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Sussman was seated at the rehearsal table, but Manilow wasn’t in the room — he was out in the hall, chatting with his publicist and his personal assistant as the actors turned pages in their three-ring binders, stopping when they reached a musical number called “Harmony, Part 3.” The approach seemed to be for the actors to work as much as possible with their director and without the looming presence of a multi-platinum, Grammy, Tony, Emmy-award winning performer making them jumpy.
At precisely 2 p.m., rehearsal started in earnest, and there was a palpable shift in the room. Someone turned off the air conditioner. The postures became straighter. The actors performed their six-part harmonies with a new precision that almost allowed you to imagine that they were wearing tuxedos and standing on a proscenium stage in a concert hall rather than wearing hoodies and caps while standing on a buffed wooden floor littered with Starbucks cups.
“If we’ve got harmony, we’ve got a chance,” they sang.
When they finished with the song, O’Neill looked to the actors. “Shall we let Barry have a listen?” he asked.
There was a long silence. Then, one of them said, “Sure.” But none of the other actors said anything.
“Weee-ell,” O’Neill said, “Let’s try it one more time before we do that.”
At first, the idea of Barry Manilow co-writing an original Broadway musical might seem like a departure for him, but in fact, musical theater was where he got started. Originally the accompanist for an off-Broadway show called “The Drunkard,” featuring public domain songs from the 19th century, Manilow eventually wrote an entirely new score. “The Drunkard” opened in 1964 and went on to play off-Broadway at the 13th Street Theatre for eight years. And when Manilow (né Barry Alan Pincus) met Bruce Sussman (né Sussman) in late May 1972, the two talked about collaborating on musicals and about their affinity for intelligent, contemporary shows like Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”
“Before the pop career hit, this is where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in the musical world,” Manilow said.
“When I met Barry, I was a theater writer,” Sussman said. “I didn’t know anything about pop music, and we were going to write shows together. But it was kind of an ugly time in musical theater back then.”
“All the people we knew in New York were turned off by everything that came after the Golden Age on Broadway we grew up with,” Manilow said. “And then ‘Company’ happened, and that’s when everybody I knew said, ‘Let’s get back into the theater.’”