'Barry Manilow's A Very Barry Christmas' will premiere on NBC on Monday night
Barry Manilow isn’t one for Christmas traditions — but there is one classic holiday movie that can bring him to tears.
The legendary star, 80, tells PEOPLE that he remembers one winter where he was laid up, sick, on the couch, and caught a broadcast of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
“I’ll never forget crying at the end of it. When art can make you cry, you know that it’s definitely wonderful writing, when it can do that to you. When a painting can do it or when a song can do it, or when a movie like that can do it, you know that that is the real deal,” he says. “And that’s what happened to me when I watched It's a Wonderful Life.”
Luckily for Manilow and his fans, the holiday spirit will be a bit more cheerful on Monday night, when his NBC special, Barry Manilow's A Very Barry Christmas, airs at 10/9c.
The hour-long special was filmed on the same Las Vegas stage at the Westgate that Manilow performs his residency, and will feature his 24-piece band accompanying him on classic hits like “Copacabana” and “Mandy,” plus holiday tunes like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Feliz Navidad” and “White Christmas.”
Manilow had already been touring a Christmas show on the road for the last several years, so when NBC came knocking, he was raring to go.
“We have the set and we have the songs and we have the layout and we have children and we have Santa Claus and we have snow and we have Christmas trees,” he says. “When NBC heard about it, they said, ‘Can we bring our cameras?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’”
For Manilow, who’s released three Christmas albums over the years, it’s the perfect way to showcase his true passion when it comes to the holiday season: the music.
“I really like the songs. Yes we’ve heard them all of our lives, but because we know them, for me, I love rearranging them,” he says. “When I started making records, whenever I did a standard, I would arrange them for myself. And that’s what I did for all these Christmas albums that I’ve had out — I’ve taken the standard Christmas song and played around with them and made them into my own. That’s the part I like the best of this Christmas show.”
He gives “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as an example, explaining that he took the standard and spun it on its head, turning it into a “kind of swingy thing.” He adds that his most unexpected holiday favorite is “River” by Joni Mitchell, a 1971 classic off Blue that, while more about the winter season, features shades of “Jingle Bells.”
“I did the same thing with ‘River’ that I’ve done with a lot of them. She’s a wonderful performer and a wonderful songwriter,” Manilow explains of his arrangements. “I found my version of ‘River’ and I love doing it, and I don’t think the whole audience actually ever knew ‘River,’ but they sure do like it when I’m done with it.”
Meanwhile at home, Manilow says he recently put his own Christmas tree up with the help of his family, including husband Garry Kief, Kief’s daughter Kirsten and Kirsten’s 2½-year-old daughter (Manilow revealed to PEOPLE in October that he’s now a grandfather).
“She’s a toddler, so she doesn’t really know what we’re doing,” he says. “But she had a good time with us. She was running around and breaking the Christmas balls.”
Manilow has plenty to celebrate this holiday season. In September, he broke Elvis Presley’s record for most performances in Las Vegas, an honor he still seems awed by. (Manilow says he purposely put the focus on raising money for various charities like Manilow Music Project, Musicians on Call and more instead, as he “didn’t even like the idea of breaking Elvis Presley’s record”).
“It wasn’t a focus on me breaking anybody’s record,” he says. “It was wonderful to be able to do that, but you can’t break Elvis’s anything. There’s nobody like him. This man changed music, so I was honored to be a part of anything with Elvis.”
Then in November, his show Harmony finally premiered on Broadway, and he says reception so far has been “great.”
“When you put a show up in New York, the sentence you want to hear is, ‘You got to see this one,’” he says. “And we’re getting that from everybody who sees it. The word of mouth is excellent. The reviews were terrific, and now we’ll see what happens.”
For now, though, Manilow is ready to get festive.
“It’s a beautiful and joyful, feel-good Christmas show,” he says. “I hope everybody tunes in, because they’re going to be singing along with me, and it’s just a wonderful, wonderful-looking Christmas show. NBC blew it up even bigger than what I could think of.”
Barry Manilow’s A Very Barry Christmas will premiere on NBC on Monday at 10/9c. It will be available to stream the next day on Peacock, and an encore will air on Dec. 20.
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