Posted August 22, 2009
You probably know her best by her songs.
Melissa Manchester received international acclaim with her recordings of “Midnight Blue,” “Through the Eyes of Love” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” With Kenny Loggins , she co-wrote the classic, “Whenever I Call You Friend.” Her songs have been recorded by Barbra Streisand, Alison Krause, Roberta Flack, Johnny Mathis, Kathy Mattea , Dusty Springfield and Cleo Laine , among many others.
It all started back in New York .
Manchester grew up in the Bronx and Manhattan . Her father was a bassoonist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Her mother was one of the first women to design and found her own clothing firm, Ruth Manchester, Ltd.
“My sister and I had a festive, New York upbringing,” says Manchester . “I just wanted to be around creative people.” And so she was.
She attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts , of “Fame” fame. “I’m a huge advocate for alternative public education,” she says. During and afterward, she took a few quirky jobs: parking cars for a small theater company; being an “usherette” at Lincoln Center ’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. And doing street theater, part of a program from the Department of Parks called “The Great Sunflower.”
“We went into the slums of the city,” Manchester recalls, “and brought the neighborhood kids into the show.”
Her service to her city didn’t go unnoticed. Earlier this year, she received a New York Alumni Association Award, which honors people who hail from the Bronx . The ceremony, celebrating the 100th birthday of The Grand Concourse (the “Boulevard of Dreams” that was built to connect Central Park to the parks of the north Bronx ) , was held in front of the Bronx County Courthouse. “I got my very own lamppost on the Bronx Walk of Fame,” Manchester exclaims. Tony Orlando was also an awardee , though he didn’t grow up in the area. “He was adopted by the Bronx .” ( see photo)
Paul and Barry and Bette
When it came time for college, the logical choice for Manchester was NYU’s School of Experimental Theatre. That’s where she took a songwriting course from Paul Simon.
“He was very well known at the time. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ had just come out. He taught from experience. One piece of memorable advice I took away: ‘All the stories have already been told. The only mark of authenticity is the way you tell your stories.’”
While she was getting this good counsel, Manchester was supporting herself by singing commercials. That’s where she met Barry Manilow , who introduced her to Bette Midler.
“Barry and I were commercial singers. Bette was performing at the Continental Baths [a gay mecca , and influential performance club] and I was down the street at The Focus, a folk club with a gallery and restaurant.
“This is when I learned the importance of community. Community is everything. It does take a village, a sense of belonging.”
What she first belonged to was The Harlettes , Midler’s famously raunchy backup group (“I was the tits in the middle,” Manchester chuckles). She was 23 at the time, and spent about six months performing around the City with Midler, at venues including Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
“It was amazing,” she recalls. “Bette was brilliant, and so was Barry,” who was her musical director at the time.
Meanwhile, Manchester had been trying to get a recording contract. She’d starting writing songs at 17, “heartfelt ballads about love and Nature. Such a sweetness and effortlessness,” she says wistfully. “I could never write them again. But when I started writing songs, it was as if I’d learned a new language. Everything became fodder for a song.”
Goin ’ to the Chappell
When she was still in her teens, she became a staff writer for Chappell Music, an influential music publishing company.
“I had to write about two songs a month. I wrote by myself, on the piano, in longhand. I still do. I was with Chappell, on and off, for many years.
“What I did in those years was knock on doors and ask people, ‘Would you teach me?’ I was in the right place at the right time. I had an amazing array of adventures.”
But it wasn’t all easy.
“You’ve got to want to do it more than anything. I paid very hard dues. I played a lot of awful places before I headlined at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall . I never take any of the niceties of my life – or a clean bed, or kindness — for granted. Or that this turned out to be a job with a future.”
Indeed it did. Manchester was nominated for a Grammy in 1978 and 1979. In 1980, she became the first recording artist in the history of the Academy Awards to have two nominated movie themes in a given year: “Through the Eyes of Love,” written for her by her friends and frequent collaborators, Carole Bayer Sager, Marvin Hamlisch and the late Peter Allen, from the movie, “Ice Castles”; and “The Promise (I’ll Never Say Goodbye),” written by David Shire, with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman , for the film, “The Promise.” Manchester went on to make further Oscar history by performing both songs during the worldwide telecast. In 1982, she won a Grammy as Best Female Vocalist.
Manchester is always looking both ahead and behind, remembering what it took for her to get where she is. Her acclaimed 1989 release, “Tribute,” paid homage to the great singers who influenced her, from Garland to Streisand, Piaf to Fitzgerald.
She wrote the musical, “I Sent a Letter to My Love,” based on the Bernice Rubens novel of the same name. She’s working on the musical version of “The Sweet Potato Queens,” with Jill Connor Browne, the author of that highly popular book series. And then there are the stage performances. “For me,” says Manchester , “the theater is the land of miracles.”
She played the leading role in her own musical, “I Sent A Letter,” for a National Public Radio broadcast, as well as the premiere in Boston at North Shore Music Theatre (2002). She spent six months as part of the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Song and Dance,” and appeared with Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier”), as the Beggar Woman in the 25th anniversary “Reprise!” performance of the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd,” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
“That was incredible,” says Manchester of her meeting with the great composer/lyricist. “It was a top-of-the-heap experience for me.”
Most recently, she starred in the Chicago premiere of “HATS !, ” the Red Hat Society musical that contains several songs Manchester co-wrote with Sharon Vaughn.
When she’s not onstage or on the road, Manchester composes. She created songs for Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective,” co-wrote the score for “Lady and the Tramp 2.” In 2004, she released her 17th CD, “When I Look Down That Road,” celebrating her 40 years in the business. She recently received the Governor’s Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for her contribution to the world of music. Her body of work was also featured in an exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in Connecticut .
She still performs about eight nationwide concerts a month, and she heads to Manila in September. “I’m told I have quite a fan base in the Philippines . Hopefully, these appearances will open the Pacific Rim .
“Performing is my version of serious fun,” Manchester avers. She used to take her kids with her, but they’re old enough to be doing their own thing.
Nathan, 22, just graduated from Berkeley and is working in the tech department of a law office. Hannah, 21, is interested in a music career. “I brought her onstage a couple of times, and it was like an out of body experience,” says Manchester with a laugh. Last year, she and Hannah attended an invitation-only live taping of “Forever Plaid,” for the movie version of the musical perennial. ( see photo)
Manchester ’s husband of 27 years, Kevin DeRemer , who happens to be her manager, will be with her when she comes to San Diego to perform for two nights at the San Diego Symphony Summer Pops.
“I’ll be putting the beautiful orchestra to good use,” she promises, singing her hits as well as songs from the latest album: “Bend,” “When Paris Was a Woman,” and some numbers written with Chick Corea .
The concert will highlight Manchester ’s life of creativity. Through her wide range of experiences, she’s maintained a single focus.
“I never lose sight of the delicacy – or power – of a song, to change a mind, to stop wars, to alter the course of a life.”
WHAT: “MELISSA MANCHESTER ,” at the San Diego Symphony Summer Pops,
Matthew Garbutt conducts the Symphony in selections from Bach, Dvorák , Rachmaninoff and others.
A fireworks display follows each evening’s performance.
WHEN: August 28 & 29, 2009 at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Embarcadero Marina Park South, Marina Park Way , downtown San Diego
TICKETS: Adults: $15-75
CONTACT: (619) 235-0804; www.sandiegosymphony.com
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.