Behind the Fanilow
Elementary school teacher Lori McGill bought tickets to every performance of Manilow on Broadway. We speak with the superfan about Barry Manilow Masks, Barry Manilow lyrics, and why she's not crazy.
Lori McGill wants me to know she isn't crazy. Even though she has seen Barry Manilow in concert more than 300 times -- every New York run since 1976, 48 times in Vegas, and every performance of his current show, Manilow on Broadway -- she would like me to know she's just a Fanilow, not a fanatic. Outside the box office at the St. James Theatre, where the workers know her by name, she tells me this immediately.
I'm not crazy.
I meet Lori a week into my quest to understand Fanilow culture. To understand the legions of fans who line up an hour before curtain, then wait in the cold an hour past curtain, to watch Barry Manilow exit the theater and enter a Town Car. Fans who adore him enough to pay up to $350 to see him perform for 90 minutes, decades past his hit-making prime. So I stood among them, waiting at the stage door for Barry.
I stood with a silver-haired woman in a yellow feather boa who pressed her hips against the image of Barry Manilow's face plastered to the exterior of the St. James, while she gyrated and moaned and her husband captured the moment on his iPhone. I stood with a six-woman pack of thirty-somethings from Long Island, who all wore leather jackets with fringe and smelled like vodka. I stood with couples in their 50s who left the show arm in arm, basking in a post-Manilow glow. "With Barry, every time is like the first time," one man told me, with a shy nod towards his companion, an excited Barry Virgin from Massachusetts.
I still didn't get it. So I went to Sardi's to see him, Barry Manilow, in the flesh.
I watched Barry Manilow sign his caricature and pose with his pen in midair for the flashing cameras, politely unexcited. I watched as he turned to the left, "Barry to the left," and the right, "Barry, please turn right," holding the autographed doodle.
I listened to Barry Manilow on Spotify at work. I listened to Barry Manilow at the gym. I started to hear Barry Manilow when I was not at work or at the gym, because his songs were stuck in my head. I scanned Barry Manilow message boards and Fanilow club websites and Facebook pages. But I couldn't completely understand the dedication, the phenomenon that is Fanilow-dom. Then I met Lori McGill.
McGill is a second grade teacher in Levittown, Long Island. She is 55 and married and has a 23-year-old son, Christopher, but she purchased only one ticket to every night of Manilow on Broadway. The third best moment of her life, second only to her wedding and her son's birth, was when she met Barry Manilow in the flesh, at a benefit concert in Palm Springs, California. She flew in for the show, despite her fear of flying. She says Barry Manilow treated her like a human, someone he had known for a long time.
"My husband is a country-western, Harley kind of guy," says McGill. "He says, ‘Go make yourself happy. Go to as many shows as you want. I'll see you when you're done.' He can appreciate [Barry Manilow], but this is my thing. This is purely my thing."
When we speak, McGill is an hour away from doing her thing. She is wearing a bedazzled blue shirt under a black peacoat. She has short, light-brown hair and wears stud earrings. She looks – and is, she stresses -- normal. McGill's "Barry Buddy," another teacher from Long Island, is waiting in line to enter the St. James. The two women met on a Barry Manilow message board. "I'm not a chatter," McGill says. "I'm not on Facebook or Twitter." But when she saw that the then-anonymous poster lived three miles from her home, it prompted her to meet up with this nearby Fanilow to "swap Barry stories." That was four years ago. Since then, they've seen Barry Manilow together in Vegas and Atlantic City, and, of course, New York.
"A lot of the same faces keep turning up," McGill says of Manilow on Broadway. "You make a nice group of friends. You really do."
When Barry Manilow first performed on Broadway, McGill was in college. At the request of a friend, she saved her babysitting money and got a 10th row seat. (It was $12.50. She still has the ticket stub and the original Playbill.) "I sat there, and from that minute, I was hooked. He makes you happy. That's all you can say after [a performance]. It makes you happy."
When Christopher calls his mother, "I Can't Smile Without You" rings out from McGill's cellphone (which also has a Barry Manilow background). It's the song she sang to him every night when he was a baby. Now that he's a twenty-something, he doesn't like the song much. He doesn't like Barry Manilow much. But it was Christopher who suggested she buy more tickets when additional performances of Manilow on Broadway became available.
Lori McGill would like to clarify something else about Manilow, specifically about his Broadway run: "This is not a concert, this is a show, and there's a difference. A concert is when somebody comes out and sings twenty songs and takes a bow and leaves. This is an experience. [Barry Manilow] is a storyteller…the dialogue every night just goes through my head and I can say it before he does, I can connect…[he] makes it a point to connect to the audience. And the audience can of course relate to him because there's not a single person on the planet that hasn't been through one of the lyric scenarios from his songs."
On the first day of school year, McGill starts with an exercise class, to get her new students warmed up. She cranks up the Barry Manilow and they dance. She usually plays "Daybreak" first, or sometimes "I Can't Smile Without You."
She recalls the first day this school year: "My classroom is covered with concert photos, and my little seven year olds came in and said, ‘Mrs. McGill, you have an awful lot of pictures of Mr. McGill.' And I said ‘Boys and girls, this one picture, over here, is Mr. McGill -- and that's my husband -- and these five pictures over here are Christopher McGill -- that's my son -- and the rest are Barry Manilow."
In December, she teaches her students "Christmas is Just Around the Corner." They sing it for their parents at the school's holiday party.
"[T]he parents say, ‘First of all, thank you for not playing, you know, this artist or that artist and thank you for playing something that the kids can learn to appreciate,'" McGill says. "And the kids learn the words…because I print out the words…They're learning to read in the second grade. So, some of that is our reading activity. We do all sorts of things with Barry's words."
On her birthday one year, McGill was teaching a spelling lesson, when her classroom door flew open. Twelve teachers wearing Barry Manilow masks stormed in, singing "Happy Birthday." That was five years ago. She still has the masks.
Last year for her birthday her students showed up in Barry Manilow t-shirts, handmade by the class mom. "It sounds crazy," she admits, "but, when you think about it, I can connect to other people, and other people connect to me, over a musician that not many people are as…I won't use the word ‘obsessed,' but as ‘enthralled' with him as a performer."
I ask McGill what she would order if she were to have lunch with Barry Manilow at Sardi's.
"Be still my heart. What would I order? Oh my goodness…He likes bologna and cheese sandwiches, so I would probably order a bologna and cheese sandwich just as a symbol to him. But I probably wouldn't have an appetite for anything. I would sit there with a Diet Coke and a big smile on my face and I'd be, like he says, the happiest New Yorker there is."
I also wonder how she can afford such expensive tickets for every night of Barry Manilow's St. James run, so I ask her.
"I am lucky," she says. "I have a good job. I have had it for thirty-one years. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't gamble. This is my only vice."
The St. James has opened its doors for the evening and McGill and I begin to say our goodbyes. The lyrics to "I Can't Smile Without You" run through my head.
You see, I feel sad when you're sad.
I feel glad when you're glad.
If you only knew what I'm going through…
I just can't smile, without you.
"You don't know how many days you have left," McGill says. "You don't know what's going to happen. But I can do something now, just for me. This makes me happy. That's why I'd choose to do it. And I'll be honest with you, if he did this all again in the fall or next year, I would be right there in line again buying as many tickets as I could for the same reasons I'm sharing with you now. I would sit here night after night, the same way, and I would enjoy every single minute of it."
Lori McGill wants me to know she isn't crazy. And I believe her.