The Incomparable Streisand: Barbra Streisand’s Live in Concert 2006 and The Movie Album

By Daniel Garrett

Streisand, Live in Concert 2006
Produced by Barbra Streisand and Jay Landers
Arranged and conducted by William Ross
Recorded and mixed by David Reitzas
Columbia (Sony), 2007

Streisand, The Movie Album
Executive Producers: Barbra Streisand and Jay Landers
Recorded and Mixed by David Reitzas
Columbia (Sony), 2003

“What he wanted was a ‘colony of the spirit,’ or a group whose covenants forbade spite, bloodiness, and cruelty.”

—Saul Bellow, Dangling Man

“For let us admit the truth. One was constantly threatened, shouldered, and, sometimes invaded by ‘nasty, brutish, and short,’ lost fights to it in unexpected corners. In the colony? Even in oneself.”

—Saul Bellow, Dangling Man

It is still amazing that for much of her career Barbra Streisand has not enjoyed performing music as part of a regular tour before audiences, and consequently has recorded few concerts. Streisand’s live recordings have included A Happening in Central Park (1968), Live Concert at the Forum (1972), One Voice (1987), The Concert (1994), Timeless (2000), and now Live in Concert 2006, with most of these documenting a rare performance. It has taken time for her to see the audience as more than paying customers or a harsh judge, or some other less appealing entity—and it is clear from the comments she makes in Live in Concert 2006 that she now can see her audience as part of a significant community, a community she has helped to keep alive with her art.

What I have loved about Streisand is that her gloriously golden voice was matched by the intelligence with which she used it and the passion that she expressed, but it seems that with much of her later work—such as Higher Ground (1997), A Love Like Ours (1999), Christmas Memories (2001), The Movie Album (2003) and Guilty Pleasures (2005)—it is perfection rather than passion that is her concern. Who am I to argue with perfection? Perfection is certainly not an ordinary consideration—and there is little about the contemporary world, with its morning alarm clocks, quickly eaten breakfasts, crowded and noisy train rides and dangerously busy streets, competitive offices and dull factories and long unemployment lines, hidden and selfish agendas, expensive distractions, evening desperation, drunken and druggy conversations, and solitary resignation, that would make such musical perfection a natural fit. In fact, while listening to Streisand’s Movie Album for the first time in a while, I could hear the screaming of a young woman coming through the walls—and at first I thought her boyfriend, newly released from jail, had turned violent and was murdering her, but it turned out to be just sex (it was a disgusting sound, made more gross by the serenity of Streisand’s music, and the fact that the night before I had heard him tell the girl to shut the F up after she sweetly said that what concerned him also concerned her). With The Movie Album, Streisand has looked at and listened to some popular dreams—movies—and retrieved songs that mostly suggest an old-fashion rhetoric of love, or romance: these songs are idealizations of human experience and human response. In the collection are the songs “Smile,” “Moon River,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Wild is the Wind,” “Emily,” “More in Love with You,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?,” “But Beautiful,” “Calling You,” “The Second Time Around,” “Goodbye for Now,” and “You’re Gonna Hear From Me.” They are remnants of a refuge from reality that may not be sustainable in the future. Who believes in love like this? Who believes in beauty or peace?

The warm, orchestral sound of “Smile,” with Streisand’s singing—full of restrained care and thought, rather than sad, tender, or joyous—gives the album a somewhat philosophical opening. “If you smile through your fears and sorrow, smile and maybe tomorrow, you’ll see the sun come shining through” are some of the song’s words. “Smile” is often identified as a song by Charlie Chaplin, and I have thought of it that way, but Streisand reminds us in her notes that Chaplin wrote the music (for the film Modern Times, 1936) and the lyrics were written eighteen years later by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile” is either the conviction of a wise optimist or a fool—and Streisand’s perceptible intelligence is not to be doubted.

