Letter from Simon Kelner: Manilow's magic showcases the great songwriters


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The Independent Online

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write. I really enjoyed listening to Barry Manilow on the radio the other day. Yes, really. That's one of the great things about radio: it's not an appointment medium like television, and you can find yourself becoming engrossed in a programme you didn't even know was on.

Thus it was on Sunday evening when I happened to have Radio 2 on the car radio (not my usual station, I hasten to add, but the theme tune for The Archers had just struck up, and that's my cue to turn the dial.) Manilow is presenting a show called They Write the Songs, a series of hour-long profiles of the greatest songwriters of history, and the latest programme focussed on the life and works of one of my favourites, the American composer Frank Loesser. Manilow has a relaxed style, a deep knowledge of his subject, and a nice line in self-deprecation. Thankfully, he rarely gets in the way of his subject.

Mind you, no one ought to get in the way of Frank Loesser, a man who was as tricky as he was prolific. He wrote scores of scores, and had countless fall-outs along the way. According to Manilow, he was once so unhappy with his leading lady that he hauled her off the stage and "slugged her". He was famously on non-speakers with Frank Sinatra, whom he had dared to criticise, and legend has it that Loesser, a half-brother to a classical pianist, often referred to himself as "the evil of two Loessers".

Over a career that spanned four decades, he won an Oscar, a Tony and even a Pulitzer Prize, but is best known for Guys and Dolls, a work that is often regarded as the most perfect musical show ever written. Based on stories by Damon Runyon, Loesser's score is utterly bewitching, at turns funny, melancholic and ultimately joyous. It was first performed in 1950, but it was the 1982 revival at the National Theatre, directed by Richard Eyre and starring Bob Hoskins and Julia McKenzie, that made the biggest impact with British audiences. Since then, it's been revisited on the West End stage a few times, and, among others, Nathan Lane, Lulu, Patrick Swayze, Imelda Staunton and Ewan McGregor have all played parts in this Rabelasian fable of Broadway folk.

And so there I was, thanks to Barry Manilow, singing along to some of the most inventive musical numbers ever written. To give an idea of the range of Loesser's lyrical dexterity, how about a number which contains the phrases "upper respiratory tract", "chronic organic symptoms" and "post nasal drip". What's more, there's a fabulously timeless quality to all the songs, given that they cover the universal themes of love and loss, ambition and addiction, religion and redemption. "Marry the man today," sing the twin heroines of the story. "Give him the girlish laughter/Give him your hand today/And save the fist for after". Genius.