Barry Manilow turned 80 this year, but don’t think for a second that he’s slowing down. He’s too booked to even consider it. Tonight (Dec. 11) at 10 p.m. ET/PT, NBC will air Barry Manilow’s A Very Barry Christmas.
The show was filmed about five weeks ago at Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino where he performs his long-running show, Manilow: Las Vegas – The Hits Come Home! The special consists of half holiday songs (“Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Feliz Navidad” and “White Christmas”) and half Manilow hits (his three Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits – “Mandy,” “I Write the Songs” and “Looks Like We Made It” – and what is probably his most famous song “Copacabana”). The special was directed by Matt Askew, who directed Weekends With Adele.
A Very Barry Christmas is Manilow’s third Christmas-themed TV special. He has also released three Christmas albums and was planning to record another one this year, but didn’t get it done. “I started to lay out all the songs that I was going to do, and then this year happened,” Manilow told Billboard. “This year was like the craziest year ever.”
Manilow was honored by the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall in May. He played five consecutive nights (there are no nights off for this trouper) at Radio City Music Hall in May and June – and he’s already booked for five more shows at the legendary venue in April 2024. He was a presenter on the Tony Awards in June. Harmony, the stage musical he wrote with longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, which had spent decades in development hell, finally opened on Broadway in November.
Manilow has probably done more TV – and used it more effectively – than just about any other pop music performer. He won a Primetime Emmy in 1977 for his first special, The Barry Manilow Special. The show, which featured Laverne & Shirley star Penny Marshall, was seen by 34 million viewers. He won his second in 2006, for the PBS show Manilow: Music and Passion.
He won that first Emmy, at least in part, because he was hot as a pistol in 1977, with a No. 1 single on the Hot 100 (“Looks Like We Made It”) and a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 (Barry Manilow/Live). He won his second, at least in part, because his fellow professionals respected the way he had survived the ups and downs of a long career. He had “made it through the rain,” to borrow the title of one of his best songs – one that a longtime Fanilow (that would be me) ranked No. 6 on this list of his 25 top 40 hits on the Hot 100 that we posted in June to coincide with his reaching the big 8-0.
Manilow talked to Billboard on the eve of tonight’s special. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did this new special for NBC come about?
NBC executives came to see my regular [non-holiday] show at the Westgate and we were talking afterwards, and they were saying they were looking for Christmas product because everybody was on strike. And I said, “I have a Christmas show. We’ve been doing it for the last four years, and everybody seems to love it.” We sent them a video of it and they loved it. Before we knew it, we were taping the show.
You’ve taken this Christmas show on the road too.
It’s always received really well. I figured out a way of not only doing Christmas songs but my hits. It goes back and forth. It still always feels like a Christmas show, even when I’m singing “Copacabana.”
Christmas songs are right in your wheelhouse because so many of them are filled with yearning and emotion.
Even the [up-tempo] ones feel emotional because we’ve heard them all of our lives. That’s the only way I write, arrange or perform. If it doesn’t make me feel something, and if it doesn’t make the audience feel something, whether it’s sad or happy, then I’ve missed; then I haven’t done it right.
When did you tape the special?
About four or five weeks ago. We did two tapings. When I did my first batch of specials back in the ’70s and ’80s, there were about five cameras. [On this one,] they brought in 12 cameras. They had every angle they possibly could. It’s a beautiful-looking special. It looks otherworldly.
No, but we have Santa, little children, loads of Christmas trees — and it snows on the audience.
Why do you think TV works so well for you?
I try to be as genuine and as honest with every word and everything I say as I possibly can. If I’m right, that works to the camera, just like it works to an audience. If I can’t feel that I am being truthful in every lyric that I sing, then I shouldn’t be on the stage.
Last night I watched your 2019 interview for the Television Academy’s The Interviews series. You talked about how that first special in March 1977 took you to another level of fame and recognition – which is saying something, because you had had two No. 1 hits by that point.
The next morning [after the special aired], I went to the airport and everybody was yelling at me, “Barry! Barry! Barry!” The day before that, nobody paid any attention, but after that, it changed.
Did ABC ever offer you a summer replacement TV show, like a lot of music stars did back did back then?
They did, but I turned it down. I didn’t think it was the right thing to do — but I told them I would love to do one special a year, and they were OK with that. I didn’t think summer replacement [series] were helping the artist, and I didn’t want to be the guy that introduced people and did comedy sketches. That’s really not what I do. I would be terrible at that.
I didn’t realize the term “Fanilow” came from your 2003 appearance on Will & Grace.
One of the characters [played by guest star Sara Gilbert] was waiting [in line with Will, played by Eric McCormack] for tickets to a show of mine and said she was a Fanilow. It was a joke. It was clever and people picked up on it.
That phrase was a gift to you, because it’s catchy and affectionate.
I didn’t like it in the beginning. I thought it was kind of a put-down. But people would come up to me and say, ‘I’m a Fanilow,’ and they’d be so proud that I began to like it. And now I do like it.
I’m impressed that, 50 years into your career, you played five nights at Radio City.
For a New York guy like me, just to do [one night at] Radio City would have been enough — but to sell out five nights, that was really a thrill.
I’m also impressed that you played five consecutive nights. Artists half your age take nights off.
Oh please. I don’t even worry about that. I never get tired. I don’t sleep and I don’t eat. That’s my secret.
Harmony finally opened on Broadway this year. When did you and Bruce first write it?
We got the idea in 1997. It took awhile for us to put it together. And then the producer couldn’t get [it to Broadway] so we’d put it back in the drawer. Then there was another producer waiting to try it. Most of the time, we signed with a production company for three years. Every time we had to wait [until the previous deal was up]. Most of the time they just couldn’t get it to New York.
Dionne Warwick [whose 1979 comeback album Manilow produced] got the Kennedy Center Honors last week. The ceremony will air on TV later this month. It seems to me that if they base their selections on artists who have risen to the top in many different fields of entertainment, you should have gotten it by now. You went to the top in recordings, TV and live performances. If you ever do get that call, what would it mean to you?
Well, it’s quite an honor. No, they’ve never called and asked, and I don’t think they ever will. Maybe I just don’t do the kind of thing they want their honorees to do. I don’t understand why. If they did, would it be the top of the line? It would be pretty close to the top of the line to get an honor like that.