Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Singing Salesman Still Keeps Customers Satisfied

By Neil Strauss
Published: April 18, 1997 (New York Times)

"I haven't had a hit in 15 years and I've never been played on MTV," Barry Manilow told the sold-out crowd on Wednesday night at Radio City Music Hall. Mr. Manilow wasn't looking for pity: his show was full of his usual good-natured self-chiding about his treacly pop image. He was thanking the audience for sticking with him so long.

But he did have a point. From Burt Bacharach to Tony Bennett, popular culture has been busy reviving singers, arrangers and composers from the post-swing, pre-rock era of meticulous pop, a period that Mr. Manilow's swelling ballads look back to for inspiration. Maybe it's time for Mr. Manilow to be resurrected for a younger audience, even if it is as a kitsch icon with pop validity.

Wednesday's concert, the first in an eight-night stand that ends on Thursday, was Mr. Manilow at his most likable. The first half was set up like a game show, with a video screen onstage displaying the covers of Mr. Manilow's 28 albums. Before each song, an audience member was given a hand-held controller to use to select an album, from which Mr. Manilow would sing his next song. The lucky fans were also given a microphone, so that Mr. Manilow (a natural Broadway showman) could engage in witty repartee with them, though most were too awe-struck to utter a coherent phrase.

It was appropriate that the first album selected was Mr. Manilow's 1977 "Live," from which he chose to perform a medley of commercial jingles he had written or performed. The crowd sang along with Mr. Manilow's Band-Aid, Dr Pepper and McDonald's commercials as wholeheartedly as it did to "Mandy." This is because Mr. Manilow is a master melodicist and arranger, relying on soft, welling strings, crescendoing piano pumping and a mother's-boy baritone. Whether intended to sell fried foods or pop hits, it's a formula that never fails to fill the heart with the mundanity that feels like grandiosity.

Mr. Manilow was backed by a budget-size band (three synthesizer players, a drummer and a guitarist), and for "Copacabana," Rosie O'Donnell joined him, dressed up as a showgirl.

The second half of the show featured songs from Mr. Manilow's new album of cover songs from the 70's, "Summer of '78" (proof that he and I were listening to different radio stations that year), and his time-worn hits medley, which ends with "I Write the Songs." Mr. Manilow joked, "For those of you who were dragged here, this next batch of songs is going to be agony." But the truth is that the only thing agonizing about the medley was that he didn't play the songs in their entirety.

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