On Breakfast at Tiffany’s “Moon River,” that Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer song of solitude and nature, of friendship and travel, Streisand’s voice is soft, wistful, and the guitar is not merely a nice touch but a necessary one—it allows the song to have an energy, a reality, consisting of more than her voice. There is a Latin (bossa nova) flavor to “I’m in the Mood for Love,” which features the lyric “Funny but when you’re near me I’m in the mood for love,” and Streisand’s technique seems flawless—she knows when to make a note light or heavy, when to make a tone caressing or sultry. (The music is by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields; and it is an amusing, sensuous song.) “Wild Is the Wind” is romantic reverie. But, by the time I listen to “Emily,” I cannot say that I believe in the emotion of the song. There are times when the work of a distinguished artist has little to do with anything but her own talent—and this recording may be such a case. Streisand is a classicist: she is informed by European classical music, and is part of the modern, popular tradition of the art of song that found its place on Broadway, and in jazz and Hollywood musicals. Is she working from memory, nostalgia, or great regard for the art form? She has been true to a tradition in which intelligent, loving, and witty words and beautiful melodies are central; and it is a tradition in eclipse thanks to the dominating noisy rhythms and rage to be found in rock and hip-hop. Yet, listening to “More in Love with You,” a song from Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), a piece of Andre Previn music that Streisand has long admired and for which Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote lyrics, Streisand’s talent—its beauty, its expression—makes it very hard to dismiss the song as being part of a now marginal art.

Streisand’s interpretation of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” is forceful. Maybe she is inspired by the rhythm of the song, as well as its melody, or maybe she is challenged by the fact that the song—with music by her much-favored Michel Legrand and lyrics by the Bergmans—was made popular by other singers, Patti Austin and James Ingram before her, as part of the Norman Jewison 1982 comedy Best Friends (other versions—by Frank Sinatra and Susannah McCorkle—also remain in memory). Whatever the reason, if each song in this selection had been given the interpretative force of this one, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?,” the collection would be a great one and not merely a good one. The questions in the song come alive, questions about maintaining love, whereas there is more exertion than elegance or evocation in “But Beautiful.” From the 1988 film Bagdad Café is Bob Telson’s “Calling You,” a song of impressions rather than logic or story, but a soulful song, and one of the most appealing and satisfying here—thanks to voice and music. The setting of “Calling You,” a desert locale, and the mention of a coffee machine that needs fixing, add to the unique flavor of the song. Mature and reflective is “The Second Time Around.” Elliptical lyrics about departure and return, without the usual romantic mythology, mark Sondheim’s “Goodbye for Now,” from Warren Beatty Reds (1981), still a favorite film of mine. “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” by Andre and Dory Previn (from the mid-1960s Inside Daisy Clover), allows Streisand self-assertion—firm, impressive, and absolutely unnecessary, though it’s not a bad or illogical conclusion from a theatrical point of view.

The Movie Album is the kind of work that few performers can do now and have it be received as a significant work, but Streisand’s legendary past, as much as the ongoing support she has received from her audience and record company (Columbia, now part of Sony), makes that possible. Streisand, at the time of the concert that is presented in her recording Live in Concert 2006, was reported to have garnered in sales thirteen multi-platinum albums, thirty platinum albums, and fifty gold albums; and she is a performer who has won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony, and even more than one of some of these awards, proof of the respect in which she is held in the music, film, television, and theater industries in which she has worked. In our time, success and the money it brings are freedom: artistic, moral, personal, and political; and with money one’s choices can come out of conviction and taste rather than pressures applied by others then disavowed, pressures leaving no evidence but the individual’s mistakes (one need not become beggar, thief, whore—and silenced by knowledge of one’s mistakes, or left with the source of one’s cultural authority being not intelligence, sensitivity, or talent but the fact of one’s known mistakes). Thus, Streisand is formidable.

