Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Dance Party: Barry, Oh Marry!

He got married a year ago, but the news just trickled out last week.  And like other recent, shrug-inducing announcements, the revelation that 70s superstar Barry Manilow married his longtime male manager isn't cause for much excitement.

Though he married a woman, briefly, about a hundred years ago, Manilow successfully ducked questions about his sexuality for most of his career.  He seemed like the kind of guy who would always be single.
This was the only Manilow album I ever
owned. He proved himself a lively showman
and his concerts were lavish events.
Except that Manilow really was a huge star of the 70s who built his music career on scores of weepy ballads of love and yearning. He was the most unlikely of sex symbols, with a tall gangly frame and, let's face it, a real Jimmy Durante shnozz. But something about his music, and his public persona, struck hard.  I was not a big fan, but you really couldn't get those earwick ballads out of your head.
Barry had the occasional uptempo hit, like the disco-tinged "Copacabana," but primarily, he was known for sappy ballads with refrains that churned around in your head long after the song was over.
He's hardly recognizable here. He
spent some time in TV production
before his career as a jingle writer
took off.

Funny thing about those love ballads.  For the most part, the lyrics were not gender specific.  Did anyone notice this back then?
Our hero hit #1 for the first time
since "Mandy" with this song.
"I write the songs that make the
whole world sing," except he
didn't write it. Nobody cared.

Many, many songs were actually direct address, with the song aimed directly at the subject, rather than a tale of woe about the time "she" left me.  Was this a subtle way for Manilow to duck questions regarding his own romantic life?  Whatever it was, it allowed gay men to appropriate those songs without the hassle of changing pronouns.

Ah, who cares at this point. I find that I am more interested in the on-again, off-again relationship Barry had with another music superstar, Bette Midler. 
These two met back in the 70s, when Manilow was hired to accompany "the talent" who entertained at Manhattan's Continental Baths on Saturday nights. I guess back then, gay bath houses offered entertainment to the deviants wandering around the club in towels. Bette Midler made her first big splash performing there, with Barry at the piano. This club provided the inspiration for Terrence McNally's 1975 play The Ritz.  Rita Moreno won a Tony playing a role loosely based on Midler. 
Barry and Bette hit it off (not surprisingly, as The Divine Miss M has always been Best Friend to the Gays), and their professional lives were intertwined for about 3 years.  Manilow produced her first two albums in the early 70s, just as his own career as a solo artist was unexpectedly taking off as well. 
Gotta love those 70s fashions.

Somewhere in there, the Great Feud began, which was to keep the two apart for several decades, as they each rose to fame.  As much as I love Miss Midler, from what I've read, the fault was mostly hers:  she had trouble accepting the fact that her records sold "only" 30 million copies, while Barry's topped 80 million. 
By 2003, two older and wiser heads prevailed, and the Bette/Barry team was back in business.  Manilow produced Midler's well-received tribute albums to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee, and the two even recorded a few songs together.
Tensions linger, apparently.  In 2013, Barry and Bette were both, coincidentally, on Broadway. A concert evening called Manilow on Broadway was selling out, while Midler's one-woman play I'll Eat You Last was packing them in as well.
There was talk of Midler and Manilow opening the Tony Awards with a duet, since they were both on Broadway at the time.  When it didn't happen, folks were sure the feud was still smoldering, but in reality, I think Bette was pissed she did not receive a Tony nomination for her work playing Sue Mengers.  Her show was a smash and did not need the publicity of a Tony appearance, so she skipped it.
There are a couple of clips out there, of the two superstars together, but for this week's Dance Party, here's another, more unlikely, collaboration.  In 1988, Disney released an animated musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, rewritten as a story about dogs. The score for Oliver and Company was written by a bunch of people, and included one song written by Barry Manilow.  The tune was given to the character of Georgette, a spoiled showdog, which, by coincidence or not, was being voiced by Bette Midler.  So, inadvertently, Barry and Bette were collaborating again, though in different rooms, and at different times.
Oliver and Company predated the great animation renaissance which Disney was to enjoy a bit later, but the film was a modest success.
I've never seen this film, but it's kind of a fun song.  So, in the spirit of congratulations to Barry and his hubby, enjoy Bette Midler belting a Barry Manilow song.