Is Barbra Streisand the Queen of Screen and Stage Music?

Is Barbra Streisand the Queen of Screen and Stage Music?

Elizabeth Collins

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

'Encore', which came out last week, is the latest addition to Barbra Streisand's studio album catalogue, as well as her collection of albums spotlighting some of the greatest music for stage and screen. It is also, in my opinion, the latest evidence of her unrivalled position as Queen of Stage and Screen Music. Barbra Streisand remains one of the most successful music artists of all time, and as such, she reigns supreme on many, many levels. She is actor, singer and director alongside countless other roles, but her contributions to stage and screen music are the focus here. As most know, 'the actress who sings' got her 'big break' playing Fanny Brice in 'Funny Girl' at The Winter Garden Theatre in NYC in 1964. This led to the kind of exposure every up-and-coming YouTuber dreams of, and secured her place in the starring role when 'Funny Girl' was transposed for the screen. 

What fewer people know is that Streisand had parts in two off-Broadway productions - and that the cast albums for these are still available; 'I Can Get it For You Wholesale'(1962) and 'Pins and Needles' (1962). Many will have heard her comically exasperated 'Miss Marmelstein' as it was released on 'Just for the Record', but she sang a similar, titter- inducing song called 'Nobody Makes a Pass at Me' on the 'Pins and Needles' cast recording. If you haven't heard her sweep through 'What Good is Love?', gloriously descend from above stairs to below in 'Cricket to Picket' or shimmy her way through 'Doing the Reactionary' and 'Sitting on Your Status Quo' on 'Pins and Needles', then you are really missing out on some real early Streisand gems- listen and you'll hear the foreshadowing whispers of her inevitable future as icon.

The new album, 'Encore' takes its place next to 'The Broadway Album' and 'Back to Broadway' as Streisand's powerhouse odes to Broadway. She makes darn sure that we don't lose sight of her comic abilities with Melissa Mcarthy in 'Anything You Can Do' while treating us again and again to her perfected diction and smooth tones preceded and proceeded in turns by soaring 'belts' (Judy Garland and Ethel Merman labelled her 'the new belter' back in the sixties for a reason). This is evident in 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' with Jamie Fox and 'At the Ballet' with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley. She also continues to surprise me with her album content; in the case of 'Encore', it's 'Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)' with Anthony Newley- who knew such different voices could blend so refreshingly and strikingly? I had to listen to it a few times to really appreciate it, and it's now one of my favourites on the album. Not only does this album present us with ten stunning duets, it gifts us an additional four solo tunes including the Brolin-cameo'd 'Fifty Percent', which demonstrates once more that Streisand is the queen of nuanced, moving and gripping storytelling.

There has been some criticism of the dialogue introductions but I have to say that this seems rather illogical; it's a Broadway album, with songs taken from the stage- the dialogue seems perfectly natural in the context. I happen to like listening to the charm and the comedy of Sheila toying with the casting director while Maggie and Phoebe giggle at her fearlessness. The fact that Streisand pokes fun at the unrelenting and apparently unwarranted accusations about her being 'aggressive' (or as translated for men- 'assertive') is very endearing, and very entertaining. Likewise, if Streisand wanted that dialogue to induce us to envision her in a wide array of roles, then it most certainly worked, particularly well on 'At the Ballet'.

For me, 'Encore' serves as a show-stopping reminder of Streisand's enduring love affair with the music of stage and screen; it's not new ground, she has held this territory since very early on in her career. The standards are where she started and where she seems most fulfilled- and why not? As 'an actress who sings', they seem perfect. Somehow, I didn't discover Streisand's talents until 2006- it did mean that almost all of her music was readily accessible then, and I was able to enjoy five decades of music instantly. Sixties Streisand is by far my favourite; the power, the tone and the purity are unrivalled. It has everything to do with the full-bodied, swelling style across all of her albums in this decade- there isn't an album from this decade that I haven't listened to on repeat. Her rendition of 'Who Will Buy?' Form the Broadway production of 'Oliver!', released on 'The Second Barbra Streisand Album' remains one of the purest, most beautiful things that I have heard on record, and I think it has everything to do with her theatrical approach. 'Never Will I Marry', 'Non, C'est Rien', 'How Does the Wine Taste?' and 'Keepin' Out of Mischief Now' are all blazing examples of her varied and convincing character roles in song on her early albums.

My love of sixties Streisand doesn't mean that I'm not enamoured of the subsequent shifts in tone as her voice has aged like a fine Pope-worthy wine. She now has lovely breathy and somewhat sandy notes which adds a whole new facet of sound- and this evolution hasn't diminished the purity; it has a different tone, but the voice is still smooth as honey (or indeed, Buddah).  It's well documented in interviews that as a theatrical singer, Streisand approaches each song as a performance, and boy, does it show. The cast albums, Broadway albums, movie soundtracks and 'The Movie Album'- and indeed, the showtunes which can be found snuggling between other classics on many of her albums- are all glowing examples of her craft and her seasoned, accomplished and beautiful narrative talent.

