.

See Harmony preview:

Harmony the musical soundtrack is available

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