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Manilow Bares His Jewish Soul

This article is reprinted with permission of the Boston Jewish Advocate. Visit www.thejewishadvocate.com.

The last thing most Barry Manilow fans expect to hear him sing are songs on death, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Yet, the 58-year-old singer will be highlighting his show with many of these songs when he comes to Boston for his gig titled "One Night Live One More Time" on Oct. 1 at Fleet Center.

Manilow has recorded seven songs from his new Broadway-bound musical "Harmony" in his new CD "Scores" and wants to be known as having more in his repetoire than the upbeat, sentimental songs that have sold more than 60 million records. His top hits include standards such as "Even Now," "Mandy," and "Weekend In New England."

Manilow said he would prefer to be known more as the composer who wrote a great musical that was set during the Holocaust, rather than as the singer who wrote the popular songs that the whole world sings.

"Harmony," with music by Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman (they wrote the Manilow hit "Copacabana," which won a Grammy Award) had a successful debut in 1997 at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.

The play is based on the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six German performers, three Jewish and three Gentile, who gained famed in Germany in the 1920s before becoming a threat to the Nazis in the 1930s.

In the musical, Manilow sings Sussman music that is varied, from a capella singing to classics to klezmer and other popular idioms of the time.

"Without a doubt, this is the one piece of work that I want to be remembered for," said Manilow in a telephone conversation from New York during a break from rehearsal.

"What inspired Bruce Sussman and me is to tell a story of a unique and talented group of individuals who touched the lives of millions in their time," Manilow said. "They set out on a quest to find harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in history. The harmony they set out to find was so much more than musical harmony."

"The writing of the music has been the most challenging and creative journey of my career," Manilow continued. "I immersed myself in the musical style of the 1920s and 30s, including listening to klezmer and cantorial songs."

Manilow calls the story and the musical "uplifting."

"Despite what happened, the story is uplifting," the singer said. "The tragic part in the second act moves me because I'm Jewish and because my relatives went through the Holocaust. There are moments in the script that we refer to traditional Jewish rituals, such as the wedding scene when the groom breaks the wine glass, when I was moved to tears."

"What is ironic is that I have been turned off from Judaism for years, believing in the simple concept that if I wasn't good, God would punish me. I feel different now. What we learned from the Sept. 11 tragedy is that we all should be tolerant, accepting of ourselves and feel uplifted. It is the best way to fight tyranny. The best part of my success in my career is uplifting people's spirits with my music," added Manilow.

"Harmony" is expected to debut on Broadway in February 2005. One of its best songs, which expresses the hope of eternal love amidst the reality of the Holocaust is "Where You Go."

Manilow's singing combined with Sussman's words produce melodrama. For instance, the lyrics "where you go I will go if to Hell or to the promised land to the end we die," are especially inspiring.

Manilow will combine the songs from "Harmony" along with his well-known hits for what may be one of his last shows in Boston.

"I'm not saying I won't be back, but after 30 years of touring, I want to enjoy my life at my home (Palm Springs, Calif.) more than I have. I have great memories of Boston, starting my first tour in 1974 at the old Paul's Mall there. It was a small place, a real dump, and I was an opening act for a trumpet player. Things changed for the better very quickly," said Manilow.

He is acknowledged in record circles as the number-one adult contemporary artist of all time. His hit songs have been so well received that he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.

Despite having worldwide fame, Manilow's roots are humble. Born in Brooklyn as Barry Alan Pincus, Manilow's parents (a Jewish mother, Edna Manilow, and an Irish father, Harold Kelliher) were divorced when he was two. His name was "Pincus" because Kelliher wanted to give Barry his mother's maiden name.

Manilow was raised by his mother Edna and his grandparents, immigrants from Russia, who raised Barry in a Williamsburg apartment. He has no siblings.

"We were very poor, but I never knew it. I was given a secure upbringing and I always felt loved and wanted. Gramma and Grandpa taught me Jewish traditions and raised me to be polite, caring and sensitive, a gentleman," Manilow recalled.

He started singing in public for the first time and changed his name to Manilow shortly before his Bar Mitzvah.

Manilow honed his music first on the accordion and refined it on the piano. "I hated the accordion," he said. "It seems that every Jewish kid has to play one. But when I played the piano, I knew the music would be my passion and my ticket out of Brooklyn." For a time, things were traumatic for Manilow financially and emotionally. He nearly went bankrupt twice and had married and divorced his high-school sweetheart by the age of 25.

Manilow knew the craft of songwriting--for a time he coached singers wanting to audition on Broadway, wrote commercial jingles, and was the musical director for Bette Midler--before starting his solo career in 1974. Manilow went on to write songs for Dionne Warwick. Over the years, he has truly stretched as an artist--creating jazz, big band, and Broadway theatrical music.

Although he has never sung in Israel, Manilow was voted as the number-one performer there in 1980. He sang "It's A Miracle" at a televised special of performers honoring Israel in 1978, and performed at a benefit in Washington for then Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1983.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah."

Marvin Glassman is a freelance writer.

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