A career spanning 50 years, singer-songwriter, actress, recording artist, Grammy award-winning Melissa Manchester has multiple albums and counting. Manchester has had her songs recorded by Barbra Streisand, Roberta Flack, Kenny Loggins, to name a few. She is a wonderfully energetic artist with roots firmly planted in music and a talented family encompassing all avenues of art. Manchester had a unique experience growing up with a musician father in the Metropolitan Opera and a mother in the fashion industry. Her love for music grew and developed as she continued exploring a beautifully colorful life in New York. From an early age she began her career singing jingles for commercials, a road that took her alongside musicians like Barry Manilow “we were all musicians, but we were all making a living singing jingles” says Manchester. She also created a group called the Harlettes singing backup for Bette Midler. A career sprinkled with creative endeavors, Grammy win and Academy award nominations, Manchester shared her journey with ABILITY as well as her experiences with the lack of accessibility for performers in theatre.
Chet Cooper: Where did you start your music career?
Melissa Manchester: I was raised in New York, in the Bronx and Manhattan. I come from a very creative family. My father was a musician in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and my mother was a pioneer in the fashion industry. So my sister and I were raised in a very festive version of normal in really the perfect place. The Bronx was like out of a black-and-white movie. And then when we moved down to Manhattan, it was very exciting. When I became a teenager, I went to the High School of Performing Arts in the middle of the theater district. I started to become a jingle singer when I was 15. My brother-in-law worked at one of the jingle houses, and he knew that I sang, and he hired me, and I started to become a jingle singer. And that’s where I met Barry Manilow and Patty Austin and Nicky Ashford and Valerie Simpson. We were all musicians, but we were all making a living singing jingles.
Cooper: You were all jingling together!
Manchester: (laughs) Yeah! Some were more established than others, but Barry was the new music director for the up-and-coming Bette Midler, and I was playing in clubs in colleges all over the New Jersey/New York/Connecticut tri-state area. I made demos and was summarily rejected by record companies for about seven years. I was the founding member of the Harlettes, Bette Midler’s background group. I worked in street theater. I was a go-for on the first season of “Sesame Street” at the Children’s Television Network, because everything was just down the street from where I lived. It was a very vibrant place to live. Lincoln Center was new. Theater was exploding. It was just great.
Cooper: What about your sister? Does she sing?
Manchester: She did, but she is an executive producer over at E-Entertainment News. She’s the recipient of five daytime Emmys.
Cooper: Very talented family!
Manchester: Yes! They’re all on her piano. They look beautiful.
Cooper: What was your first big break?
Manchester: I think my first big break probably was being signed to Bell Records. I had been, as I said, trying to get a record deal with about seven years, and then I auditioned for the president of Bell Records, which in the day was a singles label. I auditioned for the president of the company, the late Larry Uttal, and I sang many of my songs for a room full of guys in white rolled-up shirts, not a woman to be seen.
When it was over, as I was walking out, and I was tired that day, he said, “How important is this to you?” I said, “Listen, I’m doing this with you or without you. Goodbye and thank you.” And the next day I had a record contract. So I was there for a couple of years, made two albums, and then that company was absorbed in Arista Records, whose president was Clive Davis. And then I had my first hit single on that album, my third album, called “Midnight Blue.” That sequence of events, there’s never one thing that happens, but that sequence of events really opened up an audience base. Because I’d been playing for college audiences for several years, but that successful single was a huge vehicle to expand audiences and sizes of arenas and stuff.
Cooper: I’ve seen pictures of you with a lot of different people. Like Lily Tomlin, what was the connection there?
Manchester: She came with Dolly Parton to see me at a concert at Universal Amphitheater many years ago. She’s spectacular.
Cooper: What about Dolly?
Manchester: That was the first time I had met her backstage, I had met her at a party afterwards, but most recently Dolly and I sang a duet version recording of “Midnight Blue,” which will be coming out on my 25th album later this year called “Review.”
Cooper: Very nice! Did we just get a scoop?
Manchester: (laughs) I don’t know. This is my 25th album in celebration of my 50th year of my career. Dolly and I will be singing a duet of “Midnight Blue” and Kenny Loggins and I will be at long last recording our song “Whenever I Call You Friend.”
Cooper: Very nice. Were you about to cast the person who used the wheelchair who had polio in your play, were you able to cast a person with a disability?
Manchester: At the time, in the early ’90s, we tried, we scoured the nation to find a person who was actually in a chair who could sing and act. And a) we couldn’t, and b) the theater that we were in, it was an off-Broadway theater, had not put in ramps.
