Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester sat down with The Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk in the latest episode of “At Home With The Creative Coalition,” a podcast featuring unplugged and uncensored conversations with today’s biggest stars. In the newest episode, Manchester talks about working on the early “Sesame Street” set with Jim Henson, studying under Paul Simon as a young musician, the feeling of her songs having an effect on people’s lives, performing at the Academy Awards, and much more. Highlights below.
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Highlights from “At Home With The Creative Coalition” featuring Melissa Manchester —
On working on the “Sesame Street” set in its early days and performing with The Muppets:
“I apprenticed in the editing room of ‘Sesame Street’ during the first year. The studio was down the street from where I lived. It was a great big sign that said, ‘Children’s Television Network.’ I was 17, and I was having astounding adventures in my life around that time. And I banged on the door and the old stage manager said, ‘What do you want?’ And I said, ‘I want to do something.’ And they sent me to the editing room where the main discussion in those early days was what would happen to the integrity of the show if they came out with a line of toys? The big merch question! And that was long before it became an empire. But I did get a chance to be on ‘The Muppet Show’ and work with the brilliant Jim Henson… It was astounding to see how hard everybody worked to set up every shot. I mean, it took tremendous strategy to set up because you’re sitting high on a platform so that the manipulators can be underneath. And they’re watching monitors as you’re interacting with the Muppets. And within minutes, you have a relationship with the Muppets because they are so lifelike. But yes, I sang my song ‘Whenever I Call You Friend’ with some of the Muppets, and I sang ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’ with the life-sized Muppets that were choreographed by the great Gillian Lynne, who choreographed ‘Cats.’ But to see Jim Henson and Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson create these characters with all of those players, and to go into their workshops and to see how the Muppets are built in stages was, I mean, it was amazing.”
On her inspiration as a young musician and studying under Paul Simon:
“My two friends were still at NYU, and they told me about this class. There was a little scrap of paper. I mean, again, there was no email. There was no blast email of anything. There was a bulletin board in the hallway, and on the corner, there was a piece of paper that said, ‘Songwriting and record production taught by Paul Simon.’ And we thought, ‘Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel?’ ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was number one all over the world. What is he doing on East Seventh Street? But we auditioned, I auditioned. And it was amazing. It was just amazing. He auditioned everybody. I was living and breathing a singer-songwriter by the name of Laura Nyro. Not many people know of her. And she was really my muse. She and Joni Mitchell were my muse at the time. And also, at the time, AM radio and FM radio were so filled with vibrancy in the new chapter of the American Songbook. I mean, yes, some songs were still coming from the Broadway stage. You know, there were still great singers like [Frank] Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and beautiful singers on AM and FM radio, but there was this new wave of singer-songwriters that were just re-blooming a new version of the American Songbook. And so, lyrics were filled with new metaphors and more poetry. It was no longer ‘Moon June Spoon,’ they were really reflecting – they were really starting to reflect the world around them. I mean, prior to that, the folk scene and Woody Guthrie were the only ones that were reflecting the world. I mean, when Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land is Your Land,’ that was a protest song in the 1930s and that galvanized, you know, those dust bowlers. And now we were in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and Sly and the Family Stone were creating ‘Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself,’ and Carole King was writing ‘You’ve Got a Friend.’ And, you know, Donny Hathaway was writing ‘To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.’ I mean, it was just, it was just spectacular. And Laura Nyro was reflecting that Upper West Side of Manhattan female sensibility that simply didn’t exist. And Joni Mitchell was just writing such beauty, such deep wisdom at such early ages. And it was also appealing and attractive to me. So I wanted to be – and of course, there was the Beatles, you know, which are game changers, and Stevie Wonder. So it was a magnificent time to be part of this new wave of singer-songwriters. And I just found that also attractive and appealing. And when I met Carole Sager, who had hired me to sing on a demo, after she had seen me sing with Bette Midler, and she said, ‘Do you write?’ And I said, ‘I do. I write by myself.’ And she said, ‘Well, would you consider collaborating?’ And I said, ‘Sure. I don’t know what that means, but yes.’ So I went up to her home, and I did not know – I mean, I only learned many decades later that I was the first artist – because she was a Brill Building writer. I was the first artist that she actually wrote with, so she was draping songs on me and with me. And it was great. It was really great. It was very efficient. We wrote rather quickly, and we were successful.”
On hearing her first hit on the radio and the significance of her music deeply affecting people:
“It was really thrilling. Well, I’d heard myself plenty on the radio from singing. But to actually hear a composition of yours, where you have the experience, the sense memory. I remember what the furniture looked like, when I was sitting at the piano with Carole writing the song. I remember being in the studio to make the demo of it, where I created that opening vamp because at that point, the song just started at the verse, we didn’t have any arrangement. And I remember sitting with the musicians, and I said to them, ‘Play this, play this, this is what I’m going to play, you accompany.’ And so, that became the identifiable opening vamp, so that when I started to go on the road to support this ‘Melissa’ album, when I started to play that opening vamp, the place would erupt because people recognized that opening piece from the radio. And it was very, very touching because the songs have grown with people. And what not only never gets old but has such a deepening quality in my soul of gratitude – you know, people tell you what your songs mean to them. How they have helped them not commit suicide, how they have helped they and their partner hold onto their relationship and work through it. How they have chosen your song to serenade them while they make a baby. How they chose your song to serenade them as they walked down the wedding aisle. How your song helped them get through a jail term or Vietnam stint or any of that. Or horrible childhoods, I mean, it’s just wild what a song can do. And in the beginning, you didn’t see that coming. I mean, I knew what songs did for me. But I had a pretty festive and adventurous life. But to see how a song could be a life raft is no small thing. And to hear it over and over and over again, there’s something of a spiritual component, which makes me grateful and supports me. I mean, in answer to your first question, is it hard to do what I do? It’s very hard to do what I do. But that part, that part that your song was a life raft to people in some way? You mustn’t mess with that. Because that’s very serious business.”
