Barry Manilow may be the guy in the spotlight, singing his heart out whether he's belting a trademark chart-topper or crooning a vintage tune from his latest album, "The Greatest Love Songs of All Time."
Just because you're watching him, however, doesn't mean he's not watching you.
And Manilow's new show, which opens tonight at Paris Las Vegas, makes it easier for him to watch his audiences than ever before.
After five years at the Las Vegas Hilton, Manilow takes the stage at the Paris Theatre, moving from a showroom designed "for animal acts and elephants" to a "very legit proscenium theater" with "a whole different vibe," he says during a recent telephone interview.
Part of that vibe, he adds, is the inherent intimacy of the Paris theater.
"I can see 'em," Manilow says of the audience. "They're right in my lap -- and so that part is going to be really great."
Manilow makes that prediction from his five years at the Hilton, an experience that gave him "the opportunity to look at this audience" -- and see them in a way he couldn't when he plays big arena shows on the road, when "big spotlights in my eyes" block the view.
At the Hilton, while performing "Copacabana" on a catwalk that stretched over the audience, "I would look down," he recalls, "and what I saw was these people smiling from ear to ear. Some of them were in wheelchairs, and some of them were older and they were standing -- or, if they were in wheelchairs, trying to stand up -- and smiling and clapping, just cheering and all. And I said, 'Oh! Is that what I'm doing?' "
Manilow's new Paris show takes its cue not only from its star but its Parisian-flavored setting, he notes.
"Right when we were deciding whether we were actually going to do this," Manilow visited Paris (the real one) and was struck by the City of Love's romantic atmosphere.
"I thought, well, it is also a very romantic theater and the whole vibe is that, too," he says.
Coupled with the romantic theme of Manilow's latest love songs album, "I just kept thinking to myself, what is the goal of performing? And the goal is art, beauty, romance, love -- and music. That's what I got from Paris -- and that's what I get when I walk in" the Paris' Las Vegas theater.
With a proscenium stage designed for musicals, Manilow's new show will feature "not just big bells and whistles," he says, but "a theater piece. That's what we're heading towards."
The "we" refers to Manilow and co-creator and director Jeffrey Hornaday, whose credits range from movie choreography ("Flashdance," "Dick Tracy") to staging arena tours for the likes of Madonna, Mariah Carey and Paul McCartney. (Next up for Hornaday: directing the fourth installment of the "High School Musical" franchise.)
Hornaday describes Manilow's Paris show as "more of a hybrid of a singer-songwriter's concert and a Broadway presentation."
In many of the huge arena tours Hornaday has done, "the thing that gets a bit frustrating is, you have to hit people over the head with a hammer for the stuff to read," the director explains. But in the Paris theater's more intimate setting, "with all of the creative choices you make, you can't hide behind flash."
Overseeing those "rock 'n' roll circus" arena shows, "with most pop stars, I will build a show for them and then put them into it," Hornaday notes.
But because he and Manilow have been working together "every weekend for months," Manilow's been a part of the creative process all along.
"One of the really fun things is, Barry's also a dance arranger," Hornaday says, so for "some of the numbers, we get on the floor with a drummer and Barry and do it the old-school way, like a Broadway workshop."
Such a collaboration "was really the fascination for me -- the process," the director acknowledges.
Manilow echoes that sentiment, noting "it's very exciting" to build a new show. "I love this part most of all," he says, "creating a brand-new show for a brand-new venue."
The brand-new show features some brand-new technology, Hornaday notes.
"Cutting-edge high-definition video screen technology" will display various images throughout the production, he explains, as when art appears, to tie in with Paris "being synonymous with art and music."
The high-tech visuals will appear only when they add to the production, however, the director maintains.
Otherwise, "we don't need it -- Barry can totally take it," Hornaday says. "It's more about him and the stage and the audience."
And in Manilow's view, that audience falls into two categories.
Longtime "Fanilows" who have followed his music since his '70s and '80s heyday -- when he ruled the charts with smashes from "I Write the Songs" to "Copacabana" -- enjoy hearing less familiar material, Manilow says.
"But in Vegas, there's tourists, there's conventions -- these are new people who don't know me," he points out. "They don't even know what the hell I'm still doing. And they say, 'Hey, let's catch him before he croaks.' "
Those audiences are "looking forward to the old war horses -- and I'm happy to do it. They are excited -- and they make me excited" to "find the truth in the song," the singer says.
And, of course, trying to get the feeling again -- the feeling Manilow had during his five-year Hilton run, when "it was a celebration every night."
The venue and the show may be different this time around, but the focus remains the same.
Otherwise, "I don't need to do this," Manilow says. "I don't need any more gold records, I don't need any more applause, I don't need any more money."
What he does need: a chance to sing. And, of course, to see the audience's reaction to the singer and his songs.
"How can I not do that, if I can make people do that?" Manilow says. "So I go back onstage."
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.