Cooper: Oh, wow!
Manchester: This was before ADA, so that was very difficult. But when we do it again, we’re definitely going to have—we already know the actor we’re going to use.
Cooper: That’s great. Were you able to find him easily this time?
Manchester: He posts himself on YouTube performing, and I thought, “Him! Let’s use him!” Long before there was social media, it was tricky to reach out to people. But we tried.
Cooper: It’s really great to hear that. Before we end I’ll share my screen to show you abilityE.org. There are thousands of performs with different types of disabilities.
Manchester: That’s great!
Cooper: Netflix came to us looking for help, that’s how it all started.
Manchester: That’s fantastic! Years ago, I was affiliated with the Access Theater up in Santa Barbara. They were created by Rod Latham. I got to know them because I had been part of a television special that was saluting—not Special Olympics, but Special Entertainment, I believe it was, also Eunice Shriver.
Cooper: Maybe Best Buddies?
Manchester: No. I know Best Buddies. Anyway, the Access Theater based in Santa Barbara no longer is but it was completely people—playwrights, actors, ballerinas, everybody with a challenge and everybody magnificent. And again, Rod Latham, a native of Santa Barbara, created the Access Theater. And I had done several benefits for them, too.
Cooper: I love that!
Manchester: And I think you can find this on YouTube, when I did a remake of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By,” Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By,” the powers that be, record company management, blahblahblah, they all wanted me to do—I slowed the song down, I always knew that there was a dramatic intention that needed to be mind, so when it was time to do a video, they all said, “So boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl loses boy, blahblahblah.” I said, “No. We’re going to do a homeless woman who has to drop her kids off at a shelter because she can no longer take care of them.” And then went, “What?”
And we did. And we used actors, child actors from the Access Theater, to be part of it. If you can find it on YouTube, it’s there, you’ll see all of the kids. It’s beautiful.
You wouldn’t know this, but my mother the 1950s was the first vice president of the Bronx chapter of Cerebral Palsy.
Cooper: Is that the same as a New York CP?
Manchester: Now it is probably, but in those days, each borough had their own.
Cooper: That became the largest of all the affiliates of CP. Wow! So growing up you saw some of the work they were doing. I don’t know if you read the article with Marsha, but the interviewers were David Zimmerman, who works with Performing Arts Studio West similar to Access Theater in Santa Barbara, and Geri Jewell. Geri’s been a rock star for CP.
Manchester: My sister is good friends with Geri. She loves her.
Cooper: Oh, nice! I did a couple of last-minute emails to see if Geri wanted to be on this zoom, the other person was Max Gail. Do you remember him?
Cooper: He was going to be on and surprise you. I’m sure he says hi.
Manchester: (laughs) Nice!
Lia Martirosyan: Can I interject?
Cooper: No, we’re talking.
Martirosyan: I’ve been listening and it’s been great. I’d like to explore your involvement at USC. Are you still a professor there?
Manchester: No. I was adjunct prefers there for four or five years, and I just got too busy, I could not commit any more. But it was fantastic while I was there. I’m still friends with some of my former students, which is lovely.
Martirosyan: How did you get into that?
Manchester: Part of it beats me!
The vice-dean of the music department reached out to me one day years ago and said, “Would you like to take over this class for the composer Jason Robert Brown?” He’s very well known in the theater world. He had a commitment in New York and could no longer do this. So I said, “Well, sure. I’ve never thought of being a teacher, but…” I took over this very interesting class called “Theater Writing for Pop Students,” which should be taught in every music college everywhere. And then they had such a good time with me, I guess, that they kept inviting me back. I was working with young singer-songwriters. It was great. It was a grant experience.
The thing about teaching is, it teaches you how much you know. When a kid asks you a question and you actually know the answer. The other thing is that you realize that no matter how much a kid says they have lived, there’s just empty space sometimes. (laughter) So the main thing about teaching is that you’re helping them to learn how to think. That’s all. You come from your own experience. You’re helping them learn how to think. It was very touching.
Martirosyan: That’s beautiful. How about these lovely awards you’ve won and been nominated for. How does that make you feel in terms of where you are in your career and your passion?
Manchester: Well, I mean, it makes me feel good.
As a Grammy winner, I’m part of a very small club, for which I’m very grateful, because I was recognized by my peers. Being nominated, honestly, is a great achievement in and of itself. And you do this not knowing what the outcome will be. I recently heard a wonderful writer say, “Forget about following your passion. Most people don’t know what their passion is. Start with your curiosity. What are you curious about? The curiosity can turn into a passion.” And I think that is genius advice.
