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'Hats' Off to Melissa Manchester
by Richard Knight, Jr.

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Singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester has been honing her vocal and songwriting craft throughout a career spanning over three decades. Throughout the 1970s, she had huge hits beginning with her composition Midnight Blue and continuing with Through the Eyes of Love ( Theme from Ice Castles ) and Don't Cry Out Loud. In the early '80s, Manchester hit with You Should Hear How She Talks About You. In 2004, she released her first album of original material in years, the sophisticated and melodic When I Look Down That Road—and, since late April, Manchester has been in Chicago starring in Hats!, the hit musical that is playing at the Royal George Theatre.

Manchesterhe took time out of her eight-show-a-week schedule to chat with Windy City Times.

Windy City Times: Laura Nyro once said to me, 'I feel like now music serves the business and when I started it was the other way around.' Do you feel that, too?

Melissa Manchester: Oh yes, indeed. I mean, that's one of the reasons I had to leave the industry; I just got very lost. I was part of the first wave of singer/songwriters but I was also in that first wave of singer/songwriters who experienced the music industry when technology started to take over.

WCT: We're talking about new wave, obviously.

MM: Yes, in the early '80s and so your position as a singer became less important and that was very odd. It was very odd to not quite know how to negotiate all of that techno stuff. The producers were having a great time because they had all kinds of new toys to play with.

WCT: So, in a sense, your Top Five hit You Should Hear How She Talks About You was a bit of a blessing as well as a curse?

MM: I think so. It was very different for me and it was somewhat confusing to have a song like that so successful. A Grammy is a wonderful thing; all of a sudden you're given a new audience but, like anything, you have to be able to grow with these songs if you really want a long artistic career. I don't do that song that often, but when I do it's been rearranged so it doesn't sound the way it did on the record. But it was funny that I was sort of the queen of aerobics classes.

WCT: [ Laughs ] That's right!

MM : [ Laughs ] And that's fine. You know, if you have a long enough career things are chapters and you have to know that. You obviously see that in hindsight, but you have to know that as you're going through it and sometimes it's hard to get that and negotiate that as it's happening.

WCT: It's very interesting to equate the work from the '70s and the '80s —to see those two phases and then to listen to When I Look Down the Road from 2004, which is a beautiful work that I can't say enough about…

MM: Well, that—for me—was like coming full [ circle ] and returning to myself again. Its purpose for me was to create a quieter corner for a world that is becoming increasingly cranky.

WCT: I love that description. You obviously think very carefully when considering your musical projects. What spoke to you about Hats! and made you want to be involved with it?

MM: It came to me by way of Doug Besterman, the musical director of Hats!, who asked me on behalf of the creators if I would like to write a song for it. That was a lovely idea so I contacted my theater-writing partner Sharon Vaughn and we talked about the idea of being easily disposable in our society because you're of a certain age—which is just ridiculous and folly but, of course, the result of a youth-crazed society. The idea of being invisible was the point so we wrote the song Invisible and the creators of Hats! liked it so much they asked us to write another song. When they were putting together the Chicago performance they asked me if I would consider starring in it and my husband and I looked around the house and realized that both of our kids were at college [ laughs ] so I said, 'Sure!'

WCT: How important are gay audiences to you?

MM: Gay audiences are just fantastic. They can be very fickle but they are extremely loyal and they escort a diva [ Laughs ] on the path of her career and that is a beautiful thing! You know, I would certainly love gay audiences to come and support Hats! because it speaks on so many levels to so many people. It's not just for women who are part of the Red Hat Society [ the inspiration of the production ] . It's about people who feel ostracized from society, needing to find community, needing to feel support, and gay audiences will certainly identify with my character Marian's journey.

WCT: Let's go back to one night in the early '70s when you were working at a club down the street from the Continental Baths and in walked Barry Manilow with this young brash singer: Bette Midler.

MM: Barry and I had known each other because we sang commercials—we were studio singers. He was Bette's music director and on their night off they came to see me. She had made her first appearance on the Carson show by then. I finished my set and I went over to say hello and he introduced me to Bette. I knew she was getting ready for her first Carnegie Hall concert and I asked if she was going to have any background singers. She took a beat and said, 'I don't know, would you like to sing in back of me?' and I said, 'Well, actually I'd like to sing instead of you [ Laughs ] but I'll be happy to sing in back of you.' So Barry and I organized what was originally called The Red Light District and then we were called M.G.M. because those were our initials and then we were called The Harlettes and I was the toots in the middle. [ Laughs ]

WCT: That's great trivia.

MM: I worked for her for about six months.

WCT: Wonderful. So when is Barry Manilow going to produce the Melissa Manchester songbook?

MM: [ Laughs ] That is so sweet. He actually just invited to me sing on his next project, which was so dear—and I will, happily. He's going to have a bunch of famous divas singing backup, singing duets and he's asked me to sing a duet, which is very exciting. I'm very touched.

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