Is there any more evidence of Streisand being the Queen of Stage and Screen Music? Why, of course. The 'stage and screen' albums of Barbra Streisand have always been well received, and rightly so; her gifts to the world of stage and screen span decades and are of enduring quality. 'The Movie Album' carries much loved torch songs such as 'Moon River', 'Smile' and 'Wild is the Wind' while also shifting gear for 'You're Gonna Hear From Me' and 'I'm in the Mood for Love'. 'The Broadway Album' offers classics such as 'Send in the Clowns', 'Somewhere' and 'Not While I'm Around', but again also makes swift transitions in sound and style, offering 'Putting it Together' (with a dialogue introduction which seems to be autobiographical in nature) and the comical 'Adelaide's Lament'. 

'Back to Broadway' documents the shifting tone in Streisand's voice, gracing audiences with a transcendental rendition of 'The Music of The Night' accompanied by Michael Crawford, 'Speak Low' and 'Some Enchanted Evening'. The rich, full, swelling style remains, as does her inveterate interspersal of genres and pace, documented in the defiant 'Everybody Says Don't' and the classic 'Luck Be a Lady'. Some tunes were included in the stunning compilation album 'Duets' (lovingly brought into being a good few years before the more recent 'Partners'), which also featured her duet with Sinatra on 'I've Got a Crush on You', previously released on a Sinatra album. Side note: get yourself a copy of 'Duets' if you've found yourself to be a fan of hearing Streisand's harmonic triumphs with very, very lucky people (cue song...). The only thing missing from 'Duets', for me, is the 'Hooray for Love' medley with Judy Garland, which is quite simply, sublime (and can be found on 'Just for the Record'). There's also reason to mention her rendition of 'Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead' which appeared on a Harold Arlen compilation before being added to 'Just for the Record' and 'Duets'. 

Likewise, the album 'Memories' is worth note- with the title song 'Memory, from 'Cats' which for me, completely eclipsed the original and remains one of my favourite tracks from Streisand. Actually, 'Just for the Record, features some lovely, rare early Streisand recordings, with plenty of Broadway-style delivery and is worth a look- if only for the well hidden but very pretty 'Between Yesterday and Tomorrow' which sounds worthy of the likes of 'Les Mis' or 'Phantom' in style.

It's not just on albums that Streisand glorifies showtunes. Her live concerts also include  some great renditions of songs such as 'A Cockeyed Optimist' from 'South Pacific' and medleys from 'Gypsy' (soon to be her next movie, it is hoped). Her career is steeped in showtunes and if you want to hear every one, you'll have to trawl through a phenomenal back-catalogue, including concert recordings- but it's worth it, I swear. I look forward to 'Gypsy' and I find myself, somehow, convinced that Streisand will eventually get round to recording some of my favourite imaginings; 'Defying Gravity' and 'Because I Knew You' (possibly with Adele or my favourite Elphaba, Rachel Tucker) to start with...

The six decades of inimitable and jaw-dropping success following her 'Funny Girl' debut, including number one albums in each of those six decades, has resulted in Barbra Streisand winning a phenomenal amount and range of awards. Her impressive catalogue includes the incredibly rare combination of Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards- no doubt one day there'll be a Barbra or Streisand award, and she'll win that too. According to her official website; '...this ten-time Grammy winner’s 52 gold albums, 31 platinum and 18 multi-platinum exceed all other female singers in each category. The RIAA also notes that her 72.5 million albums sales tops its list of album sales by a female artist.' All of this, and all of the above, as well as works that I am unable to document here without metamorphosing my opinion piece into a full academic thesis, evidences Streisand's enduring and well-deserved status as the Queen of stage and screen music. Nobody should be surprised though, she did tell us way back when: 'I'm the Greatest Star, I am by far, but no one knows it...' Unsurprisingly, the former remains and is now very well documented, while thankfully, the latter is now no longer the case. Theatre lovers, rejoice! 

Here's a shortlist of worthy 'stage and screen' recordings as well as Streisand's soundtracks:

'The Movie Album'
'Funny Girl' (of course- although why they cut 'Cornet Man' from the movie I will never understand- notably though, 'Who Are You Now' carries the same pure sound as the aforementioned 'Who Will Buy?')
'Funny Lady' ('I Found a Million Dollar Baby', 'Isn't This Better' and 'How Lucky Can You Get' are fabulous).
'On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever' Soundtrack (I love this album dearly- listen to 'Love With all the Trimmings' in particular if you have a penchant for all things Broadway/ musicals).
'Yentl' (There's so much more to this soundtrack than 'Papa, Can You Hear Me?' Namely the call-to-action 'A Piece of Sky'.)
'Hello Dolly' 
'A Star is Born'

Many of her movies have soundtracks, although those listed below are either primarily orchestrations or don't feature songs actually performed on screen.
'The Way We Were'- there's the soundtrack for the eponymous movie as well as a studio album- the studio album in particular is well worth purchasing.
'The Prince of Tides'
'The Owl and the Pussycat' 
'The Main Event'.

'Pins and Needles'
'I Can Get it for You Wholesale'
'Funny Girl'
'The Broadway Album'
'Back to Broadway'
'Memories'- primarily for the incomprehensibly beautiful rendition of 'Memory' from 'Cats' but for some of the other gems hidden here on one of her lesser discussed albums.

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