A handful of us knew what we wanted to do since we were five. I had no plan B. I was going to do this somehow. But most people don’t. But they are curious about things, and if teachers could help them just foster and encourage curiosity, the curiosity in and of itself can ignite into a passion.
Martirosyan: I love that. I’m curious about whether or not you’re being recognized for the songs you’ve written as opposed to singing songs that have already been written. Does it have a different flavor for you?
Manchester: There’s a subtle nuance of gravitas when you’re singing a song that you’ve written, because you were in the room when it was written, and you know what sparked the idea, and usually the collaboration. However, that said, a great song is a great song, and to be gifted with a great song that endures and is embraced by millions of people you’ll never meet as if it’s their own is a unique way to spend one’s life. And the deeper I get into my career, the more treasure I find that, because it’s rare, it’s really rare.
So you were trained operatically, classically?
Martirosyan: Yes, I was.
Manchester: I was raised around the opera, because my father played in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. I was raised in the wings of hearing spectacular singers, and of course every Saturday we listened to Live from the Met on the radio, which I still do.
Martirosyan: What a beautiful experience for you!
Manchester: Yes, it was unique. When my parents during the week couldn’t find a babysitter and my father was at rehearsal, he would being me down to the Met as a little girl, and he would put me (laughs) in the wings standing next to great big guy who pulled the curtains, and he would say, “Stay!” and he would go into the orchestra to play. It was just spectacular. Seeing theatrical lights, hearing the swish of taffeta gowns.
Martirosyan: My goodness.
Manchester: Dress rehearsals come by you rapidly, and hearing unbelievable stars vocalizing and then going onstage. It was just thrilling, really.
Martirosyan: That didn’t pull you to want to be in the operatic genre?
Manchester: No. I know for truth, and I’m sure you know, that the commitment to being an opera singer is like being a monk. You must learn the repertoire, you must live in the country that the repertoire is based on, anyway, that’s what I know from colleagues. They’ve lived in Germany and France and wherever to get the language under their belt. But we had lots of opera singers and musicians and ballerinas at our house.
Martirosyan: Oh, that’s beautiful!
Manchester: It was fantastic, yeah.
Cooper: I know she would never say it, so I’ll share that Lia and I have traveled around the world maybe a couple times. Different countries we’re in, whether it’s Italy, even China, they think she’s local when she starts singing. She has this way of doing this with her voice that makes it seems local, native. It’s incredible.
Manchester: How beautiful!
Cooper: I never thought of the difference between standing and singing and an effect that your body has—
Manchester: I will tell you that the first concert that I did when I returned to the stage after having my ankle surgery and I was still not walking, so I had to be hoisted onto the stage, but by that time I was able to use the one-legged scooter. I had a dear friend who decorated my wheelchair and my scooter. I was in sparkles and tinsel and it was all very festive and the audience had a great time.
But just the strength it took to sing again, because I had been on my back and in a chair for over a month by that time, and it was an outdoor concert, I think it was in July or August, it was hot. I felt like I would pass out, because I was sitting, of course. To have that kind of breadth, lung capacity, where you’re not standing and being able to straight up and down breathe wide, but to have to sit and breathe wide, it is a very different experience. My hat goes off to those who have the sing in a chair, because it’s a monumental challenge. I mean, if you don’t know any different, you don’t know any different. But it’s remarkable.
Martirosyan: Did you feel an urge to get up at any moment?
Manchester: I couldn’t. I physically couldn’t. I could not stand on that ankle. I was not out of bandages yet. I was either—I don’t know if you heard, but I had had all of my appliances decorated by friends. I had tinsel and sparkles and glitter and all kinds of fun stuff for the audience to look at. I had a scooter and I had—did I have a walker? I had a walker, but I was still only hoping. And I had my wheelchair, and I was lifted onto the stage by two big guys because I just wasn’t walking. So I would go from the piano stool, and they’d say, “What do you want?” and I’d either have the scooter or the chair. The fortitude it took for me on that hot summer night to find a way to manage singing, because I sing big, was really new for me.
Martirosyan: Just being able to experience something from that perspective.
Cooper: How do you know Marsha Malamet?
Manchester: We started songwriting and recording around the same time in New York. She was one of a pack of us who were trying to get our foot in the door, and I remember I really got to know her music listening to her “Coney Island” album, her first album. I thought it was so wonderful and thoughtful and original and her voice was so interesting and she used it in such an interesting way. And then I got to meet her. So we’ve been traveling in similar circles for a very long time.