On being nominated for Grammys and singing at the Academy Awards:
“Well, you know, the Grammy nomination is a phone call to the management office, and then they tell you. And, you know, it’s thrilling. But what was thrilling in particular about ‘Through the Eyes of Love’ is that I had the singular experience of being the first artist to have two songs nominated for an Academy Award, and ‘Through the Eyes of Love’ was one of them – for the film ‘Ice Castles,’ written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Sager. And the other was called ‘I’ll Never Say Goodbye,’ a beautiful song by a lesser known film called ‘The Promise.’ And the song was written by my beautiful friends, Marilyn and Alan Bergman and David Shire. And that was a remarkable experience to sing on the Academy Awards. I was wearing my first Bob Mackie gown in very high heels. And the director thought it’d be a very good idea to have me walk down a flight of stairs in between songs with no banister… Yeah, it was a lot. And then I got a chance to sing two years later on the Academy Awards. You know, in those days, unlike, in my opinion, today, those were very elegant affairs. You were singing with live musicians, and everybody was dressed magnificently. And yes, it was quite an honor.”
More about “At Home With The Creative Coalition”
Hosted by The Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk, “At Home With The Creative Coalition” brings listeners intimate portraits, key moments of discovery, and “art and soul” conversations with iconic entertainment industry personalities from the big screen to the boardroom, from L.A. to D.C. Listen now at http://thecreativecoalition.org/podcast.
Upcoming guests include Nathan Kress (“iCarly”), Yolonda Ross (“The Chi”), and Tramell Tillman (“Severance”).
Previous guests include Jason Alexander (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Shiri Appleby (“UnREAL”), Justin Bartha (“The Hangover,” “National Treasure”), David Alan Basche (“The Exes”), Asante Blackk (“This Is Us”), Carly Chaikin (“Mr. Robot”), Wilson Cruz (“Star Trek: Discovery”), Alan Cumming (“Schmigadoon!, “The Good Wife”), Ethan Cutkosky (“Shameless”), The Creative Coalition President and actor Tim Daly (“Madam Secretary”), Lea DeLaria (“Orange Is the New Black”), Griffin Dunne (“This Is Us”), Kerry Ehrin (“The Morning Show”), Wayne Federman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Michael Fishman (“Roseanne,” “The Conners”), Jim Gaffigan (“The Jim Gaffigan Show”), Willie Garson (“And Just Like That…”), Judy Gold (“The Other F Word”), Nicholas Gonzalez (“The Good Doctor”), Clark Gregg (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”), Evan Handler (“And Just Like That…,” “Californication”), Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Middle”), Jon Huertas (“This Is Us”), Jason Isaacs (“Star Trek: Discovery,” “Harry Potter”), Susan Isaacs (“Compromising Positions”), Richard Kind (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Chad Lowe (“Supergirl”), Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”), Rachel Mason (“Circus of Books”), Marlee Matlin (“CODA”), AnnaLynne McCord (“Let’s Get Physical”), Eric McCormack (“Will and Grace”), Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”), Katherine McNamara (“Shadowhunters”), Molly Smith Metzler (“Maid,” “Shameless”), Marta Milans (“Shazam!”), Rob Morrow (“Billions”), Kathy Najimy (“Younger”), Ken Olin (“This is Us,” “Thirtysomething”), Haley Joel Osment (“Future Man,” “Entourage”), Joey and Daniella Pantoliano (“The Matrix,” “Memento”), Bill Prady (“The Big Bang Theory”), Kyla Pratt (“The Proud Family”), Jessica Queller (“Supergirl”), Anthony Rapp (“Star Trek: Discovery”), Reid Scott (“Veep”), Mona Scott-Young (“Love & Hip Hop”), Alena Smith (“Dickinson”), Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”), Krista Vernoff (“Grey’s Anatomy”), KT Tunstall (“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” “Suddenly I See”), Matt Walsh (“Veep”), Alfre Woodard (“Clemency,” “Luke Cage”), Constance Zimmer (“Good Trouble”), and David Zucker (“Airplane!,” “Scary Movie”).
More about The Creative Coalition
The Creative Coalition is the premier nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) social and public advocacy organization of the arts and entertainment community. Founded in 1989 by prominent members of the creative community, The Creative Coalition is dedicated to educating its members on issues of public importance. The Creative Coalition also creates award-winning public service campaigns including #RightToBearArts to promote the efficacy of the arts. Actor Tim Daly serves as the organization’s President. For more information, visit https://thecreativecoalition.org.