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Broadway Barry : Uncertain about his place in the pop world, Barry Manilow challenges himself with an album of show tunes

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“Who do you think I am, Barbra Streisand?”

Barry Manilow snickers playfully as he compares “Showstoppers,” his new album of show tunes, to Streisand’s celebrated 1986 collection, “The Broadway Album.”

“Don’t expect that kind of singing from me,” Manilow cautions. “I can’t sing that good--not even half that good.”

At one time, Manilow might not have been so good-natured about his vocal limitations. For years, everything about his music--from the singing to the old-fashioned pop style of the songs--was attacked by critics.

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But Manilow began showing some artistic grit in the mid-'80s as he shifted from the sentimental pop style of such songs as “Mandy” and “I Write the Songs” to a more challenging, jazz-accented approach.

Now, even some of Manilow’s harshest critics have begun to applaud his more recent efforts--perhaps making it easier for him to play the role of a cheerful underdog.

Featuring 18 show tunes, “Showstoppers” spans 90 years of Broadway music. Some of the selections, all done with a 50-piece orchestra, include “Where or When,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Look to the Rainbow"--a duet with Barbara Cook. “Fugue for Tinhorns” boasts two prominent guest Broadway stars: Michael Crawford and Hinton Battle.

Wasn’t Manilow intimidated by all the classic versions of these songs recorded over the years?

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“It’s all in how you sing them,” replies Manilow, who is sitting in a cozy studio on the grounds of his Bel-Air estate. “I’m not going to hit the tough notes like Streisand or Michael Crawford--the ones that send chills up your spine. I’m not going to bend notes or do any vocal acrobatics. That’s not me. I can carry a tune and I put myself into a song--make it personal.”

The secret, he confides, is not to approach these show tunes like pop songs. “In pop you sing about love in one way or another--and you’re just you. But in these songs you assume a character.

“Show tunes are more about different situations that often have nothing to do with romance, so you can do some acting. I became the character who’s singing the song. That’s more of a challenge to me than singing another pop song.”

With the help of Arista Records President Clive Davis, Manilow developed the project last year. “I didn’t want to do just another pop album,” says the 45-year-old New Yorker. “Clive said I should make this an event, and develop a concept.”

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So Manilow went back to one of his first loves--show tunes. “When I was growing up I was nuts about jazz and show tunes,” he says. “There was something magical about them for me. Many of those songs are etched in my memory.”

Seeking an original slant, Manilow zeroed in on making his version of an original-cast album. “It’s like a Broadway musical I have in my head,” he says. “I’d find the songs to fit it, to make it come to life. I wanted to pay tribute to the style of the original-cast album that I loved so much.”

Although inspired by original-cast albums from past decades, Manilow didn’t want an old-fashioned sound.

“I wanted to stay true to the integrity of those songs and not monkey around too much with the arrangements--but I also wanted to put some muscle to these songs,” he explains. “Those old original- cast albums sound so creaky. I wanted a modern sound--without compromising the integrity of the material. That was tough.”

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Another goal was to make the album without gearing it to pop radio. “That would have ruined it,” Manilow insists. “Whenever I was thinking of slanting something a certain way for radio, I’d slap myself--and I’d come to my senses.”

His best bet for promoting the album seemed to be touring. That’s why Manilow, although not really in the mood to hit the road, launched a tour last month that will include a weeklong engagement at the Universal Amphitheatre, beginning Dec. 26 and culminating on New Year’s Eve.

One reason Manilow recorded this album is because his pop future is in doubt. A major ‘70s pop star, he slumped in the mid-'80s as rap and dance music shoved straight pop further into the background and as his ‘70s fans aged. The failure of 1989’s pop-style album “Barry Manilow” brought the message home.

“I’m not sure that’s where I belong,” he says. “I’m not sure how much passion I have left for singing pop. My pop sense, in terms of what’s selling, isn’t very good. I’m always six months behind the times.”

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Does this mean the end of the pop road for Manilow?

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he replies. “Who knows? But if this album goes through the roof and the world wants more Manilow showstoppers, I’d be a fool to say no.”


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