Cooper: Do you stay in touch?
Manchester: Not too much. I would see her at parties and we did try to write a song once and it didn’t come to fruition. But then I sang at a benefit for her at Catalina’s a few years ago. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to sing “Lessons To Be Learned,” her very beautiful song.
Cooper: How was she doing at the time with her Parkinson?
Manchester: At the benefit she was quite challenged, in a wheelchair, but she had asked me specifically to sing two songs, and that was lovely. She was brought up on stage and we all kissed her and loved on her.
In the benefit, she had asked me to sing “When Paris Was a Woman,” which is a song that I wrote about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and the other song she asked me to sing was, “Through the Eyes of Love.”
Cooper: How did it come about, “The Lessons To Be Learned” was that chosen?
Manchester: That was sent to me with a presentation of what this project was about and it resonates with the themes of things I’ve written about over the years. Within context, it’s always everything. I think it’s a fitting and touching tribute for Marsha to sing this song. And I’ll be singing it in one of my upcoming shows.
Cooper: I heard you had used a wheelchair for a while?
Manchester: Yes. A while ago. It was just a fluke accident and I broke my ankle. I had to have it repaired through surgery. It’s a complicated recuperation, much more than a knee replacement, which I have also experienced, because you can’t put weight on it for a very long time. You can be in a walker. A scooter was pointless. So I was in a chair. I was in a rehab facility for a while until the pain started to subside, and it did pretty quickly, and then I came home.
What I really noticed while I was in my chair was that the energy it takes when you’re encountering people, because you are looking at them usually around the waist, and to keep looking up is a lot of energy. Interestingly enough, I’ve written a musical called “I Sent a Letter to My Love” where the main male character is in a chair because he has polio. So it was interesting to finally have that experience myself. When I was finally allowed to come home, I remember the first day I was home, you’re maneuvering and I was banging into every corner of every wall, and I was getting hungry for an egg salad sandwich. It took me an hour and a half to make that sandwich, because I had to be very careful of the boiling water. I had to figure out how to get the egg out of the boiling water safely, because I was at the height of the oven.
I just kept rolling back and forth three feet in either direction to finally manage to make the sandwich. It was eye-opening, of course. It was an interesting moment.
Cooper: There are so many people I’ve talked to over the years who have used a chair for a short period of time, and their experience and change of attitude of what accessibility really means in all aspects, from the work environment to the home environment to travel in general.
Manchester: Yes. It’s very interesting, since I was in a chair for quite a long time, because with a broken ankle, you simply cannot put weight on that in any way, shape, or form before the doctor says you can. It was so much easier to just shut down when people were interacting with you or trying to because of the energy it took to sit in a chair. Your diaphragm is squished, so your lung capacity is squished. It’s compromised. It was a lot.
Cooper: Did you see any shift in attitude of the way people spoke to you?
Manchester: I think so. There’s no way to deny that there’s that nuanced—either people will talk a little louder (laughs) or articulate a little more (laughs). Personally, it was just more exhausting to get around. I had very kind people helping me out. I would be put in that motorized scooter in the grocery store. But it was still a lot, because it just took—I was not used to—as a race, we don’t realize how much energy it takes just to live. When we are compromised in any way, we really don’t realize what we take for granted and how to live with intention is much more fruitful as a way to live because it could be gone.
Cooper: There is also an unconscious bias that seems to permeate our society. The nonprofit ABILITY Corps that we support created abilityEntertainment. It connects talent with disabilities and the entertainment industry.
Manchester: Sure. I look forward to scouring your website to look for singing actors who are chair- or crutch-abled.
Cooper: There are thousands of talented people.
Martirosyan: Do you have a project coming up?
Manchester: Yes. I wrote a musical in the ’90s called “I Sent a Letter To My Love,” where the lead male character had polio. He was left with a chair, and it’s part of the plot line. We had tried and tried and tried to find a wheelchair actor who could sing my music, and a) it was very difficult to locate a company that was ability-centric, and/or the theater, this was before the ADA, there were no ramps. It was all of that, and I thought, “Man, I’m going to let this pass in this moment, because I’ve got to get this show up.” It ran off-Broadway for a while, and then it had another production outside of Boston.
There’s talk about doing it again, which would be lovely, and I said, “This is not even a discussion.” And everybody agreed. I was saying that there is a wonderful young actor who is just extraordinary. He’s been on YouTube and you can see him perform. I forget his name right now. He’s in a chair. He can walk with crutches, but he’s in a chair and he can sing his face off. Hopefully when we get a production—we will access your website.