With Elton John’s music in Disney’s The Lion King, followed by Barry Manilow’s musical, Harmony, and Paul Simon’s score to the upcoming Cape Man, a renewed fusion of pop and show tunes is breathing life into both forms — hearkening back to half a century ago, when there was hardly a chasm between the two. Melissa Manchester is the latest entry into this phenomenon of maturing, high-profile artists looking to expand their songwriting prowess while attracting fans to the theater. After being approached by playwright Jeffrey Sweet with his adaptation of a novel by Bernice Rubens, Manchester tackled the score to the project, I Sent a Letter to My Love, which opened off-Broadway two years ago to critical praise and is making its West Coast debut this week as a reading produced by L.A. Theater Works for later radio broadcast over KCRW.
Manchester’s meteoric rise from a stint as one of Bette Midler’s backup Harlettes to being a Carnegie Hall headliner has made for a fascinating career, including two songwriting Oscar nominations and a Grammy. "When you are writing a pop song you are trying to create a whole world, as much as you can, in three minutes and 15 seconds," Manchester says, explaining the difference between writing a pop song and writing for musical theater. "Rarely are songwriters interested in great emotional detail. People like Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell and Sly Stone and the Beatles and Paul Simon create whole worlds, and I gleaned from all those giants. But when you are writing for theater, you are at the service of the story, helping move it forward, deepening the inner life and making it more accessible to the audience. I just love that position."
However, Manchester admits the task is not easy. "It is a test of endurance," she sighs. "This musical is the little engine that wants to. Since it never had giant funds behind it, it is the sheer will of Jeff Sweet and our director Pat Birch and myself that keeps it going." Manchester has considered writing for the stage many times, but she could never find the right time or the right project. Then came Sweet’s odd little story about a woman whose life revolves around caring for her polio-stricken brother. She exchanges letters through a lonely-hearts club — unaware that her correspondent lover is her brother. "This story resonated so deeply for me," Manchester says. Writing for the New York Post, Clive Barnes heard that resonance, describing her work as "a score with a heart just where its heart should be." Manchester will also appear in the reading.