The Copacabana is a famous nightclub in New York City named after a district in Rio de Janeiro, which is where the song takes place. True to the song, the club did become a disco in the '70s.
Most of Manilow's audience had never set foot in The Copa, but it was a world-famous nightclub thanks to its many celebrity patrons and high-profile entertainers like Frank Sinatra. It shows up in many many movies, including a 1947 film called Copacabana starring Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda.
The story told in this song about the showgirl Lola and her bartender boyfriend Tony goes along with the joyous melody for the first half of the song, but the story takes a tragic turn when Tony is shot and killed, and we find Lola 30 years later insane and despondent over her loss. The music remains upbeat for this section, as does Manilow's delivery, creating a drastic juxtaposition of words and music.
Barry Manilow recalled that the music for "Copacabana" came incredibly fast. "I remember putting the lyric on the piano's music stand, punching the 'Record' button on my tape deck, and writing the song in less than 15 minutes," he wrote in the liner notes of the Even Now album.
His co-writer Bruce Sussman added: "We THOUGHT we were writing the novelty cut for Barry's Even Now album. 'Copacabana' surprised everyone - certainly us, and especially Arista Records, for they were faced with the first of Barry's hits that was forced off an album. This put Barry in the unique position of having three hit records in the Top 40 at once. It earned for him his first - and believe it or not, only - Grammy award, his first gold single for a song he composed, his first international hit record, and the first song to inspire projects in other media (a made for TV film, and a stage musical). So much for novelty cuts!"
That Grammy award was for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male. Surprisingly, it is Manilow's only Grammy win, and it comes in a performance category, not songwriting.
Manilow's hits to this point were mostly ballads like "Looks Like We Made It" and "Mandy." "Copacabana" gave him a rare uptempo hit in the middle of the disco era. There are some disco flourishes in the song, but it incorporates Latin rhythms in the style of the acts that played the Copa in the '40s and '50s - before it became a disco.
Manilow and his songwriting partner Bruce Sussman wrote this with Jack Feldman, who is known for writing music for the stage. With an intriguing storyline and lots of musical shifts, the song is well suited for theater, and in 1985 the three songwriters adapted it into a movie called Copacabana starring Manilow as Tony and Annette O'Toole as Lola. In the '90s, they made it into a musical that ran at the Caesars Circus Maximus casino in Atlantic City, and later in London's West End. The show made it to America as a touring production in 2000.