What else might she have done? Are there more experiments—if not in the realms of jazz or rock, then possibly in avant-garde or classical music—that she could have tried? Streisand’s Live in Concert 2006 allows us to have another listen to what she chose to do; and in some ways it is a return to her early days, the days of her greatest potential. The concert begins with the overture to “Funny Girl,” the Fannie Brice musical play that brought Streisand to great fame (her records were selling very well by the time the show opened); and reference to the play “Funny Girl,” which had music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and a narrative script or book by Isobel Lennart, of course reminds me of the eccentric girl Streisand was then—she had claimed in a short theater biography to have been born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon. Streisand sings “Starting Here, Starting Now,” a song written by Richard Maltby and David Shire with a unifying theme (“when we walk, we walk together”), followed by her friendly spoken comments about liking to stay at home, gardening, but wanting to use the tour to raise money for causes she cares about—and enjoying the music, and the warmth of the audience. She sings, in a slightly grainy voice, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen’s “Down with Love” with a charming grasp of rhythm and a rueful approach to love, against a bass, piano, and saxophone: “Down with love. Let’s liquidate all its friends, like moon, June, roses, and rainbow’s ends.” Some of Streisand’s wordless singing in “The Way We Were” is her best within that song (I have always liked her humming). Streisand plays piano as she performs the first song she ever composed, with a French lyric (“Ma Premiere Chanson”), before singing “Evergreen,” the song she wrote for her mid-1970s film A Star is Born, singing the song in concert with Il Divo, the men’s vocal group. “Come Rain or Come Shine,” by Harold Arlen (whom she claims as one of her favorite composers), has a fresh, lively sound. Streisand does not have the pure tone she had in her middle years, but hers remains an admirable, unique sound.

Streisand sings the songs “Funny Girl,” “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” “My Man,” and “People,” and while “Funny Girl” is somewhat contemplative, there is an attractive jazzy ambiance in “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” and “My Man” has a genuine emotional quality—honest, yearning, proud—and “People” is first comic, then plaintive, appraising and salutary; and those songs end the first act of her concert.

On Live in Concert 2006 in the second act, Streisand sings “The Music of the Night” with Il Divo, and the men’s voices come in one by one, from heavy and deep to light (I prefer the lighter voices). Streisand sings alone—after remarks about parents and their relation to children—a medley of the songs “(You’ve Got to Be) Carefully Taught” and “Children Will Listen” that warn against how fear and hatred are passed on to the young, and encourage parents to be more considerate about what they say and do; a medley of old and new Broadway, of Rodgers-Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. She performs a song I’m not familiar with, “Unusual Way,” about friendship and love, which ends with the line, “You’ve made me whole,” before performing one of her songs that I like best, the poetic and intense Bergman-Legrand “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”

Rather than the ironically melancholy reading Streisand used to give the song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” she gives the song a mellow interpretation. She wonders if she sang “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” at too young an age—a song with lines such as “I wanted the music to play on forever. Have I stayed too long at the fair?” and “There is nothing to win and no one to want me. Have I stayed too long at the fair?” Streisand comments about perspective, about the importance of living with appreciation, fairness, and generosity; and sings (from the musical “South Pacific”) “A Cockeyed Optimist.” Streisand states that “Somewhere” can be sung or heard as a prayer for tolerance, compassion, and peace, and performs the song with Il Divo, and while some of their collaboration achieves a nice harmony, I do not like the deeper voices in the group. (I imagine the group represents for her half the human race—men, and something of the classical music tradition.) Streisand sings “My Shining Hour” and wishes the audience members their own shining moments. The mood of the concert, then, has been, at times, that of pleasure and of preaching. I am not inclined to ask an artist to sacrifice her conscience or her hard-earned authority, but I now understand a little better some of the complaints that others made about some of her comments at the time. However, I want Streisand whole; and the morality and sentiments she expresses in her conversation, like her political commitments, are part of what have kept her interested in a song tradition in which our more humane hopes and feelings are respected. On Live in Concert 2006, Streisand concludes the evening with a terrific (energetic, precise) “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and a lovely exploration of the song “Smile.” There has not ever been anyone like Barbra Streisand—and there never will be again. Her music is now a safe place in an unsafe world; and it would be great to hear her find a new music to match—without submitting to—the spirit of our times, but if she does not do that again, what she has done already is exemplary.

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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