BWW Interview: Melissa Manchester on Her Café Carlyle Debut, Her Latest Album & Bway Musicals She Loves
Over the course of her 40 years in show business, Melissa Manchester has done it all--or most of it, anyway. She's sung hit songs ("Don't Cry Out Loud") and written hit songs ("Whenever I Call You Friend"), even inspired a hit song (Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic").
Manchester's been a TV actress (the title character's mother on '90s sitcom Blossom) and a theater actress (the musical Hats in Chicago). She's composed scores for stage (I Sent a Letter to My Love) and screen (The Great Mouse Detective). She worked with Bette Midler in concert (as one of the original Harlettes, Midler's 1970s backup group) and on film (1991's For the Boys).
She's written songs that have been recorded by everyone from Mel Tormé to Leona Lewis and have been heard in Academy Award winners (Out of Africa), on Glee and The Muppet Show and in a Tyler Perry movie. She's won a Grammy, a Bistro Award and the Governors Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, and she's performed on the Oscars multiple times.
And those are just some select highlights.
Yet there are still worlds for the Bronx native to conquer, including the upper echelons of New York cabaret scene. This week she makes her debut at Café Carlyle on the Upper East Side, performing a total of 12 shows from June 10 to 21. Manchester also recently dove into the world of crowdsourcing to finance her 20th album, You Gotta Love the Life--her first full-length album in almost a decade--raising more than $40,000 through Indiegogo.
Manchester spoke with BWW last week by phone from her California home about these two new ventures, as well as insights and experiences she's accumulated during her remarkable career. And we talked Broadway musicals, too!
You grew up in New York City but haven't lived here since the '70s. Does it still feel like coming home?
I always feel like I'm coming home when I come to New York. As I say, it's not my hometown, it's my heart's town.
How well did you know Café Carlyle?
I saw Bobby Short there, actually, and I knew that it was a swellegant venue. I'm thrilled to be finally graduated to that room. I certainly have knocked around the venues of New York--from Carnegie Hall to the Bitter End to Radio City to B.B. King's--and it's lovely to play the beautiful Carlyle at last. I can't wait to be in the room that has hosted Elaine Stritch and Bobby Short and Steve Tyrell and so many other wonderful performers. It's such an intimate setting, so this is my trio show. Stephan Oberhoff plays keyboards and guitar, I play piano, and Susan Holder plays rhythm. We're a small but mighty group.
Will you be singing any songs you haven't really performed for an audience before?
Oh, probably. Some songs from the new album, and there are certain songs that I save only for New York.
Oh, no, you have to come and hear 'em!
Let's talk about the new album. How'd you end up on Indiegogo?
It was suggested to me by my students at USC, where I'm an adjunct professor at the Thornton School. My students who had been doing these campaigns would come in with these CDs, shrink-wrapped, with the artwork and credits and five or six songs to them, and I'd say, "How did you do it?" thinking they'd tell me an independent record label was involved. They were saying, "You should do it!" So I investigated fan funding, and I said, "Walk me through it." They did, and we had a 60-day campaign and recorded the album at Citrus College, where I'm artist-in-residence. I really wanted to return to making an album with live musicians, and we had great players and spectacular guest stars: Dave Koz, Stevie Wonder, Joe Sample, Dionne Warwick, Al Jarreau, Keb' Mo'. It was an incredible lovefest and a beautiful experience.
Can you tell us more about these guest artists on the album?
The first time I ever saw Dionne Warwick, I was 15 years old and my sister and brother-in-law took me to the Copacabana to see her. I wrote her a fan letter that night, and she wrote me a beautiful response on her lavender stationery, which I have to this day. It was incredible to not only have her sing with me, but it turns out I wrote the last song Hal David ever wrote lyrics for. It's called "The Other End of the Phone." 'Cause Dionne built her career on the lyrics of Hal David and the music of Burt Bacharach, it was the beautiful completion of a circle. We have performed on television shows and at benefits, but it's the first time I ever recorded with her.
It's not a duets album by any means; it's my album with honored guest artists. Stevie Wonder played harmonica on a song called "Your Love Is Where I Live." Keb' and I have written together, and he's recorded several of our compositions. For this album I asked him to coproduce a cut that I had written with a young songwriter by the name of Sara Niemietz, and he did a fantastic job--he really brought his musical sensibility to the song. I flew to Nashville and we recorded it in his basement. I flew to Houston to record with Joe Sample, who I've been trying to work with for 30 years.
You were working in the industry back when record companies had songwriters on staff--that's how you got your start as a teenager. What has it been like going from that to crowdfunding?
