In Barbra Streisand's thirty-plus year career, she has gone from Funny Girl to Funny Lady to, in her latest CD, the "hostess with the mostest."
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On December 31, 1999, Streisand hosted a New Millenium's Eve concert at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The extravaganza featured Streisand, young singer Lauren Frost, Shirley Maclaine, conductor Marvin Hamlisch, and a 62-piece orchestra and choir. Giant LED screens projected scenes from Barbra's life, career, and marriage.
In song and conversation, Barbra reprises her life, beginning with her teen years, auditioning with her mother, and following her career through its various metamorphases as a nightclub singer, Broadway musical star, movie actress, and director. The concert fills two CD's with nightclub and jazz club pieces, Broadway songs, movie themes, duets, New Year's songs and countless stories.
The millenium concert was an attempt to give a musical extravaganza the cozy, comfortable feel of a party in someone's living room. Streisand accomplished this by interspersing exquisitely interpreted songs with heartwarming personal stories, such as:
- the time when she sat with girlfriends, talking about their fathers. Streisand's father died when she was 15 months old, and one of the heartbreaks of her life was never having had the opportunity to know him. Later that evening, when she opened her mail, she found a letter her father had written to an old girlfriend before he'd married Streisand's mother. The girlfriend had mailed it to her, feeling that she'd appreciate this memento. Streisand felt her father was trying to communicate with her, and, throughout the filming of Yentl, she sensed his guiding presence. She followed this story with a touching rendition of Papa, Can You Hear Me?
- the duet she loves most, tape-recorded with her preschool-aged son, Jason, in her basement. As she sings Sing with her son, his tiny voice blending with hers, a cappella, she sounds almost like any other Mom!
- The first audition she went on, as a young girl, with her mother, who had a beautiful soprano voice, like an opera singer.
- Her ongoing struggle with technology, and her humorous exasperation with answering machines, cell phone, voice mail, and other signs of our times.
But yet, it was a celebration of the millenium, and of Streisand's decision to make this her farewell concert tour. At the age of 58, she has decided to concentrate on acting, recording, and directing. The legions of fans who paid up to $1500 and more per ticket to hear one of her final performances deserved some spectacular entertainment, and Streisand did not disappoint them.
The 62 piece orchestra was conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, a performer and composer (A Chorus Line) whose spectacular showmanship sometimes masks his talent as a musician. The CD features overtures and ent'ractes, Broadway and movie medlies lovingly arranged by Hamlisch. Actors and actresses fill in as the story of Barbra's life unfolds. They portray Brother Time, a young girl, a piano player, Ziegfield, and a nightclub announcer.
Right after the opening, Shirley Maclaine comes onstage to talk about life as it was in Y1K. She is one of the few living performers who admit to having been alive then (albeit in a past life), and one of the few who can remember what it was like. Of course, they both congratulate one another on how well they look!
The concert settles down to a cozy, intimate feel as Streisand reprises the highlights of her early career, singing at the Bon Soir Club. She didn't get paid very much, but she did get all the steak she could eat! Cry Me a River typifies the music she sang as a nightclub performer.
As her reputation grew, she moved up to Basin Street East, a jazz club in NYC which paid slightly more but didn't offer any free steak. She had some lean and hungry days, too, as she started out, but her clear, true voice continued to sing out Romberg and Hammerstein's Lover, Come Back to Me and A Sleepin' Bee.
Streisand's big break came in the role of Fannie Brice in Broadway's Funny Girl. In her Broadway segment, she sings Miss Marmelstein, I'm the Greatest Star, and Second Hand Rose. She also sings two of her favorite Broadway songs, Something Wonderful from The King and I and Being Alive, a Stephen Sondheim medley.
As she follows her career from theater to movies, she does a five-number set of movie themes. Two highlights are Evergreen, a song she composed with Paul Williams, and Papa, Can You Hear Me?, from Yentl. A talented teenage singer, Lauren Frost, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the young Barbra Streisand, joins her in a duet for You'll Never Know and A Piece of Sky.
The second CD features Streisand with seven special duet partners:
- Judy Garland in Get Happy
- Barry Gibb in Guilty
- Bryan Adams in I Finally Found Someone
- Celine Dion in Tell Him
- Neil Diamond in You Don't Bring Me Flowers
- Frank Sinatra in I've Got a Crush on You
- Jason Gould, Streisand's son, as a toddler singing Joe Raposo's Sing
It was disappointing that only excerpts from each of these songs were played, and it would have been better, I think, to have had a little less talk and a little more music in this segment.
In closing the concert, Streisand talks about the millenium, filled with endless possibilities, and sings one of the most beautiful renditions of Auld Lang Syne I have ever heard. Ending on a note of optimism, she performs Happy Days Are Here Again, I Believe, and Somewhere with Lauren Frost.
The concert CD set, in a curious way, conveys a more intimate feel than, I would imagine, even the actual concert did. Listening to it in a dimly lit room, it seems as if Streisand is talking and singing just to me, sharing her soul in words and in song. It would be hard to imagine feeling that way in a crowded ampitheatre with a 62 piece orchestra and a revolving cast of characters.
On the other hand, the verbal segments aren't quite as interesting to listen to over and over as the music is, and they're not all on separate tracks from the music, making it difficult to skip through from song to song.
The 21 page liner notebook contains numerous pictures from the concert, an essay describing the concert preparations, and a Millenium Message from Barbra.
The CD set, and the concert from which it was recorded, were lovingly designed and perfectly executed, sparing no expense. It is her tribute to the millenium, a once in a lifetime occasion for her and for her fans.
But sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have heard Streisand in the lean days at the Bon Soir Club, when all the steak she could eat meant she'd be able to pay her rent that month. When nothing stood between her and the audience but her legendary voice, unadorned by orchestras, choirs, backup singers, and larger-than-life video screens.
I think that the title of the opening selection of the first CD answers my question: You'll Never Know!
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