A GoPride Interview

Melissa Manchester

Melissa Manchester: I really feel honored, because the gay community has always supported [laughs] divas worth supporting.

Thu. March 8, 2012  by Gregg Shapiro

I really feel honored, because the gay community has always supported [laughs] divas worth supporting.
Melissa Manchester

She knows who she is: an interview with Melissa Manchester

Melissa Manchester's connection to the gay community is long and enduring. From her early days as a Harlette, one of Bette Midler's original backing singer, to her rise through the singer/songwriter ranks during the 1970s and her ascension to full-fledged divahood, Manchester has remained on our radar. "Playlist: The Very Best of Melissa Manchester" (Arista/Legacy), a 14-track compilation that brings us up to date, presents Manchester in the various phases of her career. I spoke with Melissa in early 2012 about the collection and her contributions to popular music.

GS: (Gregg Shapiro) "Playlist: The Very Best of Melissa Manchester" is your third domestically issued compilation. How do you think it compares to 1983's "Greatest Hits" and 1997's "Essence" discs?

MM: (Melissa Manchester) That's a very reasonable question. I think what's different about this is that this is more of a musical journey. I wanted to include never before released duets. I wanted to pay tribute to my first band-mate Cooker LoPresti, with whom I sang "I Can't Get Started With You." Covering a song like that on my second album and ‘70-something, way before anybody thought that was a cool idea. I also wanted to include two songs that had been used in films within the last two years. "Rain Bird," which is an original song I wrote for the film "Dirty Girl" with one of its stars, Mary Steenburgen. And the only live recording of "I Know Who I Am" which was used in Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls". I also wanted to include two songs that I wrote by myself, "Talking To Myself" and "Shine Like You Should". It's an overall view of different parts of what I do and how it expresses itself.

GS: I'm glad you mentioned "70-something." You were an early signing to Clive Davis's Arista Records, along with Barry Manilow. Do you have any memories of that time that you would like to share?

MM: Clive actually inherited Barry and me from Bell Records. Bell Records was originally a singles label. In those days they used to have singles labels and album labels. I was assigned to Bell Records as an album artist on a singles label, so what they did was sort of left me alone, which was really radical. When Clive absorbed Bell into Arista, it was not business as usual. There was a huge engine behind you. He had very big plans. When it worked it was fabulous, when it didn't work it was disconcerting. Because you are up against Clive and his opinion of what you should be doing. Sometimes we butted heads, sometimes we had great success together.

GS: "Come In From the Rain," from the "Playlist" and other discs, is one of your most covered songs. Are there versions, other than your own, for which you have a special fondness?

MM: Barbara Cook's version is exquisite. Since she is my musical hero, I was honored to have her record that. The thing is that as a songwriter you yearn to have people record your songs. In the day and age of everybody writing their own stuff [laughs], I was thrilled with anybody's recording of "Come In From the Rain."

GS: "Come In From the Rain," a song that you co-wrote with Carole Bayer Sager, is an example of how well you play with others. What do you think it is that makes you a good collaborator?

MM: I'm really interested in how people think. So to be in a room with somebody who is intriguing and inspiring to me, and also what was unusual about the songs that I wrote with Carole is at the songs all came out of conversations. Therefore the tone of the songs was very conversational. The listener always feels like they are in the moment when that first line is uttered.

GS: Sure. "Well, hello there…"

MM: Exactly. And that's true for "Midnight Blue" as well. I think that was sort of unique about those songs and that's part of Carole's remarkable talent, that she can pull that out. But those songs were directly inspired out of conversations that we were having. What happens to me is if I'm having a conversation with somebody who's interesting, I'll start to hear music and then we're off and running.

GS: You mentioned movie music, through which you have also made a name for yourself, beginning with "Through The Eyes of Love" from "Ice Castles" and continuing with "I Know Who I Am" from "For Colored Girls" and "Rainbird" from "Dirty Girl." What do you like about having a song associated with a movie?

MM: My present obsession is musical theater. So any time somebody asks me to write a song that captures a moment in a larger story, I'm your girl [laughs]. In terms of "I Know Who I Am," the fact that Tyler Perry felt that that song somehow represented his story, sort of revalidated my feeling about writing for musical theater. I just have that ability to write large and specific at the same time.

GS: That is a gorgeous song!

MM: Thank you.

GS: You also mentioned "Rainbird," which was co-written with actress Mary Steenburgen. How did that come to be?