Essentially what it does is eliminates the bankroll and big engine of a record company, but it allows you total artistic freedom, and when it's done you own your masters. After all, I made record companies lots of money, but they still own my masters to this day.
We're in the midst of an industrial revolution on many levels, and as far of the record industry it's unrecognizable. I had taken many years off to raise my kids, and when I came back it was a new land. I suppose there is something to be said for knowing that there is a big bankroll behind you, and that there are many hands on deck who do different jobs to help you push the project up the mountain, but because of YouTube, [it's] a democratic playing field. Everybody can get their music out; whether it lands, who knows.
We'll see how it all turns out. We're just at the tail end of mixing and getting ready to master, the photos are all done, credits are all done, the literature's all done. We're getting ready to have it released in September. It was simply about an adventure I didn't want to miss. That's what it all came down to.
One thing I did not expect is that the fans are interested in the process of seeing the recording come to life--almost as interested as I am. Depending on how much contribution they'd make, some fans would be able to come into the studio and watch a session. The whole thing has just been this deep and wide adventure that I'd never, ever experienced working with a record company.
When did you begin teaching, and what do you wish to impart to your students?
I've been teaching at the Thornton School of Music for 3½ years. Thornton has been known for their jazz and classical prodigies that go into the world to great acclaim, and the popular music school is their "baby school." I teach singer-songwriters, sometimes I teach musical-theater kids. I teach them whatever they want to learn about. Sometimes we talk about composition, they always want to know about the life; every semester is very, very different. They don't ask me for a syllabus, thank goodness
I always assign songs from the first volume of the American songbook, so they understand the difference between a melody-driven song and a rhythm-driven song--which is the conventional wisdom of today--and the challenges that come with that. Once in a while I'll ask them to write a song like that, and they cannot figure out how Gershwin and Porter and Berlin packed so much into those little songs.
I teach the things that will not be changing [in the industry], that's what I tell my students. If you're in this long run--and they can't possibly know if they're in it for the long run, since they're beginning and they don't know how exhausting and rigorous it is--I teach them about staying healthy and staying strong and preparing for performance. Preparing when you get on the road and haven't had enough sleep in five days and still have performances ahead of you. All that stuff that will never change, because it's on the body and in the mind.
Did somebody teach you all that?
No! There was nobody to teach me. My father was a bassoonist with the Metropolitan Opera, and my mother was one of the first women to own her own design and manufacturing firm on 7th Avenue, so my sister and I were raised to chase our dreams. I thought this was an extension of how I sang in my parents' living room with my sister and my mother and all of our relatives. I had no technique, I had no sense of how to stay strong and healthy. I had to learn it myself. It's a fantastic way to learn about your life, through your arts and through the actual experience of what it takes to be an artist. It's not for the faint of heart, but this version of normal suits me.
Do you have a favorite of all your songs?
They're really like your children, and you fight for each one of them, and you're as shocked when things work out as when they don't work out. But I think my sentimental favorite is "Midnight Blue," because it was my first. It came out of a conversation with Carole Sager--we were writing partners for five years. It touches me how conversational and intimate it is, and it touches me how it's meant so much to so many different people over the decades. But I'm very grateful for all of it. I never get bored singing these songs, 'cause they're my monologues, you know. And I've done the work to allow them to grow with me.
Would you like to do more acting, possibly on Broadway?
Of course. Acting has been fascinating, when I costarred in Blossom for NBC or when I've done voiceover work. I've always wanted to perform on Broadway. I did the national tour of Song and Dance--I took over for Bernadette Peters. To be on Broadway would be thrilling.
Did you go to Broadway growing up?
All the time. I went to Broadway shows, and I also grew up going to dress rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera. So [I had] experience singing large and being comfortable with large sound. One of the first times I worked with a symphony was in the early '80s. I performed at Lincoln Center at the very first AIDS concert, called A Night to Remember. They accompanied me on my song "Come in From the Rain," and besides the fact that it was thrilling, it was simply comfortable, because it was a scope of sound that I had been raised with.
What Broadway musicals do you remember especially fondly?
The first Broadway show that I ever saw was My Fair Lady. But one of my favorite shows--I think it's a masterpiece on a small, jewel level--is Fiorello. It's just a spectacularly written musical. My other masterpiece qualification, of course, is Sweeney Todd. [Ed. note: Manchester played the Beggar Woman in a 1999 L.A. concert staging of it starring Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski.] And Sunday in the Park With George.
The Carole King musical, Beautiful, just won two Tonys. Is there possibly a Melissa Manchester jukebox musical in the future?
I hope that happens one day. I think this album that's about to come out is my best work, so looking back is one thing, but I'd like to look forward as well.
Click here for photos from her Carlyle debut!