Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Voice That Still Matters - Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic & Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway

A couple of week’s ago I had the pleasure and the ticket money, to hear and see Barbra Streisand’s concert in Toronto. It was the last of a nine-city “tour” called, Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic and the set list was a cross section of her 35 albums with stories about her life in show business. But I wasn’t there for some nostalgic trip down memory lane, I wanted to hear one of the great voices in music and I wasn’t disappointed. Streisand sang every note with passion and commitment. Her 10-piece band was mixed low as her voice filled the Air Canada Centre in front of a packed house: reaching the ceiling. Streisand is a woman with a very high standard of excellence who sets the bar high and maintains it. Witnessing a Barbra Streisand concert means that you enter her world, which is principally about music but also includes political commentary and a word about her foundation which supports many social justice causes and women’s health.

When it comes to the hits Streisand often tells the story of the time she went to see Charles Aznavour, the popular French singer, at a concert in the sixties, but she was disappointed when he didn’t perform her favourite song; a song she really wanted to hear. That changed her life as a performer because she recognized that many people would come to her concert expecting to hear their favourite Streisand track. Consequently, her recent show included five of her all-time hits, “Evergreen,” “People,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” and “The Way We Were,” which opened the concert. All the rest of the songs are her picks: eagerly accepted by an adoring audience. For this particular tour she had 35 albums from which to choose a set list. Has she ever cut a bad record? Let’s put it this way: some records are more successful than others but they all have her stamp of excellence even if the music isn’t always memorable.

Part of Streisand’s success is how she’s nurtured the relationship with her audience. I would describe it as loyal. The audience supports her by buying her albums, concert tickets and merchandise. (Programs were $40; T-shirts were over $50 and the lines were long). But I never got the feeling that Streisand takes her audience for granted because she makes it personal. At the Toronto show she was appreciative all-night long and she embraced her own “star image” with humility and a sense of humour. Streisand ingratiated herself willingly and the audience responded with their full support. Now 74, Streisand, to quote the New York Times on her show in Brooklyn, [she]“never asked to be received in pity, graded on a curve or helped across the street.” At one point, during her show in Toronto, she burst out with a deep-cut from 1979 (“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”) originally recorded with Donna Summer that really lifted her energy and ours. As the show went along I felt a part of her world as if she invited me over for coffee and we “talked amongst ourselves.”

Streisand’s new album, her 35th studio record for Columbia, is called Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. It features ten tracks from various musicals with guest vocalists who are also actors by trade. What I like about this album is Streisand’s focus: to add dramatic dialogue to enhance the context of each duet. But the results are mixed. Some songs are beautifully rendered while others suffer from bad casting and since the “director” of the album is Barbra Streisand, I think she could have made different choices for this project. That said, Encore is still performed at a high level of excellence that her fans fully expect. As she shares in the liner notes, she got the idea from a Marvin Hamlisch/Carolyn Leigh duet of “Any Moment Now” which was from an unproduced musical. Streisand liked the idea of hearing their dialogue set up the tune. This discovery inspired her to ask “why not make a duets album where the spoken word could be woven into the fabric of the arrangements, much like a Broadway musical?” Streisand has always been drawn to the Broadway Songbook. In fact the bulk of her recordings are loaded with the works of Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen. One of her biggest selling records was the 1985 release of The Broadway Album that solidified her place in music history. Broadway songs as she describes them for the new record, “contain so many elements that intrigue me as a singer and an actress. They are written for characters and situations, with lyrics that explore human emotions.” I whole-heartedly agree. Streisand seems to embrace a song and perform it from an actor’s viewpoint as we all discovered at her concert in Toronto. But it’s never staged; it’s sincere and authentic.

Highlights from the new album include an almost perfect rendition of “At The Ballet” from A Chorus Line. It features Anne Hathaway (Maggie), who sang in Tom Hooper’s motion picture version of Les Misérables and Daisy Ridley of Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame, cast as Bebe one of the three dancers looking for a gig in the musical. Streisand sings the part of Sheila. This emotionally strong version of the song completely engages the listener even if you don’t know the play. (I had the tune in my head for a week) It’s one of the best performances of the song I’ve ever heard. Another highlight is a cheeky version of “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened” featuring Alec Baldwin. It’s an excellent performance of the tune as Baldwin shades Stephen Sondheim’s dialogue with just enough sarcasm to bring the piece forward and complement Streisand’s side. The pair works really well together, I must say. But I can’t say the same for the duet with Melissa McCarthy who has to sing a revised lyric to “Anything You Can Do” that falls into cliché. It’s funny, but it’s false. McCarthy is too self-conscious on this track; as well she should be because the song was originally written as a light “battle-of-the-sexes” number for Annie Get Your Gun in 1946.

Two songs from Anthony Newley grace the album, “Who Can I Turn To” and “Pure Imagination,” the latter a duet with Seth McFarlane. The former gets an electronic treatment as Newley’s recording is mixed with Streisand’s new vocal. Considering his over-the-top performance it’s pretty good and was a highlight of her recent concert, but while I respect Streisand’s tribute to her late friend, this edited version doesn’t work for me because it sounds awkward rather than polished. That said McFarlane does a good job with Streisand on “Pure Imagination” with its charming arrangement and performance. (The late Gene Wilder sang it as Willie Wonka) All in all Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway is an album that succeeds because it’s authentic and often beautiful to hear, after all it’s from one of our greatest voices in music. You can watch Streisand in a series of short films about the making of the album here. Former Zappa Alumnus Vinnie Colaiuta plays drums on 3 tracks by the way.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) currently available

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