MM: That whole adventure was remarkable. I was sent the script to "Dirty Girl" by its writer-director Abe Sylvia. In the film, which takes place in Oklahoma in 1987 - it's a wonderful coming-of-age film that's now on DVD - Abe wove nine of my songs into the film and created the soundtrack which is sort of like a Greek chorus for Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) and his friend Danielle's (Juno Temple) journey. In the middle of the film there was a montage where Danielle is running away and she's not sure to what, it's a fantasy of what she thinks it's going to be, but really she's not sure. Abe needed an original song and Mary and I asked him if he would let us write the song. Abe was kind enough to send me that piece of film and I just watched it over and over again. The music started to sing itself and I sent the completed melody to Mary and she wrote spectacular lyrics to the song.

GS: You were one of the divas that gay teen Clarke idolized in "Dirty Girl." What does your long history of being idolized by the LGBT community mean to you?

MM: It's something I don't take lightly. I really feel honored, because the gay community has always supported [laughs] divas worth supporting. To say some of my best friends are… [laughs] don't take that as trivializing anything. I was raised around gay people, so it's not anything other than part of my everyday life. My father was a bassoonist at the Metropolitan Opera and my mother was one of the first women designers on Seventh Avenue. The gay community has been part of my home. When I actually committed myself to an artistic life, which is also second nature to me, it was part of the journey. The gay community was not others that were supporting me, they were the ones I presumed would support me [laughs]. Because they were everybody I knew. If they were considered others, then I would be considered an other as well, I presumed, because that was just my normal. I guess it's a circuitous way of answering your question, but it's just the way I was raised. While historically the gay community has supported divas, I'm honored that in the world of disposable amusement that they have stood by me. I really appreciate that.

GS: You mentioned your love of theater and in recent years you have expanded your palette to include musical theater. What do you enjoy about performing in and writing for that medium?

MM: It's painting on a much larger canvas. When your songs are in the world of purpose, which is that each song is specifically constructed to help move a larger story forward, that's a fantastic muscle to use creatively. Because your assignment is so specific, if you miss the mark, you change the balance of the way you're telling the story. When you look at the masterpiece musicals - "Sweeney Todd," "My Fair Lady," "The King and I," "Carousel" - the precision and the concision of the scores is not an accident. Everything is precisely placed and creates these magnificent motifs for each character.

GS: Do you have an all-time favorite musical?

MM: I think "Sweeney Todd" is the masterpiece of my age.

GS: Have you met Stephen Sondheim?

MM: I actually was in "Sweeney Todd." I played beggar woman in the 25th anniversary (production) at the Ahmanson. Mr. Sondheim came backstage and congratulated the cast, congratulated me, and I looked at him and I said, "now this is serious fun" [laughs]. He gave me a sly wink and nodded his head as if I got it. It was magnificent. He came to see a musical I wrote called "I Sent a Letter to My Love," that played off-Broadway and wrote me a very lovely note. He's the master and when I was teaching a Writing for Musical Theater course at USC last year, I walked around and used his "finishing the hat" book as my bible.

GS: Are there plans for a memoir from you?

MM: People have asked me to write a memoir. I think I have a book in me, but it's too early for me to write a memoir because I feel like I'm living my second act. I'm eager to see how it turns out.

GS: Finally, on your website in early February 2012, you wrote that you are redirecting the royalties from your song "The Power of Ribbons," from the scandal-wracked Susan G. Komen Foundation to Planned Parenthood.

MM: Here's the thing, as a songwriter you never know where a song will find its home. When I was first starting to write, Carole Sager and I found our songs underscoring the women's movement. They would use our songs on Ms. Magazine specials. When I wrote "The Power of Ribbons," it was inspired by my friend Nancy Colton who was fighting a valiant fight. I just think Planned Parenthood has a more comprehensive, holistic approach to women's health issues. I think it is really cruel to withhold breast exams, mammograms and education from poor and underprivileged women. It was just my choice and I felt I needed to write a little something about it. I was delighted and surprised that it was published.

GS: I think many people will thank you for that.

MM: It's my pleasure. I sang a couple of Christmas concerts with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles this past December - you can go online and find the video that they made of me singing the song "A Mother and Father's Prayer" to support the It Gets Better campaign. These things need to be acknowledged and addressed. What I know for sure as I get deeper into my life and my career is that the currency of a song, while mostly it is disposable, on occasion can move a nation, change a mind, keep somebody from committing suicide, can give people a tool to hold onto to pass through a storm. I know that because that's what people have written to me. I don't take any of it for granted. I'm very grateful for the gift of being able to write songs and to share them.

Watch: Melissa Manchester on Windy City Live

Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.