The evolution of Melissa Manchester

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Melissa Manchester performs on May 19 at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts in Saugatuck, Mich.

Melissa Manchester’s connection to the gay community is long and enduring. From her early days as a Harlette, one of Bette Midler’s original back-up singers, to her rise through the singer/songwriter ranks during the 1970s and her ascension to full-fledged diva-hood, Manchester has remained on our radar. “Playlist: The Very Best of Melissa Manchester,” a 14-track compilation, represents the various phases of Manchester’s career.

Gregg Shapiro: How does your latest compilation compare to 1983’s “Greatest Hits” and 1997’s “Essence” discs?

Melissa Manchester: This is more of a musical journey. I wanted to include never-before-released duets. I wanted to pay tribute to my first band-mate Cooker LoPresti, with whom I sang “I Can’t Get Started With You.” I also wanted to include two songs that had been used in films within the last two years. I also wanted to include two songs that I wrote by myself, “Talking To Myself” and “Shine Like You Should.”

GS: “Come In From the Rain,” from the “Playlist” and other discs, is one of your most covered songs. Are there versions, other than your own, for which you have a special fondness?

MM: Barbara Cook’s version is exquisite. Since she is my musical hero, I was honored to have her record that. As a songwriter you yearn to have people record your songs.

GS: You’ve made a name for yourself in movie music, beginning with “Through The Eyes of Love” from “Ice Castles” and continuing with “I Know Who I Am” from “For Colored Girls” and “Rainbird” from “Dirty Girl.” What do you like about having a song associated with a movie?

MM: Any time somebody asks me to write a song that captures a moment in a larger story, I'm your girl (laughs). In terms of “I Know Who I Am,” the fact that Tyler Perry felt that that song somehow represented his story sort of revalidated my feeling.

GS: You were one of the divas that gay teen Clarke idolized in “Dirty Girl.” What does your long history of being idolized by the LGBT community mean to you?

MM: It’s something I don’t take lightly. I really feel honored, because the gay community has always supported divas worth supporting. To say some of my best friends are … (laughs) don't take that as trivializing anything. I was raised around gay people, so it’s not anything other than part of my everyday life. My father was a bassoonist at the Metropolitan Opera and my mother was one of the first women designers on Seventh Avenue. The gay community has been part of my home. When I actually committed myself to an artistic life, which is also second nature to me, it was part of the journey. While historically the gay community has supported divas, I'm honored that in the world of disposable amusement that they have stood by me. I really appreciate that. I sang a couple of Christmas concerts with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles this past December - you can go online and find the video that they made of me singing the song “A Mother and Father's Prayer” to support the It Gets Better campaign. These things need to be acknowledged and addressed. What I know for sure as I get deeper into my life and my career is that the currency of a song, while mostly it is disposable, on occasion can move a nation, change a mind, keep somebody from committing suicide, can give people a tool to hold onto to pass through a storm. I know that because that's what people have written to me. I don't take any of it for granted. I'm very grateful for the gift of being able to write songs and to share them.

GS: What do you enjoy about performing in and writing for musical theater?

MM: It’s painting on a much larger canvas. When your songs are in the world of purpose, which is that each song is specifically constructed to help move a larger story forward, that's a fantastic muscle to use creatively. Because your assignment is so specific, if you miss the mark, you change the balance of the way you're telling the story. When you look at the masterpiece musicals – “Sweeney Todd,” “My Fair Lady,” “The King and I,” “Carousel” – the precision and the concision of the scores is not an accident. Everything is precisely placed and creates these magnificent motifs for each character.

GS: Do you have an all-time favorite musical?

MM: I think “Sweeney Todd” is the masterpiece of my age.

GS: Have you met Stephen Sondheim?

MM: I actually was in “Sweeney Todd.” I played beggar woman in the 25th anniversary (production) at the Ahmanson. Mr. Sondheim came backstage and congratulated the cast, congratulated me, and I looked at him and I said, “Now this is serious fun.” He gave me a sly wink and nodded his head as if I got it. It was magnificent. He came to see a musical I wrote called “I Sent a Letter to My Love,” which played off-Broadway, and he wrote me a very lovely note. He’s the master;

GS: On your website in early February, you wrote that you are redirecting the royalties from your song “The Power of Ribbons” from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to Planned Parenthood.

MM: When I was first starting to write, Carole Sager and I found our songs underscoring the women’s movement. They would use our songs on Ms. Magazine specials. When I wrote “The Power of Ribbons,” it was inspired by my friend Nancy Colton, who was fighting a valiant fight. I just think Planned Parenthood has a more comprehensive, holistic approach to women’s health issues. I think it is really cruel to withhold breast exams, mammograms and education from poor and